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SME Case Studies

Sometimes SMEs can cause problems for your instructional design project. But have you done everything you could to understand, communicate with, and involve your SMEs successfully? From years of experience, there are guidelines for working well with everyone on the design team—but you must include considerations for SMEs. 

The following case studies are used in SMEs from the Ground Up to highlight issues learning professionals face when working with subject matter experts. Learn from the good and the bad examples presented.

Consolidating Diverse SME Committees

A very large multinational training organization had recently decided to consolidate numerous diverse SME curriculum development teams that had never worked togeth­er before under the leadership of a single training function. Every course these teams developed looked different and there was no standardization in the way the courses were designed. Some didn’t even contain objectives or evaluations.

The organization wanted to create courses that were designed using ISD and had a consistent look and feel regardless of the originating SME committee. They also expected this would be a more cost-effective way to design curriculum and to minimize duplication of ef­forts among the curriculum design groups.

For example, each group had a basic safety course that was almost identical to what the other committees designed. The largest challenges to this approach were getting SME buy-in to these changes and standard­izing the design process. There were a total of five different SME committees that had never worked together or designed curriculum the same way.

The organization worked with a university-based ISD group to establish one cur­riculum design function, including a project director and one instructional designer assigned to each SME committee. Each SME committee had an appointed chair to work with the project director and instructional designers.

A materials development function was created to assist all of the SME committees in creating one look and feel for all courses. Additionally, all of the committees were brought together for an initial group of meetings that included background on the ISD process and training on a standard method for each SME committee to use to design courses.

The SME com­mittees met four times a year in person, with all groups in attendance, and work was shared among committees and the design team between meetings.


The process and approach worked so well that the number of SME committees eventually doubled, and the organization eventually brought all of the course design work in-house to further control costs.

Creating an SME-Friendly Course Development Process

A consortium of six organizations from different parts of the country decided to join resources with a training organization to create a series of courses for a specific mainte­nance function that is common to all the organizations.

In the past, each partner had either designed their own courses, paid to have them designed, or in many cases, had no courses in specific areas. They all felt that splitting the cost six ways would certainly save money and resources for everyone while also producing a complete training pack­age with a national focus and credibility.

A system was set up that required one management and one labor representative to participate as TSMEs from each organization in the course design process. These technical committees would work on specific courses with the assistance of instruc­tional designers. Very few of these SMEs had ever worked on a course design process before this project.

From the very beginning, the focus of this project was to make the SMEs the cen­ter of all project activity to ensure both the best content and the best working relation­ship. SMEs were involved in all decisions relating to project operations, like meeting locations and times, as well as product decisions such as choosing the format for the training modules. Each specific SME committee working on a course also chose co-chairs to help facilitate discussion and to work directly with the project design team.

One important aspect of the SME relationship that was taken very seriously was communicating with the SMEs on a regular basis, not just on content-specific infor­mation, but also concerning the project. The other key to the success of this project was celebrating each milestone in the project. Every time a course was completed and taken through pilot testing, a celebration was held at the next meeting of the SMEs.

Major milestones like completing a whole series of courses were celebrated with a dinner for all of the SMEs and instructional designers. At these events, everyone was encouraged to say how they felt about the project and working with the team. To the surprise of many, everyone had something positive to say, and some of the quietest SMEs were the ones that had the most to say in support of the project.

For more case studies and advice for collaborating with SMEs, check out SMEs from the Ground Up (ASTD Press, 2013).

About the Author
Chuck Hodell is the author of the bestselling ATD book ISD From the Ground Up and has been involved in the worlds of training and education for more than 30 years. He has written extensively on instructional design and training-related topics for ATD, including several Infolines. He has enjoyed stints as a musician, police officer, telephone company repair technician, trainer, teacher, and academic administrator. Like many talent development professionals, his first exposure to training and instructional design was as a subject matter expert. He currently serves as associated director of the graduate program in instructional systems development at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. He is also the senior program director for instructional design at the Transportation Learning Center and academic adviser to the International Masonry Institute. Hodell has an undergraduate degree from Antioch University and an MA and PhD from the University of Maryland Baltimore County.
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