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Talent Development Leader

How to Turn a Difficult SME Into an Ally

Monday, March 25, 2024

Subject matter experts can be your biggest asset or your biggest challenge.

During a recent training project, I leaned heavily on a subject matter expert with a wealth of technical knowledge—but no learning design experience. To make matters more challenging, the SME considered themselves a great teacher and wanted to lead the design of the curriculum.


In one instance, the SME’s idea was to use owner’s manuals for product learning, requiring learners to comb through hundreds of pages of directions from the manufacturer to find the relevant content. That’s not exactly learner friendly.

In another situation, a suggestion was to ask learners to watch the same video twice during a learning path because, as the SME put it, repetition helps reinforce learning. While repetition can be a useful tool, back-to-back duplication can cause learner fatigue and decrease engagement.

My initial reaction was to default to the SME—after all, they are the expert, right? I thought that accepting the SME’s ideas would show them respect and protect our working relationship. But that default reaction didn’t ultimately serve the training purposes or the learners’ interests.

Next, I tried to apply my learning expertise to the situation—a bit too aggressively. I stood my ground on unimportant, small points. My stubbornness with regard to those little decision points brought unnecessary frustration for both the SME and myself.

Lastly, I reviewed each decision point with the SME (with minimal success). Over time, I realized that other experts with outside perspectives could be a valuable addition to the discussions. It was a delayed but important new strategy to moving forward with the project.

Five steps to harmony with a SME

So, how do you navigate a headstrong SME who believes they know the best way to teach content? I learned that it’s a delicate art of balancing your SME relationships and your learning expertise.

Listen. To develop rapport with your key contact, demonstrate that you’ve fully heard them and respect their perspective. Practice active listening skills and make an effort to understand the concepts the SME wants to convey to the learner.

The SME could have good ideas for learning development that you haven’t considered. Repeat back what you hear and make the SME feel at ease. Thank them for their time and for sharing their knowledge.

Appreciate. There’s an art to leading someone to your idea. (For a funny example, watch “A British Bank” from Mary Poppins.) Use prompting questions such as “Is there a way we could get the audience to interact with the concept during the training?”

Check your ego at the door and praise the SME for any great idea they present.

Share. The SME has shared their expertise; it’s your turn to share yours. Do you have a relevant piece of information about adult learning that would help guide the discussion toward your desired outcome? Would it be helpful to talk about personas so the SME can recognize the learner’s perspective? Think about which pieces of your knowledge would be helpful to lead the SME to modify their approach.

Show, don’t just tell, especially if the SME doesn’t have any experience with learning design. Seeing is believing, so sketch out your thoughts, make a sample, or create a diagram to convey your point.

Convince. Consult with other SMEs or instructional designers, especially if you align with them better. Think strategically about whom else to engage in the discussion—ideally those whom your SME knows and respects. It’s helpful to know all the players and the culture of the organization.

If the group agrees with your desired approach, your difficult SME will be less likely to push back. It’s also a good way to gut check your own approach.

Escalate. If you’re getting nowhere with your attempts, it may be time to engage stakeholders farther up the chain. Get advice from your direct supervisor first. Brainstorm alternative options and develop a game plan that best meets the project’s goals.


Gain an ally

Whenever you have a breakthrough with your SME, acknowledge it to reinforce trust and deepen the SME’s buy-in. You’ll need the SME’s support for the learning project’s long-term success. Underscoring your appreciation for their support, knowledge, and assistance builds rapport and personal credibility for future projects.

In my situation, it started as a rocky road but ended well. I have continued to work with the SME, and we’ve developed a great working relationship that’s been effective in our content-creation projects.

Learn from my mistakes. I waffled in sharing my expertise. It wasn’t a balanced conversation until I started bringing my own knowledge to the table.

I also didn’t sufficiently listen to the SME. Once I realized that giving a little on the small points bought a lot of goodwill, we started to make progress on our project.

Finally, I delayed too long to consult other experts, which helped us both look at our ideas more objectively.

After we passed those hurdles, I was able to work effectively with the SME, create meaningful learning content, and maintain the project timeline.

Building learning content is not an independent process; it’s essential to hone your interpersonal skills of communication, persuasion, and acknowledgment. Every SME and organization are different, but with some creative thinking, you can turn your SME into an ally.

Read more from Talent Development Leader.

About the Author

Katy Chandler has spent the majority of her career at DuraServ Corp. Starting as an administrative assistant, she advanced through various departments, earning her MBA along the way.

In 2018, Chandler started DuraServ’s first L&D department. Since then, she has launched the company’s first learning management system, designed a certification program for field workers, expanded her team, and taken on the leadership of the company’s marketing department.

Chandler is a CHIEF member and an active member of the Association for Talent Development, serving on the Program Advisory Council for the International Conference & EXPO for the past three years.

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