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Tips for Working with Subject Matter Experts More Effectively

Published: Thursday, May 28, 2020
Updated: Thursday, May 28, 2020


In my career as a freelance instructional designer and learning consultant, I’ve had the opportunity to work across a wide range of industries which means an equally wide range of Subject Matter Experts to work with and whose expertise we seek out to help us do what we do.

 The Subject Matter Expert (SME) is the designated person on a project providing expertise, input and validation on the technical components of the content. In other words, they are helping to ensure your content is accurate and reflects correct information about the subject they are experts on.

 In most cases, the working process and relationships with SME runs smoothly with high levels of collaboration that produces a professional, polished and credible final product. However, there are sometimes bumps, small and large, that can come up on the SME-Learning Partner relationship road and is often a topic brought up.

For example, as a freelancer, because I am often meeting or interviewing with prospective clients or recruiters, I’ve noticed a frequent question I get asked is:   

Have you ever encountered difficulties working with a Subject Matter Expert? How did you handle it?

The answer to the first part of that question is: Yes

 The answer to the second part of that question, I will answer by giving you examples of how I handled situations I found myself in and providing some tips that may be useful to you.

These “bumps” can range from more easily solved trouble spots from your SME not understanding their role in the overall process, to a lack of availability or sufficient time to complete their work, or something more difficult, and uncomfortable to confront. Such issues could include a lack of co-operation, wanting to “take over” or take ownership of the material, challenging your work or project plan, or providing input and feedback far beyond what their role should be.

 In these more difficult cases, the situation becomes more complicated for and for various reasons they are also situations that you can’t necessarily change, for instance when a particular SME has already been assigned to your project, or may be the only one available, or, in some cases, are recognized for their expertise as individual contributors but are not always comfortable interacting as part of a team.

 As a result, you may find yourself in the uncomfortable position of having to work with a problematic or difficult SME.

 So, what can you do about this? Here are 3 key tips to use based on my experience when working through difficulties with a SME:


1. Clarify your project goals, plans, processes and roles!

 Borrow from a project manager in this case and ensure that concrete goals, timelines and processes are clear. This is very important and needs to be handled carefully – remember that a SME is usually on “loan” to you and your team and they are not actually accountable to the same people you are. It’s likely the SME is either external or provided by the client side and they usually have not been part of the project planning or creation.  When they understand the goals of the project, they have a much better sense of purpose.

It is also key to define and clarify the role of the SME on your project. Be clear in communicating what role they are playing, what you are seeking from them, and how they fit into the overall picture.

 By lightly, positively but clearly repeating the goals and plans of the project, people are much more likely to “stay within the lines” of the project so that it can be completed on time, with minimum delays or disruptions.

 When each person has a good understanding of their role, they will know better how to focus their time and energy within the limits of their role.

 You’d be amazed how often this review and clarification of goals and roles will address problem areas that sometimes appear in the learning practitioner SME relationship – it answers the question – “What is my part, what is your part”? and is a key factor in establishing boundaries to everyone’s role.

2. Respect and acknowledge all the feedback they provide.

 However, ensure it is clear that their feedback should be limited to what you have established when discussing their role, in other words, how much feedback is appropriate and expected. It helps greatly to be very specific. Most SMEs are well-intentioned and eager to provide expertise and will offer, ask them to focus on targeted areas, such as accuracy of the content, critical omissions, terminology, or whatever portion of the content you would like the SME to provide feedback on. If you are looking for specific ideas and suggestions from the SME, let them know that up front, also. There are times that a SME’s perspective can help you shape your content, though that should not be their primary role.

One potential problem area that is not uncommon is finding yourself working with a SME who is challenging the amount of input they would like to provide and is seeking to impose their own ideas and direction - when that is not what you are looking for. When this happens, setting the “feedback expectation” is a wonderfully effective strategy to rein in a “runaway” SME by reminding them of the role in the process and your goals for the project. 

3. Acknowledge their expertise and contribution even when disagreeing.

 Remember that a SME is now your expert and you will rely on their input. When you let them know how much their contribution means, they feel respected and valued as any contributor to any project would.

 This is also an effective way to focus on the positive side of things when there is conflict or a disagreement with a SME for any reason. For example, you may be dealing with a SME who may not be used to strong team dynamics and may end up being argumentative or having difficulty seeing a different point of view – in other words, not a strong team player.

 By acknowledging their expertise and contributions, even when there are differing viewpoints you are helping them to understand that you are not challenging them in their role as an expert but are seeking the best possible solution among many - a SME is likely to appreciate this display of respect and at least feel heard and valued for their knowledge, even when a differing point of view is presented or accepted.

 Sometimes there is friction in a relationship with the learning development team when a SME feels disappointed that not all of their feedback or suggestions are used. If this happens, show the same level of respect by explaining why – when they understand your decision-making process they are more likely to understand that you are not dismissing their expertise, but you may have a specific reason for not using it, such as space limitations, editorial constraints, specific objectives that need to be met that don’t leave room for others, or other varying reasons.

As a final, small tip that you can work into all the other tips listed here:

 No matter what, always make the effort to respect the SME’s time, and show that you understand the effort required in their role. Not only will they know you value their time, and by extension, their work, they will value your time and effort, too, and understand the partnership required to create a good result.

 And last but not least - let’s remember that SMEs are an integral part of helping us deliver quality material. The majority of SMEs are strong partners, professionals and collaborators and their input is so necessary, we often can’t do our work without them.  For this reason, it’s important to steer the SME relationship in a positive direction right from the beginning.

 I hope these tips help you when you find yourself working with an SME – especially when it becomes difficult!

 These are just some effective tips I’ve come up with and found to be successful throughout my career working with SMEs. I’m sure you have your own range of experiences and valuable strategies of your own on this topic. Please feel free to share by commenting and adding your ideas and insights to the conversation.

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