Posted by Lora Boiago on Apr 7, 2013 5:03:00 PM

Working in Partnership with Your SMEs

How do instructional design companies build and leverage valuable relationships with Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) when designing a new learning program?

instructional_design In almost everything we do - personally or professionally, we rely on someone who is an expert; the person who has experience and knowledge and is willing to share it. Whether it's asking a financial advisor about investments or a developer about a software application, you hope they have the answer to all your questions.

As contract instructional designers, we rely on Subject Matter Experts - or SMEs - to provide us with answers when designing and developing a learning program. They are our 'go to' resource that can ensure we create compelling and results orientated training programs. Their expertise and familiarity with the content is what turns a simple concept into a learning reality.

Every SME you work with is just a little different. What they know and how they tell it is influenced by many different things, including their past experiences, the way they work, and how they communicate.

There are a few things we, as instructional designers, can do to help guide our relations with SMEs, make it easier for them to work with us, while ensuring we have what we need to design and develop our learning programs.


Introduce Yourself:

As a contract instructional designer, the SME will most likely not be aware of your personal experiences, working style and goals. Introduce who you are, where you are from and what your role is. You may need to explain why you are talking with them.

Share the Big Picture:

Explain the project at a high-level. Don't assume they know the details. Give them the information they need to understand the big picture and how they are going to contribute to the success of the project. When needed, provide them with examples that will help them to help you to put the content into the right context.


Explain the design and development process up front. Don't delve too deep into every element of instructional design. Address expectations for their time and contribution; clearly articulate what you will require from them for the project. Clarify your understanding of what they will be contributing in terms of content, expertise and review of materials. This will help ensure that you both have the same understanding for expectations.


Identify early on the best means of communicating with them. With so many technology choices available today, they may have a preference to how they would like to communicate with the instructional designer. Explore options that are convenient, will save time for both of you and will not push the project effort over budget. When needing additional meeting times, set up calendar invites to book ahead. Send an agenda so there is preparation ahead of time and your meeting is more productive for both of you. By doing so, you are indicating that you appreciate they have other commitments and responsibilities and you value the time they will spend with you.

Being Prepared:

Don't wait until the last minute to review content that has been provided - prepare for your meetings well in advance and have a list of questions ready. Better yet, send the questions out in advance so the SME has a chance to compile their response or gather the necessary information before the meeting.

SMEs Sharing Their Knowledge:

The reason they are subject matter experts is because of their experience with the topic. Capture their knowledge and match it against what the learner needs to know. Stay focused on the learning objectives and whether the information is a 'nice to know' or a 'need to know'. When possible, give parameters to work within, when supplying content to you. For example in eLearning, it might be the length of narration for a given screen.

Affirm & Appreciate:

Instructional design companies looking to build a deeper rapport with their clients will take te time to acknowledge and appreciate. Let them know that their contribution and effort is important to the success of the project. A thank-you email at major mile-stones is a great way to reaffirm that their expertise is valued and appreciated.

Topics: Instructional design, instructional designers, instructional designer, instructional design companies, instructional design company

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