5 Tips for Instructional Designers When Working with Subject Matter Experts

A learning project’s success often depends on the valuable content provided by subject matter experts (SMEs). Here are a few tips to help the process run more smoothly when working with subject matter experts.

Instructional Designers

Involve SMEs heavily from the beginning, and create a sense of ownership.

Too often, a SME is asked to step in once the project has already been signed off and kicked off, which could potentially create a sense of distrust or the feeling that the SME’s knowledge is somehow less valuable. Start things off on the right foot by involving the expert in discussions at the outset. Besides lending expertise in a topic, the SME may have experience teaching the subject in another setting, such as at a local college or industry gathering, and may actually be familiar with instructional design models, adding value to the overall course design.

Communicate freely, but know when to let go.

Whatever you do, keep the SME — and everyone else on the project team — informed of the status and latest changes and developments going on in the project. Unlike other business processes, authoring learning materials requires dedicated time for focus and concentration. As such, only call for meetings when absolutely necessary. With strong project management oversight, deadlines and evaluations can be met at agreed-upon times.

Lean on collaboration tools to track progress.

Your learning authoring tool most likely includes collaboration features, in addition to your organization’s productivity software. SMEs are busy people, and their main job is not to develop learning materials. They will appreciate any efforts you take to make the project simpler and more efficient, especially if it saves them time. You should streamline your project and communication as much as possible by leaning on online collaboration tools.

Create a metric for success, and share it with the SME’s managers.

No one wants to know that their hard work ended up in the black hole. While you are most likely not the SME’s boss, create a key performance indicator (KPI) for the SME, and share it with the SME and his or her manager. While the KPI may not lead to a raise or bonus, the SME would be happy to know how the results of his or her efforts building courses led to positive learning outcomes. They might be pleased to learn that their expertise correlated with people being able to do their job better — or even obtain a new job. This could spur the SME to assist in building even more courses, or encourage additional professionals in the organization to help the learning and development effort by serving as experts. 

Wash, rinse, repeat.

Once the course is built and delivered to learners, record and share any lessons learned with instructional designers and the rest of the learning and development team — and even senior management. You may have interesting observations to share, in addition to shortcuts and processes to make everything run smoother for the next learning project with another SME.

And everyone can certainly benefit from shared learning.

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5 Tips for Instructional Designers When Working with Subject Matter Experts