Importance of Subject Matter Experts: The Pros and Cons of Working with SMEs

importance of subject matter experts

It’s often seen as a burden on training professionals and instructional designers, but the importance of subject matter experts and working with them cannot be understated.

But take heart – it’s not all bad! There are plenty of pros to working with subject matter experts, both for the SMEs themselves and for the training team.

So here are some pros and cons of working with SMEs :

The Pros of Working with SMEs

Provision of valuable content

This is pretty obvious: L&D team members must rely on the content provided by SMEs in order to build courses.

Content provided directly by an SME ensures timeliness and relevance. Learners certainly benefit from this fresh material. In fact, they might even become more engaged when they learn that the course was developed in-house by experts specifically sourced to develop the learning experience.

Divide and conquer

Though SMEs are only tasked with providing content, they are still doing much of the heavy lifting when it comes to course development.

If this is an SME with whom the department has worked previously, then the SME most likely “knows the drill,” doesn’t require additional training, and can get right to work. This is the importance of subject matter experts – they can be a huge time saver for the L&D team struggling to accomplish more with less.

As we’ve written before, even for SMEs with whom you haven’t worked previously, everyone can benefit if you create a mini-course explaining how L&D works with SMEs. It can be a simple walk-through for SMEs on how to convert what they already know into courses. For example, you can show them how to take a typical PowerPoint that they deliver at conferences or to clients, and easily convert it to a format that makes sense for learners.

remote onboarding

Exposure to new ways of doing things

You never know when you might learn something you hadn’t known. The SME might very well be a sought-after industry expert outside of your company, with deep experience in building courses for multiple audiences and purposes.

As such, not only will this prior experience in building courses and sharing knowledge make your job much easier, but you can lean on their insights to even improve the current project.

Their career development

Though contributing to courses is not their main job responsibility—and you are not their boss—many SMEs do in fact believe that their involvement will actually boost their professional profile and ultimately help their career.

Many SMEs are aware that their work provides value to organizations, clients, and the industry at large. As such, they see their participation as extremely valuable.

For those who do not, you can explain the value that they will be bringing to the learning project. Demonstrate the ROI that other SMEs have delivered to the company with relevant data, such as the number of learners involved and the bottom-line impact to the organization. They won’t need much convincing to understand the impact of their contributions.

Your career development

Of course, as you receive exposure to SMEs from a variety of fields, building a wide range of courses, your career gets a boost in the process.

Your own professional learning advances as you address the different nuances that result from working with an ever-increasing diversity of experts.

Issues that caused headaches two years ago might now be something you look forward to addressing. Not only can your experience take over to manage such issues, but you may have developed processes and systems in place to make things manageable for yourself and your team.

importance of SMEs

Pros and cons aside, you need the right tools and resources when working with SMEs – like this handy toolkit!

The Cons of Working with SMEs


The SME might not be able to contribute to the project to the level that you thought she could.

For example, you might discover rather quickly, that the SME isn’t an expert in 100 percent of the subject. While no single professional knows everything there is to know about a topic, you want to be frank with the SME—and vice versa—early on in the process. If there are components to the course that the SME cannot fulfill, then you need to find another SME to help fill in the gaps. This can result in project delays.

It’s better to cover this ground early in the process rather than later, once learners complete the course and wonder why some topics were omitted—especially if those topics were explicitly mentioned in the training intake request form.

Highlight the importance of subject matter experts’ contribution to the SMEs themselves to encourage their committment.

Steep learning curve

Though we mentioned above that SMEs might have experience building courses and won’t need much training or explanation, the opposite can very much hold true.

Though many SMEs have years of experience in their respective industries, they may not necessarily be expert course writers. They may have only written courses for their peers and not for a broader audience, such as your employees, or they may be used to someone else doing it for them.

How to combat this early on? Create a short intake form for the SME to fill out shortly after she has been identified as the expert contributor for a course. Then, have the SME undergo a short training during which you explain how L&D works with SMEs, what is expected of them in the course building process, and a light review of the authoring tool.

This will remove a lot of doubts on both sides and will ensure a stronger outcome for the project.

why subject matter experts are important


Will you work with this SME again? This might seem like a peculiar question to ask, but if you plan on working with this SME again—and if this SME wields influence within your organization—then it makes sense to invest the time working with her to “show her the ropes” of course development.

However, if this is a one-off project, with little likelihood of working with that particular SME again, then you might want to do the opposite. Investing significant time and resources training a newbie SME when that SME has a low likelihood of returning doesn’t make sense. The importance of subject matter experts lies in their ability to save you time in seeking out information – not costing you time by requiring you to repeatedly provide “training on training.”

As such, your team might simply wish to take the SME’s content and convert it into a course without relying on the SME to do it. This could be a time-saver, removing frustration for both sides.

Can you name the 10 types of SMEs? Each presents their own unique challenge. Learn the types and how to best work with them in this on-demand webinar recording:

Stop Struggling with SMEs: Essential Tactics for Efficient Knowledge Capture

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Importance of Subject Matter Experts: The Pros and Cons of Working with SMEs