July 29, 2021

Subject Matter Expert (SME): How to Work With One

By: ELM Learning

working with smes
Artwork by Kevin Bannister
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Could you create an eLearning program without the help of a subject matter expert? Yes, you could. Would it be the same thing as if you partnered up with one and accomplished that mission together? Absolutely not!


It’s one thing to do ad-hoc technical research by yourself; it’s another thing to rely on an expert who has invested years in building up their knowledge.


Keep on reading if you want to know how subject matter experts increase the effectiveness of eLearning programs. You’ll also learn some tips and tricks for collaborating with SMEs and getting the most out of their expertise.


What Is a Subject Matter Expert?

A subject matter expert—or SME—is an individual with a profound knowledge of a particular topic—or subject matter. 


Their specialty might be:

  • An activity, technique, method, process, or framework
  • An industry or sector
  • A product or service
  • A technology, piece of equipment, machine, or material

Any topic that requires deep understanding might be the subject matter of a SME. However, expert knowledge doesn’t happen overnight.


SMEs have built that knowledge over time with education and experience. They know their topic of expertise like the back of their hand. And if they’re the ultimate SME, they’ve probably contributed to the knowledge base about their subject—possibly even inventing or discovering new technology or innovations. If you’re a SME, you’re a go-to person to solve others’ problems in your subject matter.


If you’re curious how someone becomes a subject matter expert, here’s how.


How Do You Become a Subject Matter Expert?

You already know that a SME absorbs technical information over a long period of time. They’re always on the lookout for more information about their discipline. And they explore every single corner of their specialty. All of this means they’re curious and systematic researchers.


When something fresh comes up in their area of specialization, they soon know everything there is to know about it. Subject matter experts study a lot, but most of all, they practice a lot. With time, they ascend to job positions that mirror their high level of know-how.


Most of them attend, and later organize, technical meetups. They usually seek advanced training and may end up giving training themselves or lecturing at universities. Also, it’s not uncommon for SMEs to write articles, training manuals, or best-selling technical books that others depend on. 


If you want to become a subject matter expert, here are some steps you can follow:


1. Don’t wait until you leave college to start.

If you’re still a student and you’re sure about what you want to become a specialist in, start right away! Ask your professors for materials and attend meetups, conferences, webinars, and workshops. Join academic projects specifically targeted at developing knowledge on your topic of preference.


2. Use the opportunities around you at work.

If you’re a junior professional, you can ask your fellow professionals for guidance and knowledge sharing. Take every opportunity your company gives you to develop mastery in your field of expertise! For instance, enroll in training courses and certification paths.


3. Keep up with the freshest information.

Follow other SMEs on social media and read publications from the expertise area that interests you. Do it frequently. Join online communities and interact with experts virtually. These are all effective ways of maintaining your level of expertise.


4. Be a reference and build relationships.

Create and publish your content on your social media channels orblog, and in publications. Use content marketing strategies to become a trusted online authority.


Hosting a podcast, giving your own courses and webinars, and creating and maintaining an active YouTube channel are other great ways to promote your expertise and build your reputation as a SME. Do it regularly. Invite other subject matter experts to co-host webinars and podcasts with you.


It’s vital that you’re open to and answer questions from your audience. Engage with them! And you’ll become recognized in the market as a specialist in your topic of choice. Build a solid reputation and you can become a thought leader—an influencer! You can reach more learners and have more impact..


Here are a few suggestions of how to use social media to fast-track thought leadership in your subject matter: 

  • Share microlearning lessons such as:
    • A quick video training session
    • A comprehensive and entertaining list
    • A quote for the day
  • Use as many social media networks as you can to maximize the impact of your message
  • Participate in online communities, groups, boards, and chats so that your learners get to know you

Next, we’ll talk about the essential traits of SMEs. 


The Skills of Subject Matter Experts

Whether you’re hiring an SME or you want to become one, this is what all of them have in common:

  • They’re kind and thoughtful team players. A SME collaborates enthusiastically with their peers to offer guidance and help or share knowledge.
  • They’re effective communicators. A subject matter expert communicates their insights clearly and objectively. And the effectiveness of their communication doesn’t depend on how well-informed the audience is. What would be the point of SMEs if they didn’t share what they know with others who need it?
  • They’re excellent time managers. It wouldn’t be possible for a subject matter expert to keep up with their area of specialization, do their daily job, train others, give consultations, and work on their online authority if they didn’t manage their time with utter precision.

We’ve been discussing SMEs from a general perspective—we haven’t specified any industry or sector. It’s time to narrow down the spectrum and dive into the eLearning industry.


Subject Matter Experts for eLearning

In the context of eLearning, subject matter experts must be able to:

  • Ensure that the curriculum of an eLearning program is accurate
  • Select the knowledge—their knowledge—that’s relevant to each course
  • Guide learning experience designers on how to teach concepts and skills best
  • Align learning objectives, assessments, and activities effectively for each course
  • Provide unpolished content about the subject matter—such as notes, outlines, or presentations—from which scriptwriters and designers will create engaging learning materials

At this point, you know what to expect from an SME, but one question remains unanswered.


How Do You Create an eLearning Course With a SME?

Designing training with subject matter experts calls for some expertise in and of itself. But don’t worry! We gathered our five most valuable pieces of advice on working with SMEs to build eLearning courses.


1. Do some homework on SME keywords.

Always show up prepared for an interview or meeting with a subject matter expert! Although they don’t expect you to know everything about their area of expertise, they expect you to have done some prior research.


Get acquainted with the most important SME terms that might come up during the conversation. That’ll make both you and the SME more comfortable, and the interaction will be more fruitful.


2. Establish expectations before it’s too late.

Since a subject matter expert is usually external to your company, communication is pivotal. Involve them in your eLearning project in an early stage.


Get their commitment to deadlines and goals. They should know what you expect from them as soon as possible, especially if you have a tight timeline.


3. Give your SME examples.

If you have an idea of the type of information you want the SME to give you, show them examples. For instance, show them eLearning courses that you like.


The knowledge of a subject matter expert can be pretty extensive. That’s why they appreciate any direction that allows them to filter their knowledge and give you the information you need.


SMEs should also know why you need their knowledge. This is how they share the best information they have and adjust the way they present it to you.


4. Respect is a two-way street.

SMEs are typically very busy, so respect and work around their schedules. And your willingness to be flexible makes them even more willing to contribute to your eLearning project.


Let’s get real: You might need to stretch your project timeline to adjust for your SME’s schedule, but it’s worth it. They have information that’s fundamental to your eLearning course.


5. Send a thank you email.

Genuinely appreciate the value of your SMEs—and let them know that you do.


Once you finish working with an SME, send them a sincere thank you email. It’s a sign of appreciation and a way to increase the odds of working with them in the future. 


Throughout the collaboration, you must have some questions in mind to ask subject matter experts. They’re control queries to help you get the information you need for your course. Successful eLearning projects depend on the right answers to those questions. Check them out below.


Questions You Should Ask the Subject Matter Expert

Regardless of the subject matter, learning experience designers are responsible for:

  • Getting the information they need from SMEs to build eLearning courses
  • Distinguishing essential information from information that would be nice to have

These are the questions to ask subject matter experts to differentiate must-have from nice-to-have information:

  • “What’s the goal of this course?” Must-have information aligns with the learning goals of your eLearning course. An SME must know the course’s learning goals so that they can give you the most crucial information.
  • “What are the learning objectives of this course?” A subject matter expert must know what learners need to have accomplished by completing the course. For instance, providing information to introduce a new topic is different from providing information to change behaviors.
  • “Why does this information matter to the learner?” You should prevent the SME from providing too much unnecessary information. Help them select just the information you need. It’s easier than trying to filter a huge amount of (technical) information into what’s relevant to your eLearning course.

The Power of a SME Network

Whether it’s in-house or external, a SME comes in handy when you need to create a technical eLearning course.


If the subject matter expert you need doesn’t work at your organization, you’ll have to get one elsewhere. Therefore, building a network of SMEs is a good investment. It’ll grant you quick access to them when you need their knowledge. Plus, it’ll allow you to work around their busy schedules.


Do you need to create a technical eLearning course that’s a complex challenge to you? Call a subject matter expert who’s specialized in eLearning. Call us!