Could you create an training 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 to learn how to work with a subject matter expert to increase the effectiveness of your eLearning and training programs.

You’ll get our best tips for working 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 expertise and 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.

The Ideal Skills of Subject Matter Experts

Whether you’re hiring an SME or want to become one, this is what all the best 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.

While the above characteristics paint an ideal picture of a Subject Matter Expert (SME), the reality of working closely with SMEs in the eLearning sector often adds a humorous twist to these expectations. Here’s a lighthearted look at what really happens:

  • Team Players… Who Love Solos Too: Sure, SMEs are fantastic collaborators, but don’t be surprised if they occasionally go on a knowledge-sharing solo, passionately diving deep into their expertise, sometimes forgetting the topic at hand. It’s their enthusiasm that counts, right?
  • Clear Communicators… With Their Own Language: They’re indeed masters of communication, yet sometimes their “clear” insights come wrapped in jargon so dense it could require its own course to decipher. The translation effort, however, often leads to some of the most enlightening moments.
  • Masters of Time Management… In Their Own Time Zone: SMEs are indeed excellent at juggling multiple tasks, but their definition of a deadline might sometimes feel like it’s from a parallel universe where time has a different meaning. Still, their contributions are worth the wait.
  • Eager to Share… Everything: While their willingness to share knowledge is invaluable, drawing the line between “need to know” and “nice to know” can sometimes be a challenge. You’ll learn a lot, certainly, and maybe even some unexpected trivia along the way.

This tongue-in-cheek look at the reality behind working with SMEs highlights the quirky, human side of collaboration that, despite the challenges, makes the process of creating eLearning content with them uniquely rewarding and often quite fun.

Subject Matter Experts for Training and eLearning courses

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

  • Ensure that the curriculum of an eLearning program is accurate and that it reflects the latest standards and knowledge in the field
  • Providing the knowledge—their knowledge—that’s relevant to each course based on the guidance provided by the learning experience designers
  • Offer insights and real-world perspectives, enriching the training material with their depth of experience
  • Advise on the practical application of theoretical concepts, helping to bridge the gap between abstract knowledge and real-world skills to ensure learning experience designers 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 to Work 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 internal 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.

Tips for Working with a Subject Matter Expert (SME): Infographic

Looking for additional tips on working with an SME? See our infographic here.

Questions You Should Ask the Subject Matter Expert

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.

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:

  1. “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.
  2. “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.
  3. “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? Contact ELM Learning to get started.