Three Secrets of Successfully Working with Subject Matter Experts

Subject Matter Experts
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As content creators, we are intuitively aware that the success of any eLearning product depends a lot on our relationship with Subject Matter Experts or SMEs. We strive to get the best out of our SMEs by making conscious efforts to build and maintain rapport with them. This is quite like how we make efforts to formulate engaging eLearning strategies for our target learner! There is ample documentation on the best practices of communicating with SMEs. However, there are times when we get into a situation of serious communication breakdown with them! Well, you let that happen and you dig your own grave. Dealing with SMEs requires you to wear your best tolerant and patient hat, always.

A fact be stated, it is difficult to salvage a damaged relationship with an SME. Letting go of the person would be a cost-effective option, in terms of both money and time. But then, what measures can you take right at the beginning so that a breakdown does not occur?

1. Invest time in selecting your Subject Matter Experts 

SME selection in a hurry or at random is not a good idea. You need to have a plan around SME selection and be ready with selection parameters cut to your needs. You need to have enough candidates to select from too. Unless an SME undergoes a personality makeover and totally ruins your product, it is quite possible to get the best out of your SME by taking care of a few things. The following questions contain the important considerations in SME selection:

      • How much time can the SME devote to your project? Is it sufficient?
      • How is the SME’s attitude towards you and the project? Does the SME believe that collaboration and building on each others’ strengths will lead to a great product?
      • How knowledgeable and updated is the SME in the subject? Is the SME passionate about the subject and about teaching it?
      • Does the SME have social media profiles and what is the quality of the interactions therein?

Some of these considerations are measurable, some aren’t. For those that are not, we need to rely on observations and best judgement.


Take for example we find a highly knowledgeable and updated Subject Matter Expert with passion for the craft. However when we start communicating with the person, we find worrying attitudinal problems. The SME may not be open to anyone from the review team making suggestions. We must catch the signal early. Either we can avoid onboarding the SME or we can discuss the areas of concern with the person and set the expectations as per our rule books. If the SME agrees, we must ensure to build the points of disagreements into the contract and if the SME disagrees, we simply let go of the person despite their overwhelmingly large fan following and laurels.

2. Emphasize on a symbiotic relationship

Let us get this straight: creating eLearning is teamwork – between the project team with instructional designers, editors, graphic designers, and the project coordinators on one side and the Subject Matter Experts on the other. Expectation setting gives the right spin to the SME relationship.

Once the initial rapport formation has been done with expectation setting and contracts signing in tow, it is important to maintain the relationship and carry it forever. Forever? Yes, won’t you need your SME to moderate discussion forums, to help make updates to your course…?

3. Respect Respect Respect

In this article, we won’t get into the nitty-gritty of “how to maintain” relationship with Subject Matter Experts but would like to mark the one-word operating principle in the relationship: RESPECT. Be respectful to the SME for all that the person brings to the table. Communicate with respect when you want to make a point, and be prompt and respect the SME’s time. At the same time, very respectfully, send out the message that this is a symbiotic relationship and its maintenance will benefit the learners and keep the revenue flowing.

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