A large firm has contracted with you to design a series of sales workshops for your client’s sales representatives. Your client contact is the head of the sales department and has a very tight schedule. With sales numbers falling, there is a high sense of urgency to make these workshops available to the sales team as soon as possible.

You scope out the work, develop a project plan, and help your client assign resources to the project. When it comes to assigning subject matter experts (SMEs), your client tells you that she’ll connect you with the top performing salesman, and he’ll give you everything you need. As a high performing salesman, your SME is likely to be extremely busy doing his full-time job. Finding time to meet may be an issue.

A second issue soon arises. Not only is your SME low on time, but you find that the SME has little interest in helping you and becomes uncooperative when you ask him for input. Later, you also find out that your SME isn’t really a top performer anymore; rather, he was a top performer eight years ago — back when he was a sales rep. It turns out that he is now a senior-level sales manager and, while he knows the mechanics of good selling techniques, he has been “out of the game” too long to tell you what it takes to succeed in the trenches. You shake your head in frustration because, even though your SME has expertise and influence, he lacks availability, interest, and experience — three of the five necessary ingredients. What you have is an unmanageable SME.

What can you do about an unmanageable SME? Generally, you can do two things. You can adapt your content gathering process to suit the characteristics of your SME, and hope for the best. Your only alternative is to select a new SME — one who has availability, interest, experience, expertise, and influence. Are there are other things instructional designers can do to prevent SMEs from becoming unmanageable?

What makes an SME unmanageable?

To learn how fellow instructional design practitioners interact with their SMEs, we conducted structured interviews with 15 colleagues, including instructional designers, technical writers, educational consultants, industrial psychologists, and project managers. The interviews revolved around the following questions:

  • What are the different types of SMEs that you encounter, and how do you manage each type?
  • What are the competencies of successful interviewers?
  • What processes and tools do you use to collect content?
  • What techniques do you use to manage unmanageable SMEs?

After listening to stories of both manageable and unmanageable SMEs, we learned that the SMEs whom participants described as unmanageable lacked some degree of the following:

  • Expertise — Best-practice knowledge of facts and processes
  • Experience — Job-task knowledge gained through hands-on work
  • Influence — Ability to make content-related decisions that stick

Those responsible for managing training projects typically assign individuals to be SMEs because of their perceived expertise, availability, and interest. The SME’s role is often seen to be one of providing factual information (expertise). However, when SMEs lack field experience, it can be difficult for the instructional designer to extract the contextual details needed. Consider a plant manager who has not worked on the plant floor in over five years. How much can she tell you about the day-to-day experience of line workers? She knows what should be happening on the line, but may not be aware of all the things that are actually happening, the current challenges faced by the line worker, the obstacles, the opportunities, the resources, the processes, etc. Therefore, that plant manager’s perspective is likely to be highly disconnected from that of the line worker. If the target audience for your training is the line worker, then relying on the plant manager to be your only SME could be problematic.

As another example, think of a SME who is a technical expert on a software database that supports laboratory scientists, but she has never performed the job of the laboratory scientist. Even if the focus of the training were going to be on the database, and not the scientific aspects of the job, using the database expert as your sole SME is problematic. The database expert can tell you how to use the system correctly, but she cannot give you insight into the thought processes of the lab scientists as they work with the database to search for a particular compound, or tell you why one task may be more important than another in achieving the scientist’s goals. This contextual information related to real-life on-the-job performance is critical to designing a course that is relevant to the needs of the scientists.

How can you find the right SME?

It may be unrealistic to assume that a single SME can always provide expertise-based facts, experienced based contextual details, and the organizational influence to make content-related decisions stick. Sometimes, you may find it necessary to have two or more SMEs. One may be a technical SME, telling you how things need to be done, while another can be what we call a “target learner representative” (TLR), someone who is in, or close to, the trenches and who can give you that perspective. We often call upon our TLRs to provide anecdotes, cases, critical incidents, and other contextually rich information, while at the same time reconciling that with the technical information (facts, rules, procedures, policies, and guidelines) we receive from our SMEs. We may at times need a third SME who has influence — the political power or authority to make final content decisions. When someone later questions the validity of the content, which usually happens, you will be glad that you covered these three important bases.

Selecting the right individual or group of individuals to help you gather subject matter is critical. A related suggestion that arose from our interviews is the practice of sharing a SME Profile with your client during the planning phase of the project. What might that profile include? Provide a description of what you need in terms of expertise, experience, influence, interest, and availability. What would the ideal SME “look” like in those regards? Describe the tasks you will ask the SMEs to perform, as well as how much of their time you will need. Ideally, provide a rough schedule and any ground rules you wish them to observe. For example, at Effect Performance, we typically establish the ground rule that we will provide our SMEs with a synthesis of the content gathered in a meeting within 48 hours of the meeting. We also ask that the SMEs review that synthesis and get feedback to us within 48 hours of receiving it. Another ground rule we commonly establish is that the SME reply, within 24 hours, to all e-mailed questions or requests for information from the instructional designer. We even stipulate these rules as part of our statements of work. If you can provide a one-page SME Profile for your client, the client can use that information — much like a job description — when recruiting SMEs.

Best practices for SME management

After conducting the interviews, we synthesized the participant responses into a list of best practices. We group these best practices into four critical areas:

  • Own — Take ownership of the content-gathering process
  • Plan — Plan your content-gathering efforts in detail
  • Connect — Make a connection with your SME(s)
  • Focus — Maintain your focus, and that of your SME(s) Let’s take a look at each of these in more detail.

Own — Take ownership of the content gathering process

You know what you need, and what it takes to get what you need. Therefore, as the instructional designer, you are in the best position to take ownership of the content gathering process. What does that entail?

Influence SME selection and identify risks

Write a profile to specify what you want in a SME, and then document the risks associated with the client not providing that kind of SME (e.g., what could happen if your SME lacks experience?).

Set process expectations

Clearly articulate how the interview process will work, and what SMEs need to do to meet the goals of the project. Define the steps involved, the number of meetings, and the amount of SME time you will need during meetings and in between meetings (researching, reviewing, and providing feedback).

Learn the content basics

Don’t come to your first SME meeting without doing some homework. Request the relevant documentation as early as possible. Ideally, create a preliminary content outline, a list of high-level objectives, and a set of interview questions. These will help you get started. Do some background research of your own to familiarize yourself with the content domain (at a minimum, Google the topic).

Plan — Plan your content gathering efforts in detail

Create a project plan that includes details for content gathering as well as content reviews and approvals. Review the plan with your SMEs and get buy-in. They may have vacations, trips, or important work that interferes with your plan. Their busy schedules may require more slack than you have allotted. It is better to know these things up front than to be surprised later. Be sure to highlight for your SMEs the dependencies — tasks on a project plan that, when they fall behind schedule, have a cascading effect on other tasks, and can delay the entire project. Be sure to identify the roles and responsibilities, and the risks. This is also the time to gain agreement on the details, and the time to arrange meetings.

Define roles and responsibilities

Identify boundaries for your role as instructional designer (what you will and will not do) and your SME’s role as content provider, reviewer, and/or approver.

Define risks

As you discuss the project plan and your respective roles, you will typically uncover risks. For example, the SME may have a conference that takes her out of the office for a week. Document those risks and define how those risks could potentially influence the project plan or the project’s quality metrics. Go over those with your client and SMEs to see what, if anything, can be done to remove, mitigate, or manage the risks.

Gain agreement

Gain agreement on the project plan (which includes content gathering and review schedule), on who the project stakeholders are (sponsors, approvers, reviewers, contributors), and on the expectations for your final deliverables. Communicate this information to all internal and external team members, especially the SMEs.

Arrange meetings

SMEs are busy people. Get on their calendars as early in the process as you can. Using your project plan as reference, schedule your content gathering and content review meetings. Be sure to explain the purpose of each meeting. Send them electronic meeting invitations, whenever possible, to ensure that you are on the SMEs’ calendars.

Connect — Make a connection with your SME(s)

This area of best practice will determine your ability to work with any subject matter expert. There are several elements, each of which is important.

Build rapport

Ask questions in advance of meeting the SME, and learn what you can about the person. Open meetings with preliminary pleasantries, smile, show genuine interest in the content and your SME.

Establish credibility

Exhibit base-level content knowledge, present content outlines prepared in advance of meetings, and ask specific questions that only SMEs can answer. Others will judge your credibility by the quality of your questions, and by your ability to synthesize what the SME says into useful course content.

Earn trust

Reduce the SME’s anxiety level. It’s not easy being the “expert,” having your every word under scrutiny. State early and often that discussions are confidential and that the SME will have the opportunity to review content for accuracy before you circulate it to others within the organization.

Build the relationship

With each subsequent meeting, try to advance your relationship with the SME. Listen actively (or reflectively) and show empathy for the SME’s busy schedule. Ask about the SME’s other projects, family (especially children), hobbies, etc. Try to find points of shared interests. Always communicate that you are grateful to the SME for giving their time to your project. Though technically it is “their job” to help you, in reality, they are taking time away from their normal work duties or working extended hours to help you.

Adapt your style

Every SME is a unique individual. No one process works best with all SMEs. Have a basic framework that you use, but don’t be afraid to adapt it on the fly to your SME’s needs and preferences. This will help your SME feel more comfortable with you and your process. For example, consider your SME’s communication style. Some individuals might do better answering questions via e-mail (so they have more of an opportunity to reflect), while others do better answering on the fly over the phone or in person. With some, you might use a more structured (scripted) approach; with others, you might find it more appropriate to use a more unstructured (unscripted) approach. It is not about your preferences: it is about your SME’s preferences.

Focus — Maintain your focus and that of your SME(s)

Your good communication skills are the heart of this best practice. By listening reflectively, reiterating politely, validating appropriately, and setting expectations thoughtfully, you ensure that both you and the SMEs stay on track.

Use reflective listening

Paraphrase, clarify, summarize, and reflect on what you get from your SME. Reflecting is particularly important because you need to synthesize raw information provided by the SME into well-organized, clearly articulated course content. An important measure of instructional designers is how well they synthesize new (and often foreign) information.

Reiterate goals to minimize tangents

Because they are such busy people, many SMEs are easily distracted. Also, because they are often passionate about the content domain (hence, their interest in helping you), they tend to go off on tangents. It’s up to you to have a clear sense of the instructional goal and learning objectives and to keep your SME focused on information that directly relates to them. When you find yourself on an unhelpful tangent, politely redirect the conversation with your questions.

Synthesize and validate

After each meeting, synthesize the content you have collected into some form of content document. Send it to your SMEs so that they can review it for accuracy and completeness. In addition, we often find it helpful to insert follow-up questions and requests for additional information where there may be gaps. This encourages your SMEs to elaborate.

Set specific content review expectations

Send an agenda in advance of a content review meeting, stating the meeting’s goals and duration. Set specific expectations for how you want the SME to provide feedback. For example, are you looking for the SME to mark up your document and fax it back to you? Do you want the SME to use Word’s change tracking features to mark up the document electronically? Are you simply looking to debrief by phone without written comments?


“Unmanageable SMEs” need not always be unmanageable if you, as the instructional designer, work proactively to influence SME selection, and then manage the content gathering process effectively. Help your client understand what you need from your SMEs and what the importance is of selecting the right SMEs. You need a SME, or a combination of SMEs, that have not only interest and availability but also expertise, experience, and influence.

The interviews we conducted yielded a number of helpful best practices that center on four critical areas:

  • OWN — you must take ownership of the content gathering process
  • PLAN — without proper planning, it is difficult to get everything you need out of your SMEs in the limited time you have with them
  • CONNECT — build a strong inter-personal connection with your SME, and you will find that the SME is more willing provide you with what you need
  • FOCUS — do things that help you maintain your focus, and that of your SMEs.

One over-riding theme of these best practices is that you need to be proactive about managing your SME, and the content gathering process. To be proactive, you first need to know what you want from the process, and from your SME. We recommend taking some time to envision how you want the process to work, and what your ideal SME would be like. Then, go about creating the tools that will help you reach that ideal place, keeping in mind that things rarely go as planned.