Subject matter experts (SMEs) used to feature heavily in my world. For many years, I created health care eLearning content; when it came to extracting knowledge from health care professionals, I had it down to a fine art.

The big jump in learning for me was when I understood the difference between explicit and tacit knowledge. It is usually easy to understand explicit knowledge, as it encompasses the overt rules, steps, policies, and procedures that we can all document and understand.

Tacit knowledge is a little different. When you talk to experts, much of what they know is so ingrained and automatic that they have forgotten how they learned it. For example, the complex skills involved in being a good leader or salesperson are difficult to teach—many talk about having “natural talent.” Asking precise questions and staying focused on a particular topic can help. Even if this tacit knowledge is natural talent, finding a way of extracting it means that we can share the knowledge with others. Louisa Wah (see the References at the end of this article) highlighted the importance of organizational tacit knowledge—she argued that 90 percent of the knowledge in any organization is embedded in people’s minds. Research that is more recent (see Venkitachalam and Busch in the References) has looked at what “tacit” knowledge really means and how we can make some tacit knowledge explicit.

Getting to tacit knowledge

When working with health care professionals, I asked for anecdotes about overcoming challenges or achieving success, and then I drilled down into the story to help uncover how they made their decisions. Getting to this tacit or insider knowledge often revealed rich content that was more likely to lead to “sticky” learning. SMEs leaving a meeting with me, usually after a few hours, needed to lie down in a darkened room.

It is why I have so much empathy for anyone who is an SME—and especially because I’ve been an SME myself. Being on the other side teaches you a lot. And we do expect so much of SMEs! If you talk to anyone who has worked in eLearning and mention those three letters (SME), you will see eyes rolling and hear tut-tuts breaking out and sighs deepening.

I have had this same conversation with two eLearning friends from Wisconsin and Minnesota. It seems that SMEs are an international challenge. But—it doesn’t have to be that way.

Seven SME archetypes or personas

Andrea May, Dawn Mahoney, and I came up with seven typical SME personas. These personas were designed to help us work better with our SMEs. Andrea May is vice president of instructional design at Dashe & Thomson. Dawn Mahoney runs Learning in the White Space, a modern learning consultancy that brings fresh ideas to outdated training methods.

Although the persona names might seem a little harsh, sharing these with our clients has helped to open up communication channels and reduce project bottlenecks. Dawn and Andrea presented these archetypes at DevLearn 2015 and Learning Solutions 2016, and we have been refining them ever since. We have also developed a series of scenarios to help generate further discussion and insights. When we crafted the sessions, we chose to focus on the following SMEs:


Impact on project

This SME goes missing, won’t answer emails, and doesn’t turn up at meetings.

Working together

  • Show that you are prepared, in charge, and reliable in meetings and deadlines.
  • Feed content for review in small chunks with tight turnarounds to avoid the SME’s forgetting to review or being overwhelmed by a large amount of work.

2. The Busy-bee SME

Impact on project

This SME just can’t commit to what you asked for, as he or she is the “go-to” person in the organization for everything.

Working together

  • Set expectations for the project up front, and schedule the time you need with the SME as far in advance as possible.

3. The Clueless SME

Impact on project

This SME has been “nominated” for your eLearning project but doesn’t know why and is very unsure about how they can give input.

Working together

  • Continually reinforce that their expertise is needed for the project.
  • Instead of asking them to make decisions, make choices on their behalf and allow them to react to the choices.

4. The Control-freak SME

Impact on project

Extremely confident with strong opinions on every aspect of the project, but isn’t always right and doesn’t like to be challenged.

Working together

  • Encourage this SME to voice what is top of mind for them at the beginning of each meeting to prime them for listening when it is your turn.
  • Validate their opinions as often as possible, and be flexible enough to incorporate their ideas as your design and standards allow.

5. The Include-it-all SME

Impact on project

Insists that every detail of the 200-page manual or 150-slide PowerPoint deck is included.

Working together

  • Encourage this SME to communicate all of their knowledge to you. You will understand the topic more fully, but be judicious about the content you choose to include in materials.
  • Keep lists of content the SME wants to add for future advanced sessions, and show the SME that you have considered them carefully.

6. The Unfocused SME

Impact on project

Well-intentioned but often provides “interesting” information that has no bearing on what needs to be learned.

Working together

  • When the SME strays off topic, allow a brief one- or two-minute discussion and then table the topic for further discussion later.
  • Provide avenues for their ideas to come to fruition whenever you can—think creatively. For example, it doesn’t have to be in the main content. You could add additional material such as job aids, checklists, etc.

7. The Unreliable SME

Impact on project

Really smart and capable but terrible at time management and deadlines.

Working together

  • Sympathize with this SME’s time challenges and allow them as much flexibility as your timeline allows.
  • Include this SME in your project-planning process and allow them to provide input regarding their workload and deadlines.

How would you react to this SME?

If you are interested in more depth about how best to work with different types of SMEs, you can look at one of these three animated scenarios.

This is how our AWOL SME might work in your project:

This is how the Clueless SME might work in your project:

This is how the Control-freak SME might work in your project:

Strive to bring out the best in people

Building good relationships and clear communication lies at the heart of working in any eLearning project. SMEs are just human, like all of us, and sometimes they need a bit of help or encouragement to perform at their best due to other demands in their jobs or personal lives. Although we have categorized the SMEs into seven types, there are a few overlapping traits shared between some types. Keep in mind also that SMEs can shift, without warning, from one type to another—sometimes in the span of a single meeting.

The seven SME archetypes are a reminder to us all not to take anything for granted and to acknowledge that we, as learning professionals, have an important role in bringing out the best in the people we work with. Maybe it is time to stop the sighing and eye-rolling at the mere mention of those three letters.


  1. Wah, Louisa. “Making Knowledge Stick.” Management Review, Vol. 88, No. 6. May 1999.
  2. Venkitachalam, Krishna, and Peter Busch. “Tacit knowledge: review and possible research directions.” Journal of Knowledge Management, Vol. 16, No. 2. 2012.