Beginning instructional designers—and even experienced IDs—often need to build productive cooperative relationships with subject matter experts (SMEs) to obtain and verify content. This can be intimidating or confusing, since these relationships often add demands to people’s workloads without formally becoming part of their job responsibilities. Dawn J. Mahoney, CPLP, of Learning in the White Space, offers guidance for IDs seeking to open up communication and improve collaboration with SMEs.

  1. Identify the “best” SME: The most obvious or “default” SME might be the person who’s been in the job the longest, eLearning Guild research director Jane Bozarth wrote. But that might not be the right expert for your project. To identify the best person, “IDs need to ask and just keep asking,” Mahoney said. “Whenever possible, ask to observe people at work, doing the things that the learning program is intended to help.” Once you’ve got the SME you need, get that person involved and keep her in the loop throughout the project. “After working together for the life of the project, it is likely the SMEs are the best advocates and champions an ID could ask for,” Mahoney said.
  2. Bring the SME into the project early: While the SMEs might not be part of the very earliest stages of project planning, like budgeting, “I like to have the subject matter experts be identified as early in the project as possible,” Mahoney said. “At a minimum, I would like them to be identified and included in any project ‘kick-off’ event.” SME involvement is not only about filling in content once the project is designed. “They are a key resource for many things. Not the least of which is the needs assessment and needs analysis,” Mahoney said. “They are key to success because they usually are the people who do aspects of the work the learning content or intervention is being designed to help.”
  3. It’s all about the SME: Respect for SMEs’ time is a big issue. Plan ahead for meetings and let the SMEs know what you need. “Don’t expect endless, frequent meetings. Plan for the conversation, and don’t call back three times needing something you forgot to get in the first place,” Bozarth wrote. Mahoney doubles down on that, pointing out that providing advice and content to the L&D team is “an addition to their workday”—generally with no additional compensation. To ensure a positive collaboration, Mahoney advises “establishing communication plans and schedules that work best for the SMEs, individually and collectively” and setting meeting schedules according to the SMEs’ needs, not your own.
  4. Don’t make assumptions: Misconceptions can interfere with communication and collaboration. IDs might assume that an SME offered to participate; conversely, the ID might assume that the SME was “voluntold” and is unenthusiastic, Mahoney said. Rather than making assumptions, ask the SME. Either way, acknowledge that the SME is a busy expert and, whether SMEs chose to help you or were directed to do so, they are essential to your project and are helping you out immensely. “Show your appreciation. Be their advocate with stakeholders,” she said.
  5. Listen and learn: Avoid settling on a preconceived idea of how the eLearning has to work. “Don’t assume your solution is the best one before spending time with the SMEs,” Mahoney said. “Be curious. Ask lots of questions.” An open mind can dramatically improve your project. “Value the SMEs’ experience. Choose to learn what they have to teach you,” she said.
Looking for a deeper exploration of relationships with SMEs? Mahoney is presenting Building Partnerships with Your Subject Matter Experts at The eLearning Guild’s Super Spotlight on eLearning Foundations, December 12 & 13, 2018, Get All You Need to Create Effective eLearning. Her session—and the entire two-day event—offers an opportunity for new IDs to soak up valuable advice and tips, get guidance from top eLearning experts, and polish their skills. Experienced L&D pros can brush up their skills and pick up some pointers. Registration is open.