While my first Subject Matter Expert (SME) disaster happened many years ago, I can still remember it vividly. It was early in my learning and development career and while the instructional design program I’d recently graduated from was fantastic, it hadn’t covered much on working with SMEs. I was learning that part as I went along and looking back, I’d been spoiled because my first SMEs were seasoned L&D pros. They had a good sense of what content and feedback I did (and, even more importantly, didn’t) need from them. But things changed when I started working with a SME from outside my field.
A painful SME misstep
I was writing a compliance training course—already challenging to build people’s interest in given the subject matter—and was matched with a SME who was clearly passionate about the topic. On paper, they seemed like the perfect fit for what I needed, so after a brief introduction meeting with my team they got straight to emailing me what they felt was the right amount of content to include in the course.
As you’ve probably guessed, what I received was a terrifying content dump, filled with all sorts of facts my SME found fascinating but weren’t well connected to the goals of the course or the needs of its audience. So I did what I’d done with past projects. I read through everything, pulled just what I needed from their resources, wrote a course draft I felt covered the core takeaways the audience needed, and sent it to the SME for their review.
Imagine my surprise when instead of responding with feedback to help refine it further, my SME wrote back livid at the draft. They claimed that since it didn’t cover all the material I’d been sent I clearly hadn’t read what they’d provided. They were deeply unhappy with my work and wanted it re-written entirely to cover every aspect of their resources.
Why did things go so wrong?
At the time that reaction was something I hadn’t seen coming, though years later I understand it more. Was it an overreaction? Absolutely. But had we set up our partnership in a way that made misunderstandings likely? Definitely. My SME and I had never made sure we were both on the same page with either the detailed plan for the project or each of our roles in it.
My SME had been told at a high-level about the course topic and goals, but in retrospect we needed to zoom in more on the content scope and the audience/time limitations we had to work around. We talked around those topics and I’m sure at the time we both thought we were in alignment. But we didn’t write them out and then formally agree to work towards them, a step that would have quickly let us know we were off course. Instead, believing they had minimal boundaries, my SME did what many people do when asked to share about a topic they’re passionate about: they wanted to share everything.
Then there were the misunderstandings about our roles. Given my past experience I’d assumed my SME understood what I’d be doing with their content. As it turned out, they weren’t terribly familiar with what instructional designers did and instead saw themselves as the architect of the course. They figured I’d simply be repackaging everything they’d provided rather than paring it down and reworking it to meet the project goals. No wonder they’d assumed I hadn’t read what they’d sent me when content they’d shared wasn’t in the course draft! And no wonder they felt personally slighted when what they’d seen as the plan for the course hadn’t been followed.
Why a good SME partnership starts with clarity
I’ll be honest, having a SME react that negatively to my work shook me. And while we did smooth things over somewhat, our working relationship never developed the mutual trust I was able to build with other SMEs later on. But that hurt led to something positive: rethinking my processes. I moved towards a more robust kickoff approach with new SMEs that was designed to reduce common misunderstandings right at the start.
That new approach involved talking in detail with my SMEs about the many facets of our work together: things like how we wanted to work together, what tasks we’d each be doing, what our timeline was, what would happen if due dates were missed, what content was in and out of scope, and what the audience most needed. Then I’d put the main points we’d discussed in a summary document and ask my SME for written agreement to it. This check ensured we’d both taken the same things away from our discussion and also became a record we could revisit if later on our memory got foggy on the details.
It’s true that this process added more time up front whenever I worked with a new SME. But like with any complex project, investing that planning time up front saved us from frustration and revisions later on. By making expectations crystal clear, we knew what to expect from each other and were better able to efficiently guide our work towards the same endpoint.
Has this approach fully prevented any future SME missteps? No. Even with the best plans sometimes a wrench you hadn’t expected can still get thrown into the works. But this clarity up front has helped avoid many common SME partnership snags, so when a deadline gets missed or my SME suggests something out of scope it’s easy for us to solve the issue and both feel respected in the process.
Check out this free checklist
If you’re rethinking your own approach to working with subject matter experts, download this free SME kickoff checklist today. It covers everything you might want to consider when you start working with a new SME.
While the steps you personally end up taking and the depth with which you go into them may vary depending on your own work style and that of your SME, this checklist gives you a solid place to start.