Even though the instructional designer is the key person who guides the process of creating eLearning, there are others on the project team who have significant roles to play, depending on the topic. These may include graphic designers; writers who produce scripts, job aids, and text documents; specialists who use authoring software and scripting to create executable runtime files, animators, photographers, and videographers; on-camera talent; and possibly many others.

Since neither the instructional designer nor anyone else on the team have detailed knowledge of the actual subject matter involved, the team must involve subject matter experts (SMEs) who have that knowledge. Sometimes that is knowledge of a job or a technical skill, or of a knowledge domain.

If you are new to working with SMEs or have experienced challenges, you will find basic information about this part of the instructional development process in this article. It will also link you to a source of practical information about managing the day-to-day effort of working with SMEs.

Subject matter experts

A subject matter expert is a person who has expert knowledge relevant to the instructional development topic. A given instructional development effort may require only one SME, or it may require a group of experts. It is sometimes the task of the instructional designer to identify and recruit the experts, or the project sponsor or client may assign specific employees to fulfill the role. But in any case, the SMEs know the skill and knowledge domain, and the instructional designer knows how to design and develop learning experiences that engage employees. It needs to be a cooperative, collaborative effort between instructional designer and the subject matter experts.

A SME should be someone who knows the details of what is to be taught, and in the best case the SME will also know your company’s culture. Normally that means the SME will be an “internal” expert, but there may be times when the SME comes from outside your organization. Whether internal or external, SMEs must be able to review training developed by the rest of the team for accuracy, and to add any missing critical details based on their experience. Quality and success of the training needs to be important to a SME, and a SME should be able (and willing) to provide the time needed for the project.

Where do you find SMEs?

A SME might be a manager, a help desk team member, an account manager, a researcher, a top sales person, an engineer, or anybody else with in-depth knowledge of the subject of the training.

However, a SME should also be someone whose knowledge is current. Sometimes a manager may not have done the work involved in the subject area for several years. The same is true of someone with a past history in sales who has not been involved in sale of current products.

The instructional designer may find it necessary to obtain help from several employees, each of whom is expert in less than the full job.

Working with SMEs

As the instructional designer, you are going to manage development of the training your employees need, and the SMEs you have on your team are expected to provide the knowledge and experience needed to make the training relevant, sticky, and real. But that’s not all there is to the job of delivering an effective product. Even with the best SMEs, you can come up with content that’s long on information and short on application. In the worst case, employees go to other sources to find what they need.

To help with this part of the process of creating effective eLearning, Diane Elkins will present “Transforming What SMEs Know to What Learners Need” at The eLearning Guild’s Making Learning Stick Online Conference February 19-20, 2020. In this session, you’ll learn five key strategies for working with SMEs to create content that really sticks. You’ll get practical insights, tips, and resources for making the most of your SME’s expertise and harnessing it in a productive way. You’ll leave better able to move your online content from simply conveying information to helping your learners solve the real problems they face every day.

Registration for Making Learning Stick is open!