Understanding and utilizing Subject Matter Experts (SME) is vital to the creation of online instruction.  SMEs are valuable informants for task analyses, and their experience can provide teams with the necessary domain knowledge to assist in the instructional process, as well as assemble and organize the content (Alessi & Trollip, 2001). Although the SME is not the enemy, they can be problematic if an instructional designer or project manager does not know how to utilize this very important team member to his or her full advantage.  According to Moller (1995), part of the ID’s role is to manage the work of the SME as part of the instructional design and development process.

Working with Subject Matter Experts (SME) can have its rewards and challenges.   While SMEs experiences will vary from higher education, military, or business settings (Keppell, 2001), it is necessary to have one on your team that will aid in a successful project. Often, the instructional designers main problem can be working with the SME to complete an instructional design project successfully (Ingram, Heitz, Reid, Walsh, & Wells, 2007).  In order to maximize your SME, it is important to follow these three simple tips.

1. Clear Expectations

Establish clear expectations and be upfront about deadlines and other important components to the project.  SMEs may enter a project with different knowledge and skills sets and can have different goals (Ingram, et al., 2007).  Communication is the key between the ID and SME.  Make sure when you meet with the SME you communicate your project needs and discuss the scope of the project during the first meeting.  Not involving the SME can cause him or her to have uncertain thoughts about the project and their role in the project that can result in a partnership plagued by frustration and lack of cooperation (Yancey, 2007). While it is important to talk about and establish clear expectations, it is just as important to be an active listener.

2. SME as Collaborator

Involve the SME from the beginning of the project.  Including the SME from the start will help identify the project scope and may assist with scope creep.  The SME can answer questions, address concerns, and brainstorm different types of learning activities that will help make the project successful.  Moller (1995) suggests making a good first impression is important for setting the tone for the project and helping the SME become personally invested from the beginning.

3. Respect the SME

Understand the SME has other responsibilities besides your project.  Although this may be top priority for an ID person, it doesn’t necessarily means the SME is on the same page.  To help assist with SME, be respectful of their time, have some background knowledge on the content, and provide assistance when needed.  Understanding your SME will establish a common ground between the ID and the SME and help the communication process (Yancey, 2007).

Following these simple tips can help you get on the right start with your SME.  Being proactive in managing and working with the SME can elevate a negative consequence and turn it into a positive asset (Moller, 1995).  If you have additional tips for maximizing your SME, I encourage you to post them in the comments section.


Alessi, S.M. & Trollip, S.R. (2001). Multimedia for learning: Methods and development (3rd ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Ingram, A., Heitz, K., Reid, C., Walsh, M., Wells, C. (1994). Working with subject matter experts. Performance & Instruction, 33(8), 17-22.

Keppell, M. (2001, June 22). Optimizing instructional designer—subject matter expert communication in the design and development of multimedia projects. Retrieved February 08, 2011 from http://www.thefreelibrary.com/Optimizing Instructional Designer–Subject Matter Expert…-a078574812

Moller, L. (1995). Working with subject matter experts. TechTrends,40(6), 26-27.

Yancey, C. (1996). The abcs of working with smes. Performance & Instruction, 35(1), 6-9.

Guest Blogger

Jennifer Nelson is a doctoral student of Instructional Design and Technology and the coordinator for school partnerships and clinical experiences at the University of Memphis. She has taught high school as well as undergraduate and graduate level courses. Her research interests include technology integration and teacher education.

Image courtesy of Pete Prodoehl at http://www.flickr.com/photos/raster/3380860520/

About Michael M Grant

Dr. Michael M. Grant is a passionate professor, researcher, and consultant. He works with faculty members, schools and universities, and districts to integrate technology meaningfully and improve teaching and learning. When 140 characters just won't work, then he blogs here at Viral-Notebook.com. He has a beautiful wife and three equally beautiful daughters, who will change the world.

5 Thoughts on “3 steps to maximize your SME

  1. Jennifer, what has been your experience with SMEs that causes either conflict or miscommunications?

    • Jennifer on March 2, 2011 at 11:07 am said:

      My experience with SMEs has been a positive one overall. One experience I had that caused a conflict was when the SME wanted to talk about content that did not relate to the project. The SME went on for 20 minutes and it was very frustrating because our time was very limited and we were unable to discuss important issues. Establishing clear expectations and effective communication would have been very important in this situation. It was a lesson learned.

  2. Suha Tamim on March 1, 2011 at 4:09 am said:


    During a meeting for a project I am currently working on, I realized the importance of clarifying terminology between the instructional designer and the SMEs. To clear the confusion that I sensed was creeping into the meeting,I started asking: “What do you mean by this term and what do you mean by that term?”. In fact, it turned out that we were referring to the same concepts but using different terminology just because we came from different backgrounds. Once this was cleared, the discussion became more focused and more productive.

  3. Prathi Narayan on March 2, 2011 at 12:22 pm said:

    Great post, Jennifer. After having met the SME of our project just a couple of hours, I can see the relevance of ” active listening”. It is crucial to make good notes of the discussion as we tend to forget few crucial details discussed during the meetings. Based on our experience as a team, I think one way to make sure we attend to all topics that were discussed is recording the discussion with the SME. An email requesting to record the session can be sent prior to the meeting and the archived recordings can be used to clear any doubts or questions that may arise later.

  4. Pingback: 3 Tips You Must Know When Working with SMEs - eLearning Brothers | eLearning Brothers

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