3 steps to maximize your SME

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/