Everything You Need to Know about Working with SMEs

Everything You Need to Know about Working with SMEs

Judy Newman

Georgia State University

October 15, 2019


Articulate Community. (2019, October 3). Articulate Community. Retrieved from Community.Articulate.com: https://community.articulate.com/series/everything-you-need-to-know-about-working-with-smes?utm_source=epiphanies&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=071019-Epiphanies-3&mkt_tok=eyJpIjoiTm1ZeFlUYzFNRFl6WXprNCIsInQiOiI4dzVlQWdnT3lNZkYyd3BxenhqS2FkWUJqTnV4NXN3b2R


The article Everything You Need to know about Working with SMEs is a series of related websites authored by members of Articulate’s user-support Community, i.e. the E-Learning Heroes.  Articulate is the publisher of Articulate 360, a widely-used suite of e-learning development applications.  Articulate Storyline (Storyline 360) is the most popular of these applications and is a competitor of Adobe Captivate. 

The Articulate Community’s article is twofold.  First, it includes the definition of  “Subject Matter Expert (SME)” and describes how the role partners with Instructional Developers in e-learning development.  It also emphasizes the importance of productive communication between Instructional Developers (IDs) and SMEs, offering advice and tips for successful collaboration.

This SME article diplomatically suggests that without productive communication between the ID team and SMEs, the likelihood of producing quality e-learning content is diminished. Each section of the article implies that working with SMEs can be challenging and that IDs must utilize various collaboration skills for dealing with diverse SME personality styles and experience levels.  For example, in the Tips for Working with Subject Matter Experts to Create E-Learning section, the article states, “…your projects can stall or come to a complete halt if the SMEs aren’t fully engaged” and “…and those few minutes up front can prevent weeks of frustration and irrelevant content later.”

Meaning & Implications

One might assume that a basic understanding of professionalism and collaboration is common in the workplace, but a SME may have little business or technical acumen and will need direction from the ID.  The SME may indeed be an expert in a course topic but know little or nothing about the e-learning design and development process.  It may therefore be the ID’s responsibility to educate the SME, guiding him or her collaboratively through the process of producing e-learning content. The ID can help solidify the e-learning course production process by asking the right questions and establishing a timeline up front.  In addition, the ID must  “show respect for your SMEs’ time by making it clear and easy for them to share their feedback with you. First, try to be as specific as possible about what you need. For instance, if you only want them to provide feedback on how a specific interaction works, tell them that upfront.”

Missing from the article is  collaboration between the Articulate Community authors.  First, there are no links that allow the reader to navigate between the series websites. One may therefore assume that the websites initially existed as stand-alone articles and were later combined, perhaps as an afterthought.

Second, three of the six websites in the series contain redundant content, making it appear that the authors practiced little productive communication in the writing of the article. For example, the Working with SMEs to Build Better Online Courses page suggests that the ID, “be sure to show your appreciation” while the 4 Easy Ways To Win Over Reluctant SMEs page recommends that you “don’t forget to exchange a few simple niceties with your SMEs.”  Perhaps including a mention of basic professional courtesy is acceptable, but two mentions reveal a possible lack of collaboration between the authors.

The sixth website in the series introduces a more sophisticated collection of tips that is particularly helpful.  The focus of Empower Your SMEs to Create Better E-Learning with These 4 Tips introduces SMEs to Instructional Design Basics.  It suggests the ID provide SMEs with e-learning development tools, such as templates, examples, and a style guide  In my experience, if these tools are utilized to streamline production from the beginning, the time and effort it could take to complete the course could be significantly reduced.

A tool missing from the above-mentioned website is a list of Best Practices.  Best Practices are helpful to follow before design begins in order to prevent extra work later.  Best Practices can include 1) Acquiring written permission to use audio and video content, 2) Avoiding content formatted in bullet lists, 3) Including only one topic per slide, and 4) Providing thoroughly proofed audio scripts in a standardized format.

A tip that is mentioned in 4 Easy Ways to Win Over Reluctant SMEs is “Speak in a Language Your SMEs Understand”. Instructional Designers often forget that the acronyms they commonly use may be unfamiliar to SMEs and their team members.  I have been in more than one intake meeting in which the SME had never heard the SME acronym.  Using understandable terms shows them that they are respected and reduces the risk of making them feel alienated. 

A stranger to the Community / E-Learning Heroes site may initially think this article publicizes the Articulate brand too heavily.  Links to Articulate e-books and product suggestions are interspersed throughout.  However, in defense of this ‘promotion’, the information the article links to relates closely to each website’s topic. It is clear that the Community intent is to be advantageous to its product users. As an Articulate Storyline and Review 360 client, I find the linked content to be very helpful.

Article Expansion

Though the article was obviously written for a relatively new Instructional Designer, it could be expanded to replace duplicative content with information that would be helpful for a more experienced ID.  For instance, though it would require substantial research, the article could include tips for working with specific Myers Briggs or  DISC personality types or SME traits such as extraversion or neuroticism. 

In Tips For Working With Subject Matter Experts to Create E-Learning, the article mentions that “putting the details on paper (real or virtual) is a huge step toward aligning everyone’s expectations. This is an understatement. In the initial course intake meeting, the ID should have a standard list of questions to ask the SME.  Recommended questions to include are 1) When will we receive the course content? 2) In what form is the course content provided (PowerPoint, Word, PDF, etc.? 3) Is audio / video content to be incorporated into the course? 3) What is your expected delivery date? and so on.

This article could be improved if it recommended the inclusion of a detailed agreement between the SME and ID team.  This agreement should include a copy of the Best Practices and a completed copy of the question list mentioned in the above paragraph.  The agreement itself should include a list of the course production team members’ names and their responsibilities, a description of the course elements (content, audio, videos, interactivity, assessments, etc.), and a timeline that includes potential impediments that could delay course completion.  Projects are often delayed when SMEs are late in reviewing and approving course versions throughout the development process.  Explanations for delays are often valid and understandable.  Perhaps the SME’s manager is away at a seminar or media services has several videos ahead in their queue.  To address the issue of course production delays, ID teams sometimes require both sides sign this agreement in order to keep the project on schedule and to help ensure that all parties involved understand the commitment they are making to complete the course on time.


I selected this article because of its relevance to the content we are studying in LT7100 Design of Performance & Instruction Systems and because of its prominence in the work that Instructional Designers do every day.  Though it may contain some redundant and over-simplified content, the article is written in a friendly, caring manner that makes it easy for new Instructional Designers to learn and comprehend the importance that productive communication plays in our careers.

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