working with SMEs

6 Critical Mistakes to Avoid When Working with SMEs

Working with subject matter experts (SMEs) to create training solutions is not always L&D’s favorite thing to do. But in an era of fast-paced, agile business strategies, working closely with SMEs to keep up with training demand has become a necessity for many corporate training departments.

Collaboration across departments is often fraught with tensions, with both sides feeling the other doesn’t understand their role or capabilities. However, ultimately, the goal is the same for both parties, and getting the job done as quickly and efficiently as possible is in everyone’s best interest.

So how can L&D ease frustrations? Here are six critical mistakes to avoid when working with SMEs to ensure a smooth training development process:

1. Not being respectful of their time

These days, we’re all pretty time-starved when it comes to day-to-day roles and responsibilities. People are working longer hours and, with increased demands on their time, dedicating extra hours to side projects can be a big ask.

So it’s no wonder that it can be challenging to get SMEs to stick to deadlines on training projects that are outside their primary remit. L&D needs to recognize the extra strain on SMEs and find ways to make collaboration as easy and streamlined as possible.

There are a few ways L&D can mitigate this and get projects completed on time while still being respectful of SMEs time:

  • Create realistic deadlines
  • Break down milestones into manageable steps
  • Communicate frequently and consistently
  • Offer assistance and support

2. Expecting too much

SMEs are not instructional designers. They have no background in adult learning theory, course creation, or learning design. It’s essential to be empathetic to this and adjust your expectations when working with them.

“Train the trainer” sessions can be time-consuming and still won’t make up the difference between an SME and an experienced instructional designer. Still, there are things you can do to improve the quality of course creation and set expectations from the start.

Create templates

If all your SMEs need to do is provide information or “data dump” to L&D, try creating training course templates they can easily follow.

Provide learning objective examples

Understanding learning objectives can give SMEs much better insight into what you are trying to achieve with a particular course, and can even help them create their own going forward.

Provide access to content sources

If your SMEs are creating training content, give them the tools they need. Whether it’s resource libraries, free stock images sites, or simple video creation tools, empower them to help create the best training possible.

3. Using ineffective collaboration methods

More and more organizations are turning to project management tools, instant messaging, and collaborative software to empower teams to work together more efficiently. The same tools can do wonders when working alongside SMEs on a training project.

Creating a central space where SMEs can ask for support, comments, or feedback can speed up the whole process and keep them engaged with training creation.

It’s about more than communication, too. When SMEs and L&D are constantly emailing different word documents and spreadsheets, maintaining version control becomes difficult, with everyone working from different edits.

4. Not providing incentives

Would you rather have SMEs being told by their line managers that they must take part in training development, or have them clamoring for the chance to create effective, impactful courses alongside L&D?

The answer is obvious, but how do you do it?

Providing incentives for SMEs to take part in training creation can make all the difference. Incentives can take many forms, including:

  • Monetary rewards
  • Benefits (e.g., extra time off)
  • Competition/Prizes
  • Recognition

The type of incentive you choose will depend largely on the accepted norms in your organization or approval from senior management. Whatever way you decide to incentivize training development, it will help enormously with the initial onboarding of SMEs to a project and their continued commitment throughout the process. 

5. Directing instead of collaborating

While you may be co-ordinating the training project, the subject matter expert is the one who really knows their stuff when it comes to the knowledge you’re trying to impart. It’s important to remember this if you want to get the best out of the relationship.

Avoid the approach of handing out pre-ordained tasks. Instead, involve your SME from the very beginning and try to form a team atmosphere around the project. After all, SMEs are likely to be passionate about the subject of the training, and you’ll get far more out of them by asking them to participate rather than commanding them to contribute.

6. Letting them run the project

Of course, the flip side of that coin is the SME that tries to take over the entire project. They may be an expert in their chosen field, but they are not an expert in training development. When it comes to the quality of the training produced, the buck stops with L&D, so it’s essential to remain in control of the project.

There are tactics you can employ from the outset to try and avoid this situation and rectify it if it starts to occur:

  • Create a project charter.
  • Include a micro “organizational chart.”
  • Send regular email updates on project progress.
  • Decide and assign due dates to tasks.

Working with SMEs is always going to involve challenges, but the onus is on L&D to find ways to overcome them. Avoiding these common mistakes will have your training projects running smoothly, and your SMEs feeling happy to contribute!

Want to see more tips for working with SMEs? Check out this free ebook!


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