Why did the SME cross the road?

types of SMEs

The punchline? They didn’t – and they won’t.

Selecting the right subject matter expert for your training project is only half the battle. Once you know who you want to work with, you need to get them on board. Not only that, but you need to make sure they stay on board for the duration.

If you don’t? That means missed deadlines, inefficient knowledge capture, and sub-par learning experiences.

Like it or not, your training project is never going to be a top priority for your SMEs. They are busy with a full schedule, a day-to-day role, and myriad other distractions. It’s on L&D to ensure their commitment and encourage their engagement throughout the project (and for any subsequent updates to the existing course material).

So, how can you achieve that? It all depends on what type of SME you’re dealing with and what level of involvement you need from them. 

1.The Overloaded SME

It’s not uncommon for a SME to be enthusiastically on board at the beginning, only for that enthusiasm and involvement to drop off as the project progresses. 

But the fault doesn’t always lie with the SME themselves. Sometimes, their day-to-day schedule takes over and it turns out they can’t dedicate the time needed. It becomes more difficult to get hold of them and deadlines start to slip by.

So, if you feel that a SME is too overloaded with other commitments, what can you do to help?

A good place to start is to call a meeting with the SME specifically to discuss the issue. This should not be a confrontation or admonishment. It’s about finding ways to help the SME clear some space to focus on the training project.

Perhaps your current method of knowledge capture can be streamlined to save some time? Or a course template can help to guide the SME better in sharing their expert knowledge. Collaborative tools can also go a long way towards keeping up communication and assisting them where needed. 

If necessary, offer to collaborate with their manager to carve out some dedicated “training project time” in their schedule to help them dedicate a weekly time allotment to the project.

different types of SME

2. The Perplexing SME

When it comes to highly technical information, SMEs are more important than ever to ensure the success of your training project. Without their expert knowledge, L&D cannot hope to provide a truly valuable training experience for learners.

But that level of complexity can present an entirely different set of challenges. You could have the most enthusiastic SME in the world, but if they cannot communicate the information to L&D, you’ll struggle with:

  • Establishing existing knowledge levels suitable for the course
  • Deciding on learning objectives and outcomes
  • How to structure the course and establish a logical flow
  • Aligning the content and assessments with the technical complexity

Not only that, but it can be a struggle to communicate these concerns to your SME. The result is a data dump of information that needs a high level of collaboration between you and the SME to sort through and organize logically.

This quickly becomes frustrating for both sides. You don’t understand the technical information and the SME doesn’t understand what you need from them.

Course templates can go a long way towards alleviating these frustrations. Outline how to select a learning objective, for example. Tell the SME where they need to pause for assessment or the ideal length of topics within a longer course. Try some train-the-trainer sessions to impart some basic instructional design knowledge and help the SME see things from the learner perspective.

Above all, remain understanding and help the SME to impart their knowledge as simply and logically as possible.

3. The Expert SME

Occasionally, you may come across a SME who thinks that because they are an expert in the subject matter, they are also the ultimate decision maker on the project.

The good news is that these experts are often highly committed to the project and willing to provide plenty of input. The bad news is that it can result in a power struggle between the training team and the SME when deciding on course content, topics, duration, assessments, etc.

Ultimately, it’s on L&D to ensure a valuable learning experience. So it’s vital to emphasize to SMEs from the beginning that, while they are the expert in the topic, you are the expert in how best to impart the information to learners.

  1. Make the SME feel valuable

Respect their knowledge and expertise and try not to immediately shut down their suggestions and ideas. Foster a collaborative atmosphere wherever possible.

  1. Bring in multiple SMEs

This can help to balance a strong personality and stop SMEs from losing the run of themselves as the sole expert on the project team.

  1. Create some distance

For truly difficult SMEs, it can be better to limit their involvement. Simply conduct some knowledge capturing exercises and retain all the instructional design decisions within the training team.  

distance collaboration

4. The Disengaged SME

On the opposite end of the involvement spectrum is the SME who is completely disengaged from the entire process. They may be someone who was assigned to the project rather than a volunteer. Or, they may be the only person in the organization who holds the information/expertise in a specific subject.

Either way, it becomes clear from the beginning that they have no interest in contributing to the project. It’s difficult to get hold of them, extract opinions, and knowledge capture can feel like drawing blood from a stone.

If you detect this early on (and if it’s possible to do so) try to bring other SMEs into the project, too. You’ll ensure you get the information and assistance you need, and it might galvanize your original SME to contribute more to the project. 

Another great way to motivate the disengaged SME is to highlight the personal benefits to them in terms of their professional profile both internally and externally to the organization. You can promote their involvement in the training course, have them present some of the content in recorded videos, etc.


If you want to learn more about challenges with SMEs and how to overcome them, check out this webinar where we welcome Peggy Salvatore, author of Working with SMEs: A Guide to Gathering and Organizing Content from Subject Matter Experts, to share practical tips for working with SMEs as efficiently as possible.

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