Vic Glover

Getting the most out of your SMEs

Subject matter experts or SMEs... You may be the learning expert, but SMEs are the experts in their business! They are an essential part of the learning material development lifecycle and provide valuable content-expertise, context and general wisdom.

But how do you make the most of your time with them, whether in initial meetings or during review cycles? Let’s look at some different types of SMEs and how to get the most out of each.



The enthusiast

These guys and gals are gold. They’ve been hanging out for this learning for a long time and are itching to get started. Enthusiasts have ideas about everything – the content, the delivery and even how to spread the learning far and wide. They will probably already have diagrams, videos and articles ready to go and they expect the learner will have the same enthusiasm for the topic that they do.

How to make the most of your time with them: You might need to rein enthusiasts in. Set expectations right at the start; who the learners are and how much they need to know. You may need to remind 'enthusiasts' that providing Andrew in Accounting with an immersive 3D adventure in the intricacies of kiwi breeding is slightly out of scope, and no, we probably won’t use that video with copyright music they shot on their phone.


The sceptic/unwilling

The opposite of the enthusiast. They may be an expert but they think the learning isn’t needed, the learning won’t work or maybe they’re not a fan of the chosen learning solution (looking at you, eLearning!).

How to take them on the journey: With these SMEs it’s even more important to build rapport and get them engaged. Use your empathy muscles and listen to what they are saying. Their scepticism may well be founded in reality. Ask how they would approach the learning and be sure to touch on the ‘why’ early on. Show appreciation for their organisational knowledge.


The expert

Well technically all SMEs are experts, but The Expert™ is the expert of all experts. They know the manual inside out and back to front and that isn’t even the start of what's inside their head. They have expectations that by the end of the learning, everyone will be as expertly expert as they are!

How to tap into their wisdom: The trick here is to help them differentiate between ‘need to know’ and ‘absolutely everything about the topic’. One method for this is asking the question “What does the learner need to be able to do in their job?”. This usually brings out the essential points.

These SMEs also tend to have great attention to detail and nuance is important, so expect lots of changes through the review process. Use this to your advantage – believe it or not, they know what they are talking about.


The technology-averse

These SMEs just have no interest in technology when good ol’ pen and paper will do, but you can be sure that their experience in the field is second to none. This SME prefers face-to-face communication and they might print out documents to give handwritten feedback.

How to get them cooking with gas: With these SMEs, removing the barriers around technology is key. For virtual workshops and meetings it’s a good idea to run an icebreaker activity which uses all the tools that are in the session. This is a great time to iron out any technology problems!

Finding a SME 'head-honcho' to consolidate handwritten feedback into review documents will prove invaluable with this type of SME.


The conversationalist

Conversationalists often come in pairs (although sometimes you get one solo, chatting away into the void). Whether in design workshops or in the comments section of review documents, these folks raise questions and then respond to questions with more questions until every last detail has been hashed out.

How to make the most of your time together: Conversationalists are great at digging into the finer details and raising valid points, but this is where it is valuable to have a ‘head SME’ to interpret and consolidate feedback. This helps keep everyone sane. Being very clear with expectations upfront is important too.


The absent

Usually an enthusiast is in the first meeting but then they disappear off the face of the planet. Often the learning is near and dear to them but they run their own company in the industry, are a high-flying manager or just have a job to do and somehow they never manage to turn up to subsequent meetings or give feedback.

How to get them onboard: Make every moment valuable! Keep meetings short and to the point and, when asking for feedback, be very specific about what they are giving feedback on and when they need to do it by.

Set expectations early on and give time frames for review cycles. These people are busy and need to plan. Above all, be accommodating and flexible.


The learner

Not usually an expert in the topic but they have lots of expertise – they will be the recipient of the learning (and boy, have they participated in a lot of learning!). These peeps are at the coalface, know exactly what they need to do their job, and what they do and don’t like in learning.

How to learn from them: Make the most of their on-job experience. These folks have all the dirt on what’s going down in the workplace. They will have stories, anecdotes, what works well and what doesn’t work well.

When they ask, “Why do we need to know this?” you better have a good reason!


Keep in mind…

No matter which SMEs you are working with, there are some overall things to keep in mind.

Be grateful and value their time

Your SMEs are probably giving their time on top of their busy job or life.

Do your homework

Research the topic before you chat with your SMEs and learn some jargon. This will make the process and experience smoother for everyone.

Rope in a head SME

Your head SME consolidates opinions and feedback and has the final say on anything contentious.

Be clear about expectations

This applies no matter which flavour of SME you’re working with.

Don’t forget to say thank you!

Being a SME is a hard job and they are essential for creating great learning.


Check out this free module to see 10 ways you can lift your game!

10 Ways to be a better learning consultant-1


Learning Library

We have loads of valuable content for free! Check out our podcasts, blog and free modules and tools.

Screen Shot 2020-11-24 at 3.04 1

stay in the loop

Sign up with your email address to receive news and updates.