SME challenges can make an otherwise enjoyable project turn sour for everyone involved.

As an Instructional Designer (ID), your relationship with subject-matter-experts (SMEs) is critical to the success of custom training development projects. How can SME pitfalls be avoided? After dozens of large-scale initiatives that created hundreds of hours of training, we’ve zeroed in on a few best practices.

A robust SME kick-off is one way to ensure you and the SMEs are clear about roles, expectations, and boundaries so the working relationship gets off to a good start. Here are six tips for your next kick-off meeting. And, by the way, these tips can also be used by a project manager running a project with multiple IDs and many SMEs.

1. Schedule time with the SMEs to kick things off. Sending a SME an email or having a quick hallway conversation is faster, but not as useful. Successful training development is a collaborative partnership; use the kick-off meeting to set the project up for success.

2. Provide an overview of the training concept. To ensure the SMEs are on the same page as you about the training course, share information about the business purpose and goal, key success measures, the target audience, and assumptions about the design (modality, length, learning objectives, etc.). If the course is one of many, share high-level information about where it fits into the bigger picture and what is being done to maintain consistency across all the courses. 

This discussion establishes boundaries for the training course and reduces the risk the SME will inadvertently steer you or the design in another direction or expand it to include extraneous or redundant content.

3. Explain, clarify, and confirm the project roles. Chances are the SME may not have a clear picture of the project roles and responsibilities of the ID and SME in particular, so a discussion to clarify overall responsibilities is a good place to start. Even if your organization has SMEs who support training routinely, refreshing and confirming everyone’s understanding is a good idea.

The ID responsibilities:

  • Identifying the skills, knowledge, and information gaps

  • Designing learning experiences that close this gap

  • Writing or creating draft and final content

The SME responsibilities:

  • Sharing their knowledgeable about the role or the subject

  • Pulling together existing documentation, or sharing their knowledge so that the information codified into a training solution is accurate

  • Reviewing outputs and providing feedback

4. Provide an overview of the training design & development process. Help your SME be successful by explaining the process for designing and building training. Overview the process steps, key outputs and where the SME will be involved.

Here is an example of typical steps, outputs, and where the SME is involved using the ADDIE approach to training development.

5. Work together to establish your work plan. Since ID/SME working relationship will likely be a little different each time. It is important to establish a clear understanding of how you and the SMEs will work together.

  • Will it be collaborative and revolve around working sessions? Will session be face-to-face, virtual or phone meetings? Or, will the SME do the work “offline” and email feedback to you?

  • The estimated amount of time the SME will likely spend on a task and reasonable turnaround times for providing feedback

  • Deadlines/due dates for each task

  • How conflicts will be resolved

6. Discuss how the SME can provide quality review feedback. One of the main responsibilities of a SME is to review the training design and courseware and provide feedback. If SMEs do not provide quality feedback, it may result in many update and review cycles – eating up labor and calendar time. Here are a few tips for making this go smoothly.

  • Discuss and provide examples of clear and actionable feedback.

  • Explain and use tools like “track changes” and/or a feedback log to capture and manage feedback.

  • If multiple SMEs will be involved in a review, identify a “lead” SME who can jump in to help reconcile conflicting feedback.

Spending a little time upfront with the SMEs to discuss these important things will help ensure a smooth working relationship.