There have been some great partnerships over the years: Bing Crosby and Bob Hope; Morecambe and Wise; Bert and Ernie. When you’re working with SMEs, you need to create a great partnership too. But how do you make sure you’re more Elton John and Kiki Dee, and less Hoddle and Waddle? Here are some practical tips on how to form productive relationships with SMEs, and create some brilliant elearning.

Starting out

You probably work on many and varied elearning projects at the same time. It’s always vital you do your homework on the client, their area of business, and what type of course they want you to create. Research the subject matter and take time to understand the terminology and jargon that goes with it – something that’s always appreciated by SMEs.

It’s worth setting time aside for a kick-off meeting. It gives everyone involved on the project the chance to introduce themselves and explain their role. It also provides an opportunity to agree on a clear project outline, including key delivery dates and individual roles. We use weekly status reports to track all these things and more through the life of the course, and offer them as standard on all projects.

The early stages are also about recognising the value an SME brings to the course. Acknowledge this and thank them in advance for their time and expertise to help build a strong working relationship.

meeting to discuss working with SMEs

Getting the most out of working with SMEs

It’s likely that your elearning project isn’t the main focus of your SME’s job. Their time may be hard to come by. Try to be as flexible as possible, and schedule meetings and catch-ups around your SME’s diary. This enables them to have as much input as possible.

Ask SMEs to explain in their own words why the elearning course is needed and what they would like learners to achieve through taking it. Invite them to explain what they like and don’t like about existing training materials. It could be that they’re out of date, unengaging or simply incorrect. What things do employees not know that they should? What areas do they struggle with or find confusing?

This information will help you divide the content into ‘need to know’ and ‘nice to know’. Working together to write clear learning objectives will also provide focus for the course and avoid scope creep.

Always involve SMEs at any review stage. They understand the content better than anyone and can let you know whether all the vital information is covered. They’re also key to making your content relevant. Even if you’re well-versed in the theory side of a course, the SME can contribute real life case studies and scenarios to make the course credible to learners.

You are the elearning expert!

When working with SMEs, don’t assume they are experts in elearning – that’s where you come in. Take the time to explain the steps involved in elearning course creation. This helps your SME understand how their knowledge will be used and clarify what you need from them to make the project a success.

Sharing information when working with SMEs

You could provide them with samples of the different stages that make up the elearning journey. Share course outlines, storyboards and examples of good elearning so they can see the full development process. This also helps to set design expectations and enables the SME to understand why you have chosen certain ways of presenting information.

Use plain language too. Although Gagné may be your bedtime reading, it’s likely that your SME is not an instructional designer. You would want your SME to explain their knowledge in terms that you can understand, so skip the elearning speak to get your point across.

It’s up to you to help the SME take a step back and appreciate that not everyone is as expert as them. SMEs will always be tempted to provide more knowledge than a learner can actually absorb. You can help them work out what information doesn’t need to go in the course.

Celebrating success

Without the help of your SMEs you might not have been able to produce a brilliant piece of elearning. When an SME has devoted their time and knowledge to help you complete the job, remember to recognise their contribution and thank them for their help.

Do you have a success story about working with SMEs, or any other tips to share? Maybe you’re an SME looking to turn your knowledge into engaging elearning. Either way, we’d love to hear from you. Get in touch at You can also follow us on Twitter.

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