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Mastering the Art of SME Management

Updated: May 23, 2023

As you know, building strong subject matter expert (SME) relationships during the training development process doesn't just happen like magic. It requires impeccable communication, cooperation, careful planning, flexibility and stamina, just to name a few skills.

As a representative of the training team, you are responsible for exhibiting these skills and for helping other members of the team develop them too.

You are also responsible for bridging the gap between the experts (the SMEs) and the novices (the learners). Think of yourself as the learners' advocate: your job is to determine the information they need to be successful. Then you need to find that information and put it all together in a way that they can understand and remember. The primary way to do this is by working closely with the experts.

Your Goals

When developing training, you should always have well defined goals. But what are your goals when working with SMEs? One of your primary objectives is to build an alliance with your SMEs and the teams they represent in your organization. This alliance is not a one-way street where the SMEs feed you everything you need. You can help them, too, by respecting them, appreciating their efforts and by collaborating with them every step of the way. This alliance can save you time, effort and a lot of headaches as you work on future projects. Success is the ultimate goal of both your training efforts and your SME relationships, but who should experience this success?

  • The learners experience success if they can apply their new knowledge effectively on the job.

  • The SMEs experience success if they achieve their personal and professional goals for the project. These goals may include recognition by peers or superiors, reduced workload or improved efficiency. It's your job to discover each SME's goals and work toward meeting them.

  • The company experiences success if their business objectives are met through the training and if their employees work efficiently and effectively together toward meeting those objectives.

  • And, of course, you experience personal and professional success when everyone else meets their goals with your help and you create a premium training product!

Preparing for Success

The first step in managing your SMEs is to prepare, prepare, prepare! Very early in your training project, perform the following tasks to make sure you are organized and everyone is headed in the right direction.

Identify your SMEs. Finding the right person or team to help you develop the training is crucial, so it's important to know what you're looking for. Make a list of what you need in terms of expertise (knowledge), experience (know-how) and influence (power in the organization). Include the tasks you will need the SMEs to perform, approximately when they will need to perform them and their time commitment. Also note risks associated with not having the right SMEs on your project (such as poor quality training, missed deadlines and extra costs for rework). Then share this information with the business sponsor or other key stakeholders in your project so they can help you identify the best contacts. Before you meet your SMEs, try to find out about their personality and background, to help you make a good first impression.

Keep in mind that you may require more than one SME because you may need people who can offer technical expertise, a solid perspective from the learners' point of view, business acumen and influence within the organization. However, try to identify a primary point person who will act as the single voice for the group of SMEs, and get that person's agreement to accept the responsibility. This will help you consolidate information and feedback throughout the development process.

Show respect. One of the best ways to start building your SME alliance is to show respect for the training subject. Before interacting with your SMEs, take time to get to know the topic by doing some homework: read any existing documentation you can get your hands on, research current trends and understand the business objectives of your training project. Make a list of questions as you perform this research. This preparation will also help you build a respect for the SME's knowledge, which will show during your meetings and relieve some early concerns that the SMEs may have.

Develop a project plan. Take time to build a detailed strategy for achieving success. As with any typical project plan, include the development steps, key deliverables, dates and resources. Also, be sure to define the approximate number of required meetings and the SME's time commitment between those meetings.

Hold a kickoff meeting. To get your SMEs on board and get their initial buy-in, hold a project kickoff meeting with all the stakeholders in your project. During the meeting, have everyone introduce themselves, and clearly identify the SMEs for the project. Using the project plan, define the project scope and gain agreement on dates, preferably in writing! Explain where everyone fits into the development process so you can emphasize the need for shared responsibility, and thank them in advance for their cooperation. Ensure that your SMEs understand what you need, when you need it and why you need it. Also stress how you will be helping the SMEs and what they can expect from you. The kickoff meeting is a great format for encouraging collaboration and open communication...two ingredients for a successful alliance.

Educate your SMEs. Understandably, SMEs may face some anxiety and frustration regarding their new roles and responsibilities in your training project. After all, it's just extra work on top of their already full plates. To relieve some of this stress, take time to meet with the SMEs individually to educate them about the instructional design process, adult learning basics and your development processes. Let them know who they will be working with to design and develop the training, so they are prepared for requests from instructional designers, media designers and other members of your team. Clearly define the value you will add to the project and what you can do for them. This is a great time to discover their personal and professional aspirations so you can help them achieve their own success. During these initial meetings, also explain some of the development tools so the SMEs can see how the tools will benefit the project and make their lives easier.

Making Meetings Work

After you establish initial expectations and rapport with your SMEs, you'll schedule several meetings with them during the design and development stages of the project. To make these meetings as effective as possible, try the following tips.

Stick to a promised time. When you contact the SME for a meeting, be sure to communicate the estimated amount of time you will need. Then, stick to that estimate. Obviously, it takes some preparation and planning to give an accurate estimate, so put together an outline, list of questions and goals for the meeting and share it with the SME beforehand. If you haven't covered all items on the outline by the time limit, take the last five minutes to schedule your next meeting. Remember that the SME's time is valuable, and you should always respect the time, make the most of it and thank the SME for making room in their schedule.

Set the stage. Before you start asking questions, take the opportunity to improve your credibility by clarifying your intention: to capture and summarize the SME's knowledge and then turn it into something that will benefit the learners. Realize that the SME may have reservations about sharing this information, so try to alleviate these concerns with a professional, caring, supportive attitude and approach.

Do your homework. Before your meetings, request documentation and other information so you have ample time to prepare. Develop as much as you can with what you are given, and make a list of intelligent questions to ask. Then send the list of questions to the SME before the meeting. This will help the SME know what to expect and will ensure that you make the most of the time you have.

Ask for clarification. When the SME uses terminology and jargon that you don't understand, be sure to ask for more information. Never be afraid to profess your lack of knowledge on the topic. After all, if you don't understand it the first time you hear it, how likely is it that the learners will?

Ask the right questions. To receive the most appropriate information possible from the SME, ask questions about the learners' challenges, problems and motivations. For example:

  • What factors make this a difficult task to perform?

  • What is the best/worst thing that can happen to the learners when performing the process?

  • What decisions do learners have to make during this process?

  • What do learners need to know about this topic to be successful on the job?

  • What else is impacted by a person's actions with this process? Where does the work flow from here?

  • What are the critical factors to be aware of in transitioning to the next process?

  • What are the learners' motivations? Why should they care?

The types of questions you ask SMEs should depend on the situation.

  • Use closed-ended questions to get the SME comfortable, verify your understanding, gain acceptance of an idea and drill down to more specific information.

  • Use open-ended questions to get the SME talking, get high-level information and expand on topics.

  • To get detailed information, ask questions such as "Can you tell me more about...?" and "Could you give me an example of what you mean?"

  • To move away from details and focus on the big picture, ask questions such as "How do I apply this to the learning objective?" and "What does this look like from a bird's eye view?"

Listen. When you ask questions, be prepared to listen. Don't hurry through the questions; instead, use active listening techniques to ensure that you understand the SME's statements. For example, paraphrase what you heard, ask clarifying questions, summarize what you heard the SME say and reflect on the implications of the information.

Pause. You want to make the most of your time, but it's important to pause during the conversation. These pauses serve several purposes: they help the SME slow down and consider what to say next, and they allow you time to take notes and collect your thoughts.

Be aware of body language. What you hear from the SME is only part of the message he or she is communicating. Notice eye movements, changes in expressions, arm positioning and other nonverbal cues to help determine any clarifying questions you might add. For example, if the SME crosses his arms while explaining a concept (which may indicate disagreement), you might ask for his opinion about the concept. Also be keenly aware of the message you are sending through your own body language. Keep your face relaxed, and express genuine interest in the SME's comments. Keep your body open: lean slightly forward and keep your arms uncrossed to show engagement. Keep your gestures to a minimum, and maintain as much eye contact with the SME as possible.

Peter Drucker, a leading management consultant, said "The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn't said."

Find common ground. In each meeting, work to build your alliance with the SME. To do this, try to find a common ground such as a personal or professional interest. Ask about the SME's other projects and commitments, and show empathy for his or her busy schedule. If you feel comfortable doing so, discuss family, children, hobbies and sports. When you find common ground, you will have a great way to help break the ice in future meetings and correspondence.

Follow up. During the meeting, carefully track decisions reached, action items and open issues. Review these items at the end of the meeting to ensure you both understand the appropriate next steps. Then, follow up the meeting with an email, reiterating these items, and thank the SME for helping you take this valuable step forward in the project.

Stay Strong

Your alliance with the SME extends beyond the walls of your meetings. Keep these tips in mind for maintaining the relationship throughout the project.

Remember the golden rule. How do you expect to be treated by your peers and supervisors? That's exactly how you should treat the SME. Remember that the relationship is a two-way street, and that you should be providing as much effort and commitment as the SME.

Deliver in chunks. When you develop training content, keep the content in small chunks so SMEs can review them without taking up too much time. Asking them to take an hour, instead of a day, to review some content is much more likely to get you the timely feedback you need to keep moving forward.

Establish review guidelines. Although you're very experienced in reviewing training content, don't expect your SMEs to have the same comfort level. To ease their angst about the process, have guidelines or a checklist they can use to help them perform thorough reviews. Remind them that their responsibility during review is to ensure that the content in the training material is complete, clear and correct as well as accurate and useful from a business perspective. Walk through the first deliverable with your SMEs, so they understand how to follow the review guidelines and the kind of feedback you're looking for.

Review Guidelines for SMEs

The SME review guidelines should ask SMEs to answer specific questions about the content. For example:

  • Is everything included in the materials that should be in order to understand the task?

  • Is the information organized in a meaningful or logical order?

  • Is the content what the learner needs to know to be successful?

  • Is the data in the examples accurate and appropriate to learners?

  • Are the procedures accurate? Are the instructions clear?

  • Is the simplest and most direct process accurately represented?

Learn how to say 'no'. Yes, it's your job to be as flexible and accommodating as possible to your SME, but there are times when you must stand firm. During the project, be crystal clear about constraints that may affect the project. If deadlines, training effectiveness or budget are in jeopardy, voice your concern and say 'no', without being overly confrontational and without apology. Of course, get your supervisor or business sponsor involved as soon as you see the potential for slippage.

Choose the appropriate contact mode. Early in the relationship, ask your SMEs how they prefer to be contacted, and do your best to support their preference. The mode of communication should also vary based on your intent. For example, you can use emails to distribute information and questions you need answers to. Use face-to-face meetings for longer discussions and project planning activities. Use group meetings to conduct reviews with multiple SMEs and for project updates, and use phone calls for quick questions or fast checks. If you see that a mode of communication isn't working, try something new.

Keep SMEs updated. You will probably be very busy during the project, but there will be periods of time when you don't need the SME's support. In these times, send a quick email to let them know what you're doing and when you'll need their assistance. Avoid long periods of silence to ensure the SME remains engaged and ready for action when called upon for help.

Final Thoughts

Mastering the art of SME management is not magic, but it is possible with planning, dedication and persistence. The end result (strong alliances with key experts in the organization) will help you achieve even more success in your future projects.

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