Working With SMEs

Hi all,

I'm quite new to ID (about 18 months in, at moment mainly working in e-Learning space, have built 3 courses of ~20 modules). My question is this: what are the parameters and correct expectations when working with SME's?

For example, I've just received scenarios back from my SME and I've spent 2.5 hours revising, rewriting, fixing (and I provided clear instructions and coached on how to write them). So is this normal amount of time an ID should/would spend on making scenarios work? Is it too much time given we are paying them AUD$125 per hour? I'm also trying to factor in that I am a professional writer and qualified trainer and assessor, and they aren't. Also, who generally writes the assessments? So far I've found quality of assessment questions from SME's below par, but perhaps this is reflective of my point above (ie this is not their expertise). It's tricky because I am a solo ID, not in a team. Appreciate any input, even book or blog recommendations that might help with this kind of non-technical stuff.  

4 Replies
Sally Wiedenbeck

Personally I never want SMEs to write questions. It is too much too ask of people who don't do learning as their jobs. SMEs should help you define the goals and outcomes, but the instructional designer is the one who knows how to assess and evaluate. I do always have SMEs validate any assessments I create for content accuracy, but I have never had good luck with SMEs initially drafting assessments.

I actually approach scenarios similarly - I will interview SMEs about events and real-life situations, but I don't ask them to turn those into narrative scenarios for me. I write the scenario based on what I have learned in the interviews, and then the SMEs check for accuracy. They usually do find things I need to change, but the process of me writing and them validating is much faster and smoother than the other way around. In my experience, SMEs are typically grateful for this arrangement - they know that they are not teaching experts, and are glad for that support.

Karl Muller

Hi Peggy,

I've worked with a large variety of SMEs over a period of many years on course development projects.

The short answer is that your experience is fairly typical.

Regardless of extensive SME orientation at the start of a project, detailed processes, clear examples, SOPs, regular meetings and reviews, there has never been a project of mine that has gone off smoothly. This is not a complaint, simply stating the nature and complexities associated with working with SMEs. 

We all have different skill sets, and while a SME knows their field extremely well, they do not know ID, eLearning technology, understand scenarios, how to write questions and assessments, etc. We can't expect them to have or develop this skillset.  I've worked with very few SMEs that were able to design effective eLearning interactions, primarily because they don't understand the technology, and are not aware of what the technology is capable of. 

For these same reasons, most SME's struggle with visualizing the end result while working with "paper" design documents. Showing some completed online resources that are similar to what they will be creating can be very useful to help bridge that gap. 

Revising, rewriting, and fixing work done by a SME is to be expected and not uncommon. You will find that the output of SMEs improve over the duration of a project, but most likely will not progress to the point where you would like them to be. SMEs are not good course designers.

I have found that your typical SME is great with providing knowledge dumps, but even with a lot of direction struggles with quiz/exam questions and with assessments in general. As an experienced ID I still struggle with these same things. You need to provide a lot of guidance and coaching.

SMEs have the answers you need; they don't always how to give that information to you. Over time you will learn better ways to draw that information from them.

Tracy Carroll

Hi Peggy,

I agree with everything Sally said!  :)

I never ask SMEs to write scenarios, objectives, assessment questions, etc. They assist me in defining the project goals, and they evaluate the content I create for accuracy. 

Many times SMEs are focused on trying to include everything they know on a given subject, rather than focusing on the behavioral change desired. 


Peggy Hailstone

Sally, Karl, Tracy -- appreciate your responses and for openly sharing your expertise. The move to ID has been a massive learning curve, but one I am enjoying immensely. The experiences you guys have shared will help me avoid projecting unfair expectations onto my SMEs. With clearer parameters I  will also be able to communicate more clearly what I need from them.

Karl, you are right about SMEs learning as they move through a project. I was fortunate to have a really positive initial experience with an open-minded SME.  My second experience was completely different (harder rather than negative, but we got there in the end).

Tracy, I totally hear you on SMEs being focussed on including everything but kinda forgetting that the outcome is about behavioural change. Thanks for this reminder for me!

Sally, the key takeaway in what you said is SME validation -- rather than SME creation. This gave me a powerful shift. And while to some extent I've been doing this, I was not standing in it firmly.

I love Instructional Design