We have worked with many Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) over the years while building e-learning courses on a range of subjects. In this Blog Dorrien Venables, Project Manager at Bridgewater Learning with years of e-learning development experience, comments on some of the factors to consider when working with SMEs.

When creating an eLearning course, working with an effective Subject Matter Expert (SME) is one of the critical components to ensure the successful outcomes of a project. An SME has special, in-depth knowledge of a business area and their role is to guide other professionals on a project to ensure the content is relevant and accurate.

There are a number of key points to keep in mind when collaborating with an SME to get the correct information when needed, thus keeping the project on schedule and within budget.

  • Preparation:

Make sure you have done your homework before the first meeting with the SME. Ideally, create a preliminary content outline, a list of high-level objectives, and a set of interview questions. Do some background research of your own to familiarise yourself with the subject matter and create a project plan that includes details for content gathering as well as content reviews and approvals.

  • Support:

SMEs tend to be very busy people, so be prepared to ask meaningful questions within their realms of expertise. Make sure to keep their task as simple as possible by providing content development tools, processes, and techniques as well as providing technical and admin support as needed. Emphasise the benefits of re-producing what they know into eLearning; such as reduced training costs and improved on-the-job performance.

  • Clarify the roles:

Whether meeting virtually or face-to-face, it is worthwhile to plan your meetings and interactions with the SME. In a diplomatic and tactful way, be prepared to clarify all roles. Your role is to design the training; the subject matter expert’s role is to provide information on the topic. Often the most difficult issue dealing with a SME is not determining what content should be included, but rather what should be excluded. The tendency of SMEs to include too much information in the course is a primary concern.

  • Initial information gathering session:

Assuming that you are starting with an almost clean slate, the initial information gathering session with the SME must be well structured. In this meeting you need to review the topic, the learning needs, the audience, objectives and develop a basic agenda for how the knowledge can best be communicated; such as breaking larger blocks into shorter modules and how to best engage the learner.

  • Creating the first draft:

Task the SME to generate the required content in a given template, with simple text and any key graphics they like, no formatting or polish is needed. The template (in Word or PowerPoint) provided to the SME should include written instructions on the expected content, length, audience and key messages. The SME can use a basic audio tool such as Audacity to record the voice-over which complements the content in the template. This audio can then be transcribed and used to create the narrative script. If there is a reasonable set of resources available that the SME has already created you can go directly to creating a first pass script and storyboard.

  • Course development

Once the initial drafts for the script and storyboard have been created, meet with the SME to do a first pass edit on these documents. When the documents have been approved you can assemble and create media (with the assistance of the SME as required). A working version of the course can then be prepared whereby a facilitated meeting is held to review the deliverables, to remove concerns and adapt any necessary changes. It is important to have all the important stakeholders in the room during this session.

  • Final product

When a final delivery is prepared, try to stick to this as a “final” session. Occasionally another minor edit and delivery is required but this should be resisted if possible.

Fully engaging with an SME means asking for their opinion or insight, including them in important decisions, and keeping them abreast of changes or updates. When the SME is fully engaged from the beginning of the project, they will take appropriate ownership of the entire project, not just their part.