1 February

Working with Subject Matter Experts

What is an SME?  

SME (Subject Matter Expert) are professionals who have domain knowledge, skills & has built credibility in a specific field and work on the content side of the digital learning projects.  

 A good SME will have five main characteristics:  

  • Experienced and skilled in one (or a few) specialist area 
  • Forward thinker, will stay up to date with trends and technology 
  • Excellent problem solver, creates content to ease problems… not create them  
  • Powerful networker, leverages peer knowledge and that of other industry experts
  • Interpersonal skills, delivers high quality customer service 

Learn more about SME and Instructional Design with our Diploma

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The difference between an SME and an Instructional Designer 

Although the instructional designer (ID) is the creator and supervisor of the course, they are not always the domain expert of the content. Consequently, the instructional designer will rely heavily on SMEs and their knowledge to create successful digital learning content. 

3 Approaches to Managing SME’s 

In the same way that we recognise SMEs are not instructional designers, so too can we acknowledge all the great opportunities there are to work in partnership with these highly skilled industry experts to deliver high quality, engaging online courses.  

1) Onboarding the SME   

At the very beginning of a project, the Instructional Designer will have to set up a scoping meeting with the SME.  

Here are three main areas that should be focused on before and during your initial meeting:    

  1. Preparation: Before the first meeting with the SME, figure out what do they do, their position in their organisation and if they are an employee or external contractor. Try to determine if they have been involved in other digital learning projects.
  2. Communication: Applying the rule of thirds will ensure effective communication. Spend one third of the time getting to know each other, one third discussing the project and the final third establishing communication channels and schedules in the project.
  3. Project Plan: Use a simple SWOT analysis or Gannt chart to start mapping out risks and timelines. Leverage project planning technology like Asana, Trello or Monday to ease collaboration and create accountability for tasks and deadlines. It is also important to always build contingency time between feedback cycles and any deliverables, to stay on track with the final completion date and continue to manage the SME.  

2) Ongoing Collaboration with the SME  

It is important to note that the role of the Subject Matter Expert will change throughout the design and development process, henceforth it is important to constantly be working on the subject content with the SME.   

There are 3 main working models that can be used when working with Subject Matter Experts.   

  • SME leads: SME has the full ownership of the content, and the Instructional designer (ID) provides instructional design input. 
  • ID leads + SME reviews: Here the ID needs to have a very focused scoping & design process with the SME in the early stage of the project. The SME then needs to be project managed very carefully during the project and given a specific role at certain stages. 
  • Joint lead in the project: There is also scope for the two roles to both lead out on the project. In this scenario, it is important to agree role and responsibilities at the set-up stage. 

3) Dealing with challenges  

When working with SMEs, there may be various challenges that arise such as SMEs underestimating the time commitment or SMEs becoming non-responsive. Below we have outlined some ways to prevent the challenges from occurring.  

  • Manage deliverables- Excellent working relationships/ partnerships are formed when deliverables are managed and both parties are motivated & energised about a project. 
  • Clarify the role of the SME and what is expected of them at the outset. Start with easy, smaller deliverables to build up a sense of achievement and momentum, and then move on to larger deliverables.  
  • Motivate the SME- It’s hard to stay motivated from the exciting ideation phase of a project to completion and review stage. Be flexible, open to feedback and provide lots of assurance to the SME. Celebrate key milestone in the project and give plenty of encouragement.  

The Next Step

We are running a free webinar on Working with SMEs on the February 8th. This session will focus on displaying a digital learning project with a Dr Sandrine Peraldi , a Subject Matter Expert and faculty member at University College Dublin. During the webinar we’ll be walking through the stages of the process, challenges, tips for each step and her personal reflections. Click here to register.

The EdTech industry is constantly evolving, and new opportunities are being created every day. With our university credit-rated programmes in Digital Learning Design and Instructional Design, you can advance your career and become job ready as a specialist in digital learning design.


  • Reh, J., 2020. What Is a Subject Matter Expert?. The Balance Careers. Available at: here 
  • Jordan, T., 2021. How to Effectively Work with SMEs. Available at: here