Subject matter experts (SMEs) are invaluable when it comes to writing content for many types of web projects. SMEs are the experts in their fields and know what information is vital to the success of your project. For eLearning projects in particular, SMEs are the backbone — after all, they are the experts in the topic for the course you’re trying to create. Without their collaboration, it would be impossible to design an engaging course that meets learning objectives.

But sometimes working with them can feel like a daunting task. They can be hard to reach, stuck on doing things their way, or… (gasp!) veto that great idea you had. However, they make your project the absolute best it can be by contributing a wealth of information you’re not going to get anywhere else, that makes your course relatable, relevant, and accurate.

To make the most of your time together, follow these tips:

Do your homework

You aren’t expected to know all there is to know about the subject matter; that’s why you’ve called in the experts. But some SMEs may experience anxiety that you don’t “get” their area of expertise. It can be comforting and help build rapport if you know a bit about their background and the language they use.

Get familiar with terms, jargon, keywords, and acronyms common in their field. Prepare for meetings and interviews by having a list of questions ready. Most SMEs will appreciate you showing an interest in and an understanding of their area of expertise. Your familiarity with their background and the language they use can alleviate some of their concerns.

Establish expectations

For most projects, SMEs are external stakeholders that don’t work directly on your team, so it’s important to set expectations and define roles up front.

Help them understand the time commitment and provide a project timeline that shows what meetings they need to attend and what deliverables you need from them and by when. Getting their dedication to deadlines is especially important when there’s a tight timeline.

Make sure they know how to communicate with you, and introduce them to the project’s workflow processes and tools. Being an effective communicator is critical to your project’s success and will ensure they are always in the loop.

Give examples

SME knowledge can be extensive, so letting them know what direction you’re going will help set expectations up front. If they know what the end goal is, they’ll jump in and start contributing faster than if they’re spinning their wheels and imagining something that you can’t create. Understanding the objective will help them know which information and source materials you’re looking for. Provide clear direction, set expectations, and show examples of what you’re working toward to significantly increase productivity and efficiency throughout the project.

Remove barriers

SMEs are busy people; they didn’t get to their level or position by sitting around or wasting time. Your project is most likely not their only commitment. Don’t let your processes become a barrier to their work. Instead, figure out how they like to work and what tools they like to use to help them work more efficiently. You may not always be able to accommodate every want, but it will go a long way toward building a relationship if you can make an effort. Some will prefer emails over a phone call, while others are just the opposite. Some may like a weekly email check-in, while others may want you to reach out only when you need their input.

Resolve conflicts

Even when all team members are on the same page and working toward the same goals, conflicts arise anyway. It can even be the experts themselves who are unable to agree on a term, process, or concept. When this happens, let cooler heads prevail, get together, and collaborate to hammer out the differences. Having a working session with stakeholders can yield much greater results than a back-and-forth email tag.

Be flexible

With any project, there will be things you aren’t prepared for; unforeseen challenges are just part of the process. Remain flexible with shifting priorities. The information your SMEs provide is critical to creating a good product, so be willing to work around their schedule. SMEs may have time constraints beyond their control, and you must adapt to and accommodate those obstacles to ensure that your project continues moving forward.

Sometimes SMEs will offer an idea or suggestion you have not considered, giving you a great opportunity to see things from a fresh perspective. Listen to their ideas to foster the collaborative process and create more engaging, impactful eLearning courses.

Give feedback

If what they’ve given you is working, let them know. If what they’ve given you needs improvement, let them know! Provide feedback by suggesting areas for improvement to help refine your finished product.
Know when to push back, but do so delicately. They’ve spent a lifetime learning about this, and sometimes it can be hard to let go of that “perfect” idea, sentence, or paragraph. This subject is their baby, but remember, you’re the instructional design expert who may know a better way to deliver the information.

Thank them

Throughout the project, and especially once it’s complete, show them how much you appreciate the time and knowledge they contributed. Send them an email thanking them, provide a link or images so they can see the fruits of their labor, and maybe create a certificate acknowledging their contribution.

Use this printable checklist to ensure that you make the most out of your time working with your subject matter experts.