How to establish SME relationships

When you are designing a learning experience, whether it be a one-time face-to-face session or a full-on e-learning implementation for your organization, it is likely that 90% of your content is coming from a Subject Matter Expert (SME). The effectiveness of the course and your experience while developing it depends largely on the rapport you establish with the SME. Here are a few ways, from my experience, that you as an instructional designer can establish a positive relationship with the SME from the get-go.

Be assertive and confident. I state this first as I had previously underestimated the part that being fearless played in interactions with SMEs. With the intention of showing respect for the depth of knowledge the SME has on the topic, you may allow them to lead the conversation.  However, the more assertive you are in establishing both your role and your needs from them, the more effectively you can draw the information that you need from the SME.

Learn the essentials of the subject matter. I’ve found that the quickest way to establish rapport and win the trust of the SME is to show understanding of the subject. An SME quickly trusts your ability to turn the content into an effective learning experience when they believe that you “get it”. While it can be argued that your role is not to know the subject, but bring the expertise of learning design, understanding the basics about the subject makes working with the SME much easier.

Susan Cain ties my #1 and #2 together beautifully in her book Quiet: “True self-esteem comes from competence, not the other way around.” The more you know about the topic and the more prepared that you are, the more confident and assertive you can be while speaking with your SME.

Establish some ground rules. As much as your SME would like to hand you the content and be done with it, you are going to need them at various stages throughout the project. Based on their schedules and other responsibilities, your project isn’t likely to be high on their priority list. It is critical to state your needs up front – at what stages will you need content reviews, do you want these to be in-person meetings or online document reviews. If at all possible, set up a standing meeting with your SME at a frequency you both agree to throughout the project. Have a specific agenda for each meeting and keep them brief. This way, you make effective use of their time and you are also guaranteed the involvement and feedback that you need.

Meet in the middle. As the lead instructional designer, your role is to determine the best way to present the content to the learner. However, your SME may have a strong opinion on this and you may need to determine how much of their opinion you will apply. Pick your battles wisely. When it comes to developing an e-learning, you may need to carefully explain why a recommendation may not be the best idea. However, if you are working on a FTF training that the SME is delivering, you are better off giving in to their requests.

Don’t try to manage the relationship alone.  Working with SMEs can be intimidating. They usually have packed schedules, expect you to work on their terms and quite often have personalities that require some getting used to. All that said, don’t feel like you have to figure them out alone. Turn to peers or others outside your team that may have worked with them longer than you have, to understand what drives them. When I started in one of my roles, I was taken aback by how direct an SME was and often offended by his rude emails. Upon sharing my frustration with a colleague,  I learned this wasn’t unique to me and I learned to not take it personally, relieving the stress that otherwise surrounded the interaction.

There are my tips shared from experience. How do you navigate difficult SME relationships? Share your thoughts in the comments!


SME relationships contribute largely to the success of learning projects, and no surprise that it is widely written about. Here are a few other resources with some great tips!

Working with Subject Matter Experts: The Ultimate Guide by Christopher Pappas

Working with your Subject Matter Expert from the TechSmith Blog 




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