Tips for Effective Collaboration with Subject Matter Experts

Tasha Weaver, MA
Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) are critical members of any course design team, for their contributions to both the course content and the cost of the project (Bedell, 2018). A SME can identify and prioritize the content needed to address critical course learning objectives, and she can do this efficiently, saving the designer hours of research. The question is: how can you, as the designer, best partner with the SME to create an effective learning experience for students? The following presents some tips and best practices for collaboration.

Be Prepared

Preparation will increase the efficiency of the project. It will also help you to gain credibility. Before you meet with the SME, there are a few things you can do to prepare.

First, develop a work plan based on the goals and timeline for the project. It doesn’t need to be formal. A bulleted list of steps with targeted due dates can guide your conversation with the SME as you review the design process.

Second, communicate your goals. Do you need to leave the meeting with an approved course outline in order to stay on schedule? Let the SME know that ahead of time so she knows what to expect. Even better, send a draft of the outline prior to the meeting.

Finally, document your questions and suggestions, based on the information that you have so far. If this is a new course design, you might only have a course description and learning outcomes. If it’s a redesign, you might have access to the current course materials and course analytics. Review what you have and be ready to talk about it.

Establish Expectations

You and the SME should be clear on what each of you will do and when. To facilitate this, you may first want to walk through the work plan you prepared. What role will each of you play in each step? Share your thoughts on what you can contribute, and give the SME time to do the same.

You should also remember to keep the plan realistic. If the SME is going to be out of town or otherwise unavailable at some point, you’ll need to adjust your work plan.

Appreciate the SME’s Expertise

The SME knows what her expertise is. You know what her expertise is. It’s still valuable to say that out loud – to recognize why this person was selected for this project and why you’re glad she’s on the team.

In addition to the content expertise the SME can provide, she may also have expertise relevant to the specific course you’re designing. If this is a new design, the SME may have insight into what the students want and need to learn. If this is a redesign, the SME may be able to identify aspects of the current course that often cause students to stumble.

Share Your Expertise

You’re the instructional designer. While that may mean something very specific to you, your field of expertise may be a bit hazy to the SME. Clarify what you can contribute to the design process. Even better, clarify how your skills will make the SME’s life easier. Knowing that you will organize the content into a course outline, identify effective instructional methods, and figure out what multimedia is needed can bring relief to a busy SME.

Follow up After Meetings

Most people have multiple meetings and tasks on any given day. By the end of the day, the SME may not remember what she committed to in your 9:00 a.m. meeting. Send a follow up email with the agreements you made, as well as each person’s next steps. This isn’t about being the boss…it’s just about sending a helpful reminder to confirm what the SME will do and what you will do.

Address Challenges

So you’ve come prepared, established expectations, acknowledged how you each will contribute, and followed up. Difficulties can and will still come up. Here are suggestions for working through some common challenges.

You don’t know the SME, and the SME doesn’t know you. In many cases, the SME is identified by the lead faculty or other departmental leader, not the designer. In these cases, the tips for being prepared and appreciating/sharing expertise are particularly important to establishing credibility with the SME and identifying what you each can contribute.

The SME disagrees with the basis of the project. You’re redesigning a face-to-face course into an online format, and the SME doesn’t think that is appropriate. Or the course is pre-determined to be 12 weeks, while the SME believes it should be 15 weeks. Whatever the details, there are things you can do to keep the project on track and within the required parameters.

First, provide the context of the project at your initial meeting with the SME. Is there a policy from the state department of education that necessitates a change? Is there a university-wide initiative that requires a re-design? Be clear about what the parameters are and why they exist.

Next, identify alternatives where there is flexibility. Some parameters may be out of your control, but you should explore the design options that are available. For example, you could discuss strategies for preserving face-to-face elements of the course online through technology. You might be able to move lower priority content to optional resources or enrichment opportunities.

The SME doesn’t have time for design work. Often, SMEs have a full time job in addition to their design work with you. So it’s important to identify the SME’s preferred method and frequency of communication early in the project. Whether you use in-person meetings, phone calls, or emails, it’s often useful to set up check-ins at regular intervals. Save your non-urgent questions or requests for those check-in meetings, to avoid overwhelming the SME with daily requests.

You can also commit to do what you can to reduce the SME’s workload. For example, you might provide a draft document for her to react to, rather than asking her to start from scratch. You could ask the SME to recommend appropriate journals and then offer to do the legwork of identifying external resources for a course.

In my experience, implementing these practices saves time, effort, and frustration in the project and results in an effective course design. What additional tips do you have?


Tasha Weaver is an instructional designer at Franklin University, designing courses for students at Franklin and for external clients both in the U.S. and abroad. Before arriving at Franklin, Tasha was a Director of Performance Improvement and Training at Nationwide, where she led organization-wide change management initiatives. Tasha earned a Master’s degree in Psychology from The Ohio State University and a bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Denison University.

Blog Category: 
Instructional Design