4 steps to high-powered SME relationships

June 5, 2012

This post is cross-posted on the ATD Learning & Development Blog. It’s also the first in a series on coaching and working with subject-matter experts.

Sometimes, it seems like “SME” is a four-letter word.

Love ’em or hate ’em, though, you need your subject-matter experts. Whether they’re just content providers or also lead learning opportunities, working with SMEs can be challenging. Your priorities aren’t theirs. Missed deadlines, inadequate facilitation skills, and “interesting” ideas about what effective learning looks like are common. Even if some are dedicated and know what they’re doing, the result is inconsistency for learners. Sound familiar?

Learning opportunities are at their best when a solid, productive partnership exists between learning professionals and subject-matter experts. Learning expertise plus content expertise, focused on what is best for learners, is a powerful combination.

The key that opens everything up is having a quality relationship. A great relationship built on trust and mutual respect allows you and your SMEs to focus less time and effort battling each other and more on meeting learner needs. And it all starts with you.

Whether your SMEs are volunteers or “voluntold,” you can establish or enhance your relationships with them by taking a few initial steps. These four steps – using them together, not sequentially – get you started along the road to better relationships and, ultimately, stronger partnerships with your SMEs.

1. Assume good intentions. Chances are nobody ever set out to do a bad job for you. When something happens, it’s typically because SMEs often don’t know what they don’t know.

2. Beware of making any other assumptions. Because they know the content, do you assume your SMEs know how to lead learning opportunities? Or that because an SME is a great face-to-face facilitator she’ll do a great job online? Perhaps you assume SMEs will talk in terms learners will understand, or that they know how to engage learners. Making assumptions like these can be akin to “managing by hope,” and may be at the root of any challenges you’re experiencing.

3. Find out what concerns them. Have you ever made time to just talk with your SMEs, one-on-one, to learn what they’re concerned about in working with you? After learning about enhancing relationships in my webinar, Essentials of Coaching SMEs to Facilitate Learning, a participant once shared she did just that. It was like a wall came down, she reported, and was clearly the start of a stronger partnership that would benefit learners.

4. Discover what motivates them. You can’t give anyone motivation; it has to come from within. Every SME is motivated by something; perhaps giving back, or exposure to the audience. Maybe the motivation is a paycheck, or the expectations of others. Talk with your SMEs about what motivates them to work with you . Whatever those motivations are, you can use them to both inspire your SMEs and enhance their performance.

Like any worthwhile relationship, the relationship you have with your SMEs takes work to nurture and develop. Yet it’s the foundation of all the work you’ll do together. How? In a future post, learn four things to consider as you build your SME relationships that will impact the work you do together.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Beth Knapp July 19, 2013 at 10:29 am

Hi Kathleen,

It is serendipity that I came across your name. It is a longish, twisted story, but I’m glad your name crossed my path.

If you haven’t heard of us, Quality Matters Program is a non-profit focused on improving the quality of online education. We have standards and training used in reviewing and improving courses.

I plan conferences for QM and am very interested in improving the presentations particularly at our annual conference.

Thank you for this article!




Kathi July 22, 2013 at 1:28 am

I’m glad you find the post helpful, Beth! So many organizations work with subject-matter experts, yet most…or many of them…don’t pay sufficient attention to developing these SMEs’ knowledge and skills in leading effective learning. And SMEs who lead conference sessions are no exception–in fact, they may need even more support!

I hadn’t heard of Quality Matters Program previously, so I took a look at your website. It sounds like your organization is doing some great work! I’m pretty familiar with the challenges of reviewing programs against established standards; in addition to my other work, I’m a qualified lead assessor for the Certificate Accreditation Program of the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), which is based on E2659, an American National Standard.

I’m working on some follow-up posts to build on this one; meanwhile, if you have any questions let me know!



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