4 Best Practices to Become an Awesome SME

image of people at a desk collaborating

Do you know your job really well? Has anyone ever asked you for help? Have you been asked to document processes for new employees or transferred your hard-earned on-the-job knowledge to others?

If you answered “Yes” – you might be an SME.

Generally, a subject matter expert, better known to you and me as an SME (some people like to say “Smeeee”, not me!) is a person who is considered to be an expert in their field, work, craft and/or hobby. In the field of instructional design, we work with SMEs every day to ensure our content is technically accurate. Without them our courses may look great but may lack the meat and potatoes needed to solve the business problem we were hired for. There are many areas we can discuss when it comes to SMEs but today, we’re going to look at four best practices to help move you from content expert to content aweSoME! (see what I did there?)


Awesome SMEs commit to the project. This means they understand their role and are A-OK with it. It also means that, even though they may not have contributed to the project plan, they know and understand the requirements to meet minor and major milestones and deliverables. They take it seriously and they show up – they attend the meetings, calls and review sessions. They become invested in the project and feel a sense of pride in their contributions and celebrate the success when the finished product is delivered. SMEs don’t need to live and breathe the project, but they do need to commit to their part of it and follow through with their required tasks on time.


You have lots of amazing knowledge in your head. In order to get it out of there you need to communicate! Share. Answer questions. Ask questions. Converse. Most importantly – be part of the conversation. It isn’t always possible to meet a deadline – we know! Real life interferes, you or someone on your team gets sick, takes a vacation, has competing priorities and urgencies occur. We get it! Just be sure to communicate – especially if there will be a delay to the agreed project as a result. If you can’t make a scheduled meeting – communicate it!

Awesome SMEs know that when those things happen, they communicate with the instructional designers and the rest of the project team. Lack of communication has been identified as one of the most common lessons learned at the end of a project. Usually this ties into missed meetings and delays experienced as a result of decreased communication. Don’t let that be you! Communicate, professionally and regularly, with your ID and project team.


As an ID, I rely heavily on the information provided to me by an SME. You truly OWN the content. It’s yours, it is in your head. It’s expected that every project will experience hiccups. As instructional designers and developers we know that the project we are working on together, “our” project, is just one of the many things you have on your plate. Often, “our” project is a side-of-the-desk project that gets attention when everything else is done. The problem with that is that something we need confirmed or reviewed ends up being put off and eventually forgotten. Awesome SMEs send courtesy responses to advise:

  • they have received the request
  • when the task will be completed

It doesn’t take long, and awesome SMEs acknowledge when you ask them things, especially when there will be a delay in getting their tasks done. It isn’t just a courtesy, it’s an SME lifestyle!


Accept that not everything you tell us will be included in the learning we create. Why? It likely isn’t relevant to the purpose of the course we are creating. When this happens your instructional designer will explain the connection between the content being presented to a learner and the objectives and established learning outcomes that were defined for the project. We know it’s difficult, you really know your stuff and you feel that something should be included. Awesome SMEs will let us know WHY they feel something needs to be included and tie the WHY back to helping solve the problem we were hired to address. And you know what? We do the same. We accept that we may need to make a change to include information.

One SME on a project for customer service software stomped their feet when we removed a question/answer that held no connection to the learning objectives and outcomes. They kept saying “you have to include this, you just have to”. It took several minutes of fact finding questions to understand that when this particular content was included in training sessions it significantly reduced calls to the IT Service Desk, something which ended up saving the company several thousand dollars a year.

The solution? We found a creative way to add the content in a “did you know” pop up. Calls to the service desk on this issue are still decreasing!

I just finished working on a really fun project with what I will classify as a “super aweSoME” SME! She committed to the project and attended every meeting we scheduled, communicated with me on a regular basis, responded to my inquiries promptly, even if she didn’t have an immediate answer, and she accepted that some of the things she thought should be in the course may be better left out – since those pieces of information didn’t contribute to the overall objectives of the course.  I shared with her that I put her in my “super aweSoME” category and she said that I was also an awesome SME because I helped her understand e-learning development. I seldom think of myself as an SME, but it’s true – I am an e-learning, instructional design, and development SME. I know it’s a tough job. And I, for one, appreciate awesome SMEs when I work with them!

What’s your story? What do you do that makes you an awesome SME?