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I’ll be 100% honest when I say that I struggle working with difficult subject matter experts. The fact is, I get frustrated when they want to control every aspect of the course I’m developing or when they are continually late with their feedback. Am I right?!

Well, as I’ve mentioned before, the relationship between you and your subject matter experts is important: they possess the information you need to solve their problems! And as much as we may all love the idea of never having to deal with our difficult SMEs, there’s simply no avoiding them—it’s part of our job.

Over the years, I’ve worked with a lot of different types of subject matter experts, some easier than others, and I’ve picked up a few tips and tricks when it comes to dealing partnering with them.

I wanted to share those with you today. Enjoy!

The Know-Nothing Subject Matter Expert

The know-nothing subject matter expert

The first type of subject matter expert you might encounter is the Know-Nothing SME. Usually, these SMEs are easy to identify, as they have no idea what’s going on!

Does this sound familiar?

“Are you serious?! John had no idea why you were meeting with him? He didn’t even know about the new procedure? What do you mean he couldn’t answer any of your questions? Does John even work here?”

How do you deal with these types of subject matter experts?

Dealing with a Know-Nothing SME can be a bit tricky. Obviously, you can’t tell them they know nothing; and yet, you still need to obtain information from them for your project.

When working with a Know-Nothing SME…

  • Educate them about their role in the project and why you need them.
  • Ask open-ended questions about the subject matter and their expertise, rather than the project itself.
  • Continually reinforce your need for their knowledge and participation.

The Control Freak Subject Matter Expert

The control freak subject matter expert

The second type of subject matter expert you will regularly encounter is the Control Freak SME. Usually, these SMEs are very overzealous about their role in the project—they think they own it and they want to own every aspect of it.

Does this sound familiar?

“Do you mean to tell me that you edited the slides Jerry provided and schedule a meeting without running it past him first? What do you mean you used blue for the buttons, when Jerry sent over that shade of burnt orange?! You know how much Jerry likes burnt orange! How dare you!”

How do you deal with these types of subject matter experts?

Dealing with a Control Freak can feel like a game of 3D chess. Your goal is to maintain control of the project, while making the SME feel like they have all of the control.

When working with a Control Freak SME…

  • Establish clearly defined roles and responsibilities during the project kickoff meeting.
  • Give them the opportunity to voice their opinions and ideas, and let them know when you agree and why you disagree.
  • Explain the value and reasoning of your design decisions and be willing to incorporate their ideas when appropriate.

The Know-It-All Subject Matter Expert

The know-it-all subject matter expert

The third type of subject matter expert is similar to the Control-Freak, but with a lot more ego! The Know-It-All SME takes the “expert” part of their role a little too literally. They believe they are the only ones who can be trusted to provide you the “right” information, and they expect you to include it all in your eLearning course.

Does this sound familiar?

“What do you mean you referenced the company policy when drafting that storyboard?! Forget that! Don’t you know Bob obtained his online certificate back in ’98? He even used Excel to build his wife’s macramé website. He’ll tell you how it really works around these parts!”

How do you deal with these types of subject matter experts?

Dealing with a Know-It-All will always challenge your abilities as an instructional designer and project manager. Your goal is to help them understand why your learners don’t really need to know everything.

When working with a Know-It-All SME…

  • Focus your questions on what learners need to do, rather than what they need to know.
  • Help them understand and reinforce the concepts of adult learning, including the need to chunk the content and avoid cognitive overload by dumping too much information.
  • Bring additional subject matter experts to the table to diversify the ideas and opinions.

The Missing-In-Action Subject Matter Expert

The missing-in-action subject matter expert

The fourth type of subject matter expert is a bit of a mystery, as you rarely see them at all! The Missing-In-Action SME is someone who has decided for one reason or another that they don’t need to respond to your emails, show up to your meetings, or have any participation in the project whatsoever.

Does this sound familiar?

“You must have felt so relieved that one time when Kelly decided to attend your review meeting. But don’t hold your breath! She fooled you with her new-found dedication to the project—Kelly will vanish as mysteriously as she appeared.”

How do you deal with these types of subject matter experts?

Dealing with a Missing-In-Action SME is not fun for you or anyone else participating in the project. Their absence has the potential to derail and delay everything.

When working with a Missing-In-Action SME…

  • Draft a project plan that clearly outlines their responsibilities to the project.
  • Manage their involvement in the project by scheduling live review sessions and sending follow-up emails after each meeting, with clearly defined action items.
  • Create a paper trail of your attempts to involve them in the project. And if you can move on without their involvement, then do it.

The Too Busy Subject Matter Expert

The too busy subject matter expert

The final type of subject matter expert is the Too Busy SME. Typically, these types of SMEs don’t know how to use the calendar feature on their new phone and has somehow managed to accept two other meetings that conflict with the one you already scheduled.

Does this sound familiar?

“What do you mean you can’t find time on Susan’s calendar? She expects to be included in any meetings you schedule regarding this project. I know she doesn’t have an opening on her calendar for the next three weeks, so maybe you should try warping the fabric of space and time to make it work!”

How do you deal with these types of subject matter experts?

Dealing with a Too Busy SME is a challenge, as they have a legitimate desire to be involved in the project, but don’t have the actual time to dedicate to it.

When working with a Too Busy SME…

  • Create and communicate a project timeline that clearly defines their level of involvement.
  • Schedule meetings as far in advance as possible, before their calendar is full.
  • Ask them to identify a back-up person who can attend meetings and make decisions on their behalf.

The Bottom Line

While it’s not fun to work with these different types of subject matter experts, you have the ability to make your life a little easier by employing some simple strategies and tactics.

If you’d like to learn more about managing your eLearning projects, check out this post.

What other types of subject matter experts have you encountered and what tips can you share for dealing with them? Share your ideas by commenting below!

Tim Slade

Hi, I’m Tim Slade, and I’m a speaker, author, and founder of The eLearning Designer's Academy. Having spent the last decade working to help others elevate their eLearning and visual communications content, I have been recognized and awarded within the eLearning industry multiple times for my creative and innovative design aesthetics. I’m also a regular speaker at international eLearning conferences, a LinkedIn Learning instructor, and author of The eLearning Designer’s Handbook.

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