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Subject Matter Experts: The 5 Keys to SME Onboarding

In my last blog I talked about the importance of making Subject Matter Experts a key part of your instructional design team. However, one of the things I often see teams miss is the importance of adequately onboarding those SMEs. Sometimes it is tight deadlines or the inability to get time on everyone’s calendars; but, most often it is simply the result of poor planning. In this blog I will share with you five tips on how to make SME onboarding a breeze.

The first thing to remember is that SME onboarding doesn’t have to be a meeting or a conference call; though I do admit that it is my preferred method. How you decide to onboard your SMEs will depend on your team’s personal style. It could be in a well worded email or as a team agreement or technical document. It is really up to you. What is more important than the HOW is WHAT you communicate.

Here are the top 5 things that every SME onboarding should include:

  1. Set Clear Expectations – Often SMEs are assigned by their managers or an enterprise point of contact. They often have no clue what will be expected of them. It is important to make sure they are aware of how much of their time will be allocated to SME tasks such as content gathering and reviews.

  2. Define Roles – Make sure that the SME understands not only their role but the roles of the others on the team. It is important that they understand that the instructional designer is responsible for creating the learning content, the project manager is responsible for managing the timeline, and the project lead is responsible for making the project cohesive. The messaging will depend on the team makeup, but the knowing each team member’s role will allow the SME to more productive.

  3. Define Timeline and Processes – SMEs are often part-time resources. Rarely have I had a SME that was 100% allocated to my instructional design project. Because of this it is important to define the overall timeline of the project as well as the part of the process where the SME is integral. For example, make sure the SME knows how much time they will have to respond to any request for information or reviews.

  4. Coach to the Tools – We use all kinds of tools when developing learning. This includes rapid design tools, spreadsheets, slide deck, and templates. It is important to coach SMEs on how they will interact with these tools. Make sure they know how these tools will be used and how they will impact the work that they are doing on the project.

  5. Demonstrate Actionable Feedback – One of the most critical aspects of the SME role is providing feedback during review cycles. And often, the most difficult part of the designer’s job is deciphering the feedback that the SME provides. I find that demonstrating to the SME the value of actionable feedback makes the review process easier for both the SME and the designer. Providing feedback that is clear and actionable reduces the amount of follow-up, secondary reviews, and rework.

In Summary

Next time you bring on a new (or experienced) Subject Matter Expert, make sure that you equip them to be successful by giving them the tools necessary to do the job. You can customize these recommendations for your particular project by asking yourself the following questions:

  • What expectations do I have of the SME?

  • Which roles do I have on the project and what are their responsibilities?

  • What do the project timeline and processes look like from the SME point of view?

  • What tools will the SME need to know how to use?

  • How would I like to receive feedback from the SME and what should it look like?

Every hour you invest in onboarding will pay off down the road. We’ve found that instructional design teams with a structured SME onboarding approach experience significantly fewer development and review delays that teams without such a process. To find out more about the BCR onboarding approach, email me at .


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