Hitting the “Sweet Spot”: Getting the Most Out of SME Partnerships during Course Development

I am always excited to find the elusive “sweet spot” with Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) when designing and developing a technical training course. That is the spot where you have a truly collaborative partnership with SMEs leading to:

  • Minimal client revisions to materials,
  • An enjoyable course development experience,
  • Training that is timely, accurate, and instructionally sound, and
  • A development process that meets project timelines with minimal stress.

SMEs are often chosen for their expertise in a course topic, but frequently they are fitting time to assist with course development into an already full workload. However, you must have their timely input to create a technically accurate and instructionally sound course and to meet project timelines. Start strategizing early about what you will do to build a collaborative relationship, to obtain the input you need, and to help SMEs maximize the time they spend proving content and reviewing materials. Here are four strategies for cultivating effective SME partnerships.


  • At the project onset, ask your project manager and SMEs for the key resources (e.g., websites, policy documents, SOPs, training materials, assessment results) related to the training you’ll be developing.
  • Spend time reviewing content prior to meeting with SMEs. Mark up the source materials for key points, write down your questions, and identify key tasks and knowledge that will support course goals.
  • Start a course outline if you feel you have enough information. Include SME questions in your outline. If you do not have enough content, prepare to conduct a Task Analysis by interviewing SMEs, or ask them to provide a high-level outline prior to beginning the course design.
  • If there are topics or tasks that seem challenging for participants, highlight these and ask about them later so that you can understand which areas of the training might need more depth or practice.


  • Some SMEs may not be familiar with the development process you are using, whether it is the ADDIE (Analysis, Design, Development, Implementation, Evaluation) or Agile process. At the beginning of the project, provide a presentation explaining the design approach and outlining the steps in course development. Include why each element is important and detail the SME role and time requirements for each step.
Man and woman talking at a table with laptops
  • Provide clarity on timelines, including the time it will take to interview SMEs for content or task analysis, time to review draft deliverables, when meetings will occur, and the time you will need for them to respond to questions via email or phone. Ask SMEs whether they prefer you to email questions as you have them, or periodically (e.g., once per week). Schedule review meetings early before SME schedules, and yours, get full.
  • Enlist your project manager’s support in helping coordinate your access to SMEs and ensuring their timely reviews. You should also work with their supervisors to make sure there is agreement about goals, time expectations, and schedules.
  • Provide detailed interview protocols and meeting agendas for all SME meetings. Also, consider developing a SME Review Cover Sheet and provide this to direct their review of deliverables. Include exactly what you need from them, such as verifying the content is accurate, identifying any missing pieces, and making sure that course materials accurately reflect the target audience’s performance expectations. If there are multiple SME reviewers, request that comments are agreed-upon by all reviewers and consolidated prior to sending them back to you. This avoids having to conduct additional meetings to resolve differing SME comments.


  • This could be the first time your SMEs have worked on a training course, especially one using interactive adult learning techniques such as role-plays, case studies, and small group exercises (vs. slide-driven presentations). Use your meeting time with SMEs to explain the reason for interactions you suggest and ask them to help you understand how best to design these so that participants will easily be able to apply what they learn to their jobs.
  • Explain the importance of understanding the target audience and ask questions about the audience and what is most important to them.
  • Explain learning objectives and their importance. Ask SMEs about their expected learning and performance outcomes to assist you in writing these learning objectives.


  • Be on time with anything you have promised to provide and exceed SME expectations by showing your command of the content.
  • Act with initiative in figuring things out for yourself whenever possible. And, push back if you ever disagree with SME ideas about training approaches by constantly tying your questions and ideas to the foundations of adult learning. For example, sometimes SMEs may want to include every detail they know, or every legal exception. In this case, help SMEs distinguish between the “need to know” information foundational to participants’ daily work vs. the “nice to know” information participants can access using resources and job aids.
  • Make things as easy as possible for SMEs by writing emails formatted in simple bulleted questions and providing templates they can use to develop case studies and examples.

Whether your course is on financial skills, emergency management, flight inspections, or international trade (to name a few I have worked on!), applying these principles goes a long way toward developing a trusted partnership with SMEs, an efficient development process, and most importantly a fantastic training product!

Kathleen Bellis joined FMP in September 2018 and works with the Learning and Development Center of Excellence on all aspects of learning and development solutions including classroom and virtual instructor-led learning, web-based training, video development, learning needs assessment, strategy, and evaluation. She is an expert at developing innovative and customized solutions that focus on the transfer of learning to the job. Kathleen has just taken up pickleball and enjoys getting lost in a great book.