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How to Manage Subject Matter Experts

How to Manage Subject Matter Experts


  1. Identifying and Reaching Out to Subject Matter Experts
  2. Collaboration Strategies with Subject Matter Experts
  3. Practice Active Listening and Avoid Assumptions
  4. Effective Communication with Subject Matter Experts
  5. Overcoming Challenges in Subject Matter Expert Collaboration
  6. Leveraging Subject Matter Expert Knowledge for Project Success
  7. Managing Feedback and Involvement of Subject Matter Experts
  8. Celebrating Success and Building Long-Term Relationships
  9. The Immense Value of Subject Matter Experts

Being a master of all trades is…impossible!

When building the best training module or developing a transformative course, you may know exactly how to present your content in the most engaging way possible. But what about the subject matter? How do you ensure your resource offers a truly detailed view of the topic, especially when it comes to niche domains? SMEs or subject matter experts can help bridge that knowledge gap! 

What is a subject matter expert? As the term suggests, SMEs are the top experts from various industries, who have developed their knowledge over years or decades working in that field. Their expertise goes much beyond what one would find with a simple Google search. Think tech leads who are actually working on the latest innovations. Think marketing executives who are shaping the future of their industry. Think sales experts who have knowledge that can only be developed with on-ground experience. Or really, any professional with the know-how that you are hoping to bring out in your learning resource.

But reaching out to SMEs, engaging them in your project, managing them and collaborating with them efficiently, can make for a complicated process. Here, we will discuss how you can streamline the engagement.

Identifying and Reaching Out to Subject Matter Experts

Finalize your topic

The first step to finding the right experts is knowing what expertise you’re looking for. Establish the topic of your learning resource and chalk out exactly what you’d like to cover under it. For example – under the broader domains of ‘HR practices’ or ‘technology’, you may need someone who specializes in DEI initiatives or cybersecurity. Identifying this will help you seek out the right SMEs for the project.

Identifying the Right Experts

The next step – visit the platforms your SMEs may frequent. LinkedIn is a great place to start. Their sophisticated search functions enable you to easily identify thought leaders in each profession. You can also browse through X (formerly known as Twitter), or try searching on Slack communities for specific industries. For instance, ‘Resources For Humans’ is the largest HR community on Slack with over 19000 members. ‘LearnedCounsel’ is a great community if you are looking for law professionals. Do also search within your personal networks for word-of-mouth references.

Once you shortlist some SMEs, visit their profiles and browse through their work. Their posts should give you a good idea of what that SME is passionate about and what domain they specialize in. This way, you can find a professional who will be able to contribute meaningfully to your project.

Best Practices for Reaching Out

Found the subject matter expert you want to engage with? It’s time to reach out and see whether they would be up for a collaboration. Send them a short, specific introductory message – a request that is too broad or vague is likely to be ignored. Tell them just what your project will be about and what part of their experience you are hoping to tap into. Give them a quick idea of what it will involve for them – in terms of time, engagement and availability.

Don’t forget to add that personal touch for best results! Have you seen them present their work at a conference before? Is there an opinion they posted about recently that you particularly enjoyed? Include these details to establish a quicker connection.

Collaboration Strategies with Subject Matter Experts

Understand the SME’s priorities

You want your subject matter experts to be suitably experienced, but being experts in their fields also means they are likely to be very busy! With their own targets and workloads to juggle, your project may not be their first priority. Build a streamlined process that makes the most of their limited time. If you inundate them in paperwork or operational tasks, you are likely to face delays at their end, citing busy schedules!

Align on the mode of communication

Reach an agreement about how you will be collaborating with your subject matter expert. Can they share their insights over an email or a questionnaire, or will there be a video interview, a recorded call or a live session?

Different methods will work for different SMEs so be open to diverse approaches and suggest alternatives where necessary. For example, an SME from a different time zone might prefer asynchronous communication like filling shared Google sheets and questionnaires. Others may just prefer to share their expertise over interview calls.

Practice Active Listening and Avoid Assumptions

The Importance of Active Listening

Too many project managers jump right into the topic without thinking about the human aspect of the engagement. Unsurprisingly, they soon run into issues around communication and relatability.

It’s important to establish common ground with your subject-matter experts first. Ensure that the conversation is a two-way street by expressing interest in the topic and showing them that you are engaged throughout the discussion. This helps them loosen up and have an open conversation. Since their topic may be very niche, you may need to engage with them very deeply – asking questions, seeking clarifications, and requiring them to explain certain concepts more than once. Having a good rapport with the SME can prove invaluable.

Avoiding Assumptions about SME Perspectives

If you don’t understand parts of what the SME is saying, don’t fill in those gaps with your own perspectives. Assumptions stemming from improper understanding can result in your learning resource being colored by biases or inaccuracies. Listen with an open mind, and double check your understanding of concepts where needed.

This extends to assumptions about the SMEs themselves. If the discussion gets too complex or veers off into an unexpected direction, don’t presume that they are being unhelpful or dismissive. The disconnect could be due to many reasons. Maybe the SME is not used to simplifying the topic. Maybe they have a different worldview. Or maybe they simply did not understand what you were looking for.

Effective Communication with Subject Matter Experts

Align Your Perspectives

While the SME is an authority on the topic, you bring in the course design expertise. You know exactly what your learners will be looking for, and how you can make the resource engaging. Address this difference in perspectives right at the start, so there is a mutual understanding of why the other person may be making the decisions they’re making.

This can ease collaboration in a lot of ways. For instance, if your subject matter expert is going too deep into the topic, find out why that is. Perhaps they are very passionate about the subject, or are just used to talking to other SMEs who have the same level of knowledge as them. In this situation, you can use your course development expertise to intervene and bring the project back on track.

Setting Clear Expectations

As you begin working with the SME, establish clear guidelines. Make sure they know how you’ll need them to share their knowledge. Do they need to shoot an explainer video? Do you require them to host a training session? Will they have to share their knowledge through a written document?

Set timelines and project milestones that work for you as well as the SME. Frequent follow-ups or unscheduled call requests may put undue pressure on them. So establish the frequency of calls and update discussions that you will have to streamline the process further.

Simplifying Workflow and Payments

While it is always a good idea to discuss all guidelines and expectations, there’s a lot to be said about having the right systems and tools in place! This can eliminate endless logistical issues down the line.

For instance, imagine the confusion that can arise from using multiple communication channels. With contracts sent over email, briefs shared verbally over a call, SME inputs sent through a shared document or video clippings, feedback left as comments, the chances of something falling through the cracks are endless!

A system like TalentDesk functions as a comprehensive communication tool that helps ease collaboration. You can simply add the SME and other stakeholders to your project board, bringing everyone on the same page. You can then use our platform to share the necessary demos and examples with your SMEs, and ensure they have whatever access they need to collaborate effectively.

Payment transparency is another factor that helps streamline SME engagements. It gives your subject matter experts visibility on how, when and where they will get paid. Here again, the payment functions of a system like TalentDesk can be invaluable. You can add all your SME payment details on our portal, approve invoices with a single click and let our automated payment process do the rest. 

Not only does this save you operational hassle, it also assures your SMEs that they will be paid as scheduled, without the need for awkward follow-ups and reminders.

Overcoming Challenges in Subject Matter Expert Collaboration

Engaging Uninterested SMEs

In some cases, project managers report having trouble getting timely inputs from the SMEs due to disinterest or detachment from the project. Have open conversations to find out exactly what is causing them to feel this way.

One reason could be because they don’t see the greater purpose of the project – they are too far removed from the end users. Reiterating why your e-learning resource is important can help. Point out exactly whom it will benefit, what difficulties will it help learners overcome and how.

You can also revisit your mutual interest in the task. After all, the SME had to have had some motivation to sign up for this project in the first place, so reminding them of this can be useful.

Addressing Busy Schedules

Sometimes, the challenges may just be due to the subject matter expert being too busy. If they are facing an unexpected deadline or a particularly difficult phase at work, that could explain why they are not being able to make time for your project.

Initiate a frank discussion to understand their challenges and set realistic timelines, keeping their workload in mind. You may need to revisit some of your original deadlines if required.

Breaking down the project into smaller milestones can make it much more doable for the SMEs – and make it less overwhelming than the prospect of putting together and delivering the bulk of the material all at once. Set reporting processes and project milestones to monitor progress. This tells the SME when they need to check in, without the stress of you having to follow up.

At TalentDesk, our project management capabilities can help manage some of these issues. The comprehensive project dashboard lets you break down tasks, set end dates for each, and immediately spot a delay or a missed deadline. Of course, as any manager would know, it’s important to keep some time as a buffer to protect your project against unexpected delays. This is especially true for SME engagements, keeping in mind that this is likely not part of their primary priorities.

Bridging Differences in Perspective

Understanding the course workflow and getting a view of how the content will be presented can help the SME see the big picture – and tailor their inputs accordingly. Take them through your tool or platform so they know how learners will consume the content you put out. This is another great way to help your subject matter experts deliver relevant content.

Leveraging Subject Matter Expert Knowledge for Project Success

Integrating SME Expertise into Strategies

Don’t just tell your SMEs what to do – use their expertise to shape your e-learning strategies too. If they are focussed on or are visibly more excited about one part of the subject, this can tell you something important. Maybe this is where the industry is heading or where the biggest knowledge gap is.

Not only can you use this insight to create a more valuable module now, it can also uncover potential opportunities for subsequent resources.

Utilizing SME Knowledge Effectively

That said, while your SME may have a wealth of information on the topic, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are good trainers or educators. Even if the content they offer is very relevant, it will not work well if presented in an overly dry or technical way.

Give them the training they need to make their insights more consumable for the audience. From advising them on different formats to helping them with scripts and video tips, you can influence the project’s success in crucial ways. Timely guidance can help reduce the number of iterations, thus making it a pleasant experience for all.

Managing Feedback and Involvement of Subject Matter Experts

Incorporating SME Feedback

After the SME shares their insights, incorporate their knowledge into your project – and then send over your content for them to go through. As the subject matter expert, it is easy for them to spot any obvious issues, misinterpretations or gaps in the content that a lay person might miss. Their feedback will give you a chance to identify and fix any inadvertent errors.

Remember to account for this when planning the project. Leave adequate time for the SME to review the content, and for your team to incorporate their feedback. Having a single point of contact helps here. If too many stakeholders are contacting the SME for feedback, it can result in some important changes or edits getting missed out on.

Ensuring SME Involvement

Going no-contact with your SME after their part is done can lead to them feeling alienated and underappreciated. Take some time to keep them engaged – share project progress, send them a snippet from the course or include them in the countdown of the project launch. After all, they’ve spent valuable time contributing to the resource so they are likely just as excited as you to see it go live.

Celebrating Success and Building Long-Term Relationships

Acknowledging SME Contributions

Ever noticed how technical advisors and consultants are always mentioned at the end of a movie, when the credits start rolling? This holds true for your SMEs as well! Don’t forget to include your subject matter experts as you celebrate the big launch. Acknowledge their contribution internally within your team, making sure everyone knows the role they played in your project. 

If possible (and allowed within the scope of your SME contract), credit them in your resource. Not only does it give your SME the tangible advantage of a published course with their name on it, it also adds credibility to your project, earning trust among your learners.

Maintaining Ongoing Relationships

Finally, keep in touch with your subject matter expert even after the project is over. Reconnect with them from time to time, ask about what they’re working on and update them about any new projects you have going. This makes it easier for you to reach out to them again if you need their expertise later.

The Immense Value of Subject Matter Experts

While many managers often see working with SMEs as an optional part of the project, this is not true at all. SMEs can help you differentiate your content in a crowded e-learning marketplace. Their insights and perspectives are what sets your content apart from anything that learners can find with a quick search online. 

Part of the hesitation in working with SMEs comes from the coordination challenges. But with the right processes established, and the right systems and tools in place, these challenges are easily taken care of.

Speak to us to find out how we can make talent management simple