As often happens, you are asked to develop an e-Learning course for a subject in which you are totally clueless.

Collaborate with Subject Matter Experts as a matter of policy

For an example, let’s say your Marketing Department wants you to produce a promotional lesson on performing a radiological analysis of decreased peritoneal opacity and how to distinguish between intraluminal and extraluminal gas accumulation. You are given an article from a veterinary medical journal that purports to describe the process, however, it’s filled with medical terms you can’t even decipher, let alone pronounce. They need it in two weeks for a trade show.
No problem! Your organization specializes in manufacturing veterinary radiological equipment so you should be able to find a subject matter expert that can help with this assignment. After all, a couple of animated slides, some background music, and a short script ought to do it. Surprise! None of the design engineers in your group has even heard of the process. They suggest you contact a member of the company’s Board of Directors, Dr. Roberta Thornton, who is a leading expert on radiological analysis in dogs and cats.

Your subject matter expert, Dr. Thornton is, in fact, a renowned university professor and a pioneer in the radiographic profession. You know she’s going to be quite busy but there is that deadline, so you’re determined to complete your assignment on time. How do you approach her to enlist her assistance with your project? What do you need to know about working with an SME?

Here are some points to consider:

1. “What’s in it for me?”
As you’ve already recognized, SMEs are very busy folks. How else would they get to become an SME? Since Dr. Thornton’s time is very limited, you first need to sell her on why she should assist in creating this course. So outline a proposal; tell her why you picked her as an SME, what’s in it for her and, importantly, exactly how much of her time you will need. Be prepared to completely open your schedule so that you can be available on her first pick of a time.

2. Prepare a storyboard.
Even if there is a lot of blank space, an outline of the standard format of your presentation will be indispensable so that when you meet there is already a template that you both can work with. You might show a title slide, an objectives slide, a content slide….seven or eight topic slides a summary slide and, perhaps, a bibliography (all blank of course).

3. Give credit and focus to the SME, not yourself.
Be sure to include her name right up front, on the title slide. You’ll want to do this not as a suck up but to ensure that she doesn’t downgrade the importance of the presentation. Everyone will recognize her name and she will want to work to her highest standards. It will also demonstrate her commitment to the company to other board members.

4. Work collaboratively.
Don’t be intimidated or sell yourself short. You are the expert in course development. Work with your SME on an equal level. Be prepared to provide a very brief explanation of how your process works, including the precise timetable and your expectations for review. This helps to avoid friction…each of you should know your respective roles in the process. The focus must always be on teamwork and your reliance on one another to make the program successful.

5. Communicate.
Ask questions and request explanations for material you don’t understand fully. The old carpenter’s adage holds true: Measure twice, cut once. Better to rely on getting it right the first time than having to redo a poorly constructed slide after a review. While you are likely not expected to produce a perfect program on the first try, it certainly helps your relationship with the SME to get as close as could be expected from a person not working in that particular field. Remember, too, how busy the SME is and how frequent interruptions for questions and explanations can sour an otherwise good relationship. Also, so far as you can, consolidate questions and put them in an email with a stated date by which you need answers. Allow at least a couple of days for response.

6. Final Review.
When you have incorporated the answers to your questions into the course, send the final version to the SME for review. If you were diligent in your initial conversation, the SME will be expecting both the questions noted above and the need for a final review. By now, you may be down to the wire as far as time goes, but never skip this process…it’s asking for disaster. If necessary, go over again the timetable and the need to be ready on time. The event you are working for is going to occur at a specific date so there should be no surprises regarding the deadline.

7. Publish and Distribute.
The most effective way to work collaboratively with your SME throughout the development process is by leveraging the capabilities of an online Learning Management System. The eLeaP Learning Management System (, for example, enables the developer to create the training course in real time, publish it and then immediately share it with anyone. This dynamic process allows the SME to view the course as it will actually be seen by students, then approve it or suggest changes. Using the eLeaP system can significantly reduce the time and expense of developing technical courseware since it eliminates sending drafts back and forth. And, perhaps even more importantly, it involves your expert in the development process, shares ownership and creates immediate buy-in.

These are the keys to successfully working with a subject matter expert. Remember to sell the need for assistance and its benefits, set expectations, stay organized by using a storyboard, give the credit for success to the SME, work collaboratively, and be sure to communicate when there are questions. If these steps are followed, the final review will go smoothly and you will have produced an outstanding program on a difficult and highly technical product.

Using eLeaP: Creating courses is just one of several essential first steps that we address in our Show Me interactive video demonstration. Join our next live session, and watch our Education Team as they walk you through setting up your account, creating courses, setting up quizzes, accessing reports and managing your e-learning training program.

Contact eLeaP to discuss your training needs or even custom requirements you might want to accomplish. We try to be as flexible as possible. Call us 1-877-624-7226 or email

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