Subject Matter Experts – Why Do We Need Them And Why Do We Adore Them So

Subject Matter Experts are the people that have specific, in-depth knowledge and expertise on a certain topic or set of topics. They can be internal SMEs (working in a company as an employee) or external SMEs (consultants or other individuals that are not employed in the company).

Let me bring you back in time a little bit. To your high school years, to be precise. Hopefully, you were a quarterback on a school team or a cheerleader, so this walking down memory lane looks a little bit like Grease to you.

But I’ve digressed.

So, you are back in high school, literature class, and your professor (the one with an awkward perm looking like Dolly Parton) just assigned you a new book to read. It’s Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451”.

It’s a futuristic book about people doing their best to fight the system that burns books, and in that way – destroys knowledge and the ability to learn and think for yourself. Those people are trying to keep the knowledge. To save it. To make sure new generations can get it, learn it, and benefit from it. They are the true crusaders fighting for knowledge.

Those crusaders today still exist. And we call them Subject Matter Experts.


Who are the Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) today in the eLearning world?

Those are the people that have specific, in-depth knowledge and expertise on a certain topic or set of topics.

To put it in context, if you are creating an eLearning course about onboarding junior developers in an IT company, you’ll have two sets of SMEs helping you out. One set of people is going to be from the HR department – the ones that have in-depth knowledge of how the company works, what are the legal obligations and rights the new employee has, and so on. On the other hand, you’ll need to consult senior developers from that company that have product knowledge. They know how the software they are developing works, and what are things every new developer needs to know about this software and code to be able to start coding.

As you can see, SMEs are the essential ingredient if you want to create a good eLearning course.

Just like you need fruit to make a fruit cake, you need SMEs to make an eLearning cake. I mean a course. An eLearning course.

What is the job of SMEs in eLearning course creation?

SMEs need to:

  1. Map the knowledge on the topic that will be developed as an eLearning course – there is always something already created in your company on any given topic. Maybe you already have PPTs from F2F onboarding sessions. Or maybe you have recorded those live sessions. So the first thing you as an SME need to do is to figure out what is already available in the company on that particular topic.
  2. Prioritize and exclude material – not everything you have is important. Maybe something is also outdated (probably nobody needs to know about the floppy disk procedures). And the only person that will know what (out of all that material the company already has on the topic) is relevant, current, and needs to be in the future eLearning is you – SME. So prioritize the important and exclude irrelevant/outdated.
  3. Send those materials to the agency – probably no explanation of this step is needed, huh?
  4. Provide initial guidance to the agency creating your eLearning course – who is your target audience, and what are their characteristics? What is the bigger picture of why are you creating this course (it’s rarely just to transfer knowledge)? What is the usual level of expertise your target audience will have? What are the key takeaways everybody needs to understand and take from this course?
  5. Be available – the agency will need you. They are experts in copywriting, gamification, interaction, and instructional design, but they are not experts in the topic you need them to cover. You are. Provide them with timely feedback – did they explain everything correctly, did they put emphasis on the right things, and so on?

But what if your company doesn’t have anything already prepared on the topic that needs to be covered (as explained in bullet point 1)?

Well, in that case, my SME friend, you have two options:

  1. Prepare something – put the knowledge that needs to be transferred to eLearning in a new Word or PPT document.
  2. Be ready for interviews – maybe the agency would prefer you to talk with their content creators (we call them Learning Architects) in live sessions. They will interview you on the topic, ask questions, and based on what you have discussed in these interviews, they will create a course.

Internal vs. External SMEs

Examples we have shared in this article so far cover the situation where the company has experts onboard as employees. Those are the Internal Experts.

It’s always the easiest to work with them because they know everything, and not just in general terms, but very specific for that particular company.

But, if you do not have your internal experts, fear not. External experts come to the rescue. In that case, you need to know what topics you want to cover, and the agency will scout through their networks of SMEs (trust me, we all have it) to find the best one for those topics. Those SMEs will then do all of the above-mentioned things. It would be beneficial if you could find somebody in your company who at least knows the procedures and the company background so they can put a little bit of your company’s flavor in those courses. Or, if you want to sell those courses further, then make sure to include the marketing team and the sales team (trust me, they will want to be included).

But that’s all up to you. You know how the recipes go – season to taste.

The time that SMEs need to invest in eLearning production

If you are interested in the amount of time Subject Matter Expert need to spend working on course creation, we already covered that in a separate blog post, so feel free to check it out.


Bottom line – SMEs are the key ingredient to creating any and all eLearning courses – because they have the knowledge. They know what needs to be taught through eLearning.

And that’s why we, as an agency, need them and adore them so.

Author: Martina Osmak

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