3 Most Common Types of SMEs and How to Deal with Them

types-of-smesOne of the realities in training design, build, and delivery is the reliance on subject matter experts (or SMEs) to help provide relevant content for the courses. For those of you unfamiliar with this process, it usually mean setting-up meeting after meeting to pick the brain of the SME, validate that the content is correct, and (in most cases) receive their sign-off on the content before moving forward.

Over the years I have been part of many training implementations, and I have worked with my fair share of SMEs. I came to quickly realize that if you aren’t good at reading people, then creating a large-scale training program can be quite difficult. Training design and build is just as much about fostering positive relationships as it is the actual content being developed. While everyone is unique, I have found that SMEs usually fall into one of three categories.

1. Believer: Oh how I love these SMEs, they just make life so much easier! The Believer is someone who “believes” in training and understands how important it is the process (and end-users). Usually, these individuals were part of a training team at one point in their career, so they know how difficult the task can be. Meetings with Believers are almost always productive. What’s more, you can email them questions/tasks and they usually get it done (a rarity today).

2. Know-it-Alls: At first glance, Know-it-Alls appear impossible to work with, but in reality, they are just an inch away from being a Believer. Usually the initial meetings with these types of SMEs involves you sitting there and listening to how they believe training should be done. They’ll harp upon their past experiences as a trainer, talking about the glory days with rose-colored glasses… it can all be a bit tiring. However, many of these SMEs are close to being believers, as they have an opinion about training and how it should be done – they just lack trust. Get these SMEs to trust your judgment (aka: prove yourself!) and they’ll fall into the Believer category.

3. Disinterested Cynics: The most difficult people to work with in any profession is the disinterested cynic. These SMEs are Know-it-Alls, but the difference is that they believe training is a waste of time and ineffective. Rarely do they get back to you on anything you ask them, and forget sending emails as those will find their way to their trash folder. Converting a disinterested cynic can be quite the task, but you have a few options:

  • a. Face-Time is Golden: Make sure they see you on a daily basis, even if it is just in passing. Many disinterested cynics believe that “training folks” just update PowerPoint slides all day, so make it a point to cross their path as much as possible.
  • b. Non-Work Discussions: I remember encountering a disinterested cynic who I figured would never come around to the good side. I found out his favorite sport’s team and would always chat with him about them. In fact, out of 10 conversations, I would talk about this team nine times. However, every once in a while I would slip in a request or training related work item, and I found that he would be quite helpful. It took some time, but my “Jedi mind tricks” won him over.
  • c. Subordinate Approach: Sometimes there is no use in trying to convert a disinterested cynic – they are just too dug in their ways. If this ever happens, I have found that the best strategy is to ask this SME if they have members on their team who they trust. I usually frame the question like: “Hi John, I want to respect your time and it’s apparent that you’re really busy. Is there someone on your team who I can run this material by first before bringing it to you? That way, you can provide an approval-type review and it won’t take as much of your time… what do you think?” … This usually does the trick because it means that the SME can delegate the work to someone else, and ultimately makes their job easier. Let’s face it, many of the people working for the SMEs know this information a lot more thoroughly anyhow.

Ultimately you want to get all the SMEs to become Believers (and this sometimes happens), but it isn’t always possible. What I have found though is that often you need to get to know the SME, and let the SME get to know you. Many training professionals make the mistake of thinking that everyone knows the importance of training, and expect a positive response. One thing that will never change is that creating training programs is like pushing a bolder up a hill. It’s hard to do this yourself, so the more people you get behind you helping to “push the rock”, the easier the task.


Justin Ferriman is the co-founder and CEO of LearnDash, the WordPress LMS trusted by Fortune 500 companies, major universities, training organizations, and entrepreneurs worldwide for creating (and selling) their online courses. Twitter | LinkedIn

4 Responses

  1. Hi Justin,
    Thanks for the post- I like the subordinate approach idea and will probably have to break that out one day. As to my experiences with SMEs, I’ve documented some of my war stories here: rockidscience.com/?tag=sme

  2. Great advice coming from one who has served as a SME, an instructional designer, and a trainer, though not at the same time. Working with cynics is the hardest, especially when they complain about the quality of work, the lack of talent, blah, blah, blah. I don’t have a lot of patience for people who want to complain but don’t want to take the time to be part of the solution.

  3. “At first glance, Know-it-Alls appear impossible to work with, but in reality, they are just an inch away from being a Believer. ” Couldn’t agree more!

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