Should Successful Instructional Designers Be Subject Matter Experts Too?

Should Successful Instructional Designers Be Subject Matter Experts Too?
George Rudy/
Summary: Do Subject Matter Experts have a place on the learning and design team, and do Instructional Designers need to be SMEs to be successful?

Is It Essential The Best Instructional Designers Be Subject Matter Experts?

One of the topics that's often brought up in modern day eLearning recruitment is if Instructional Designers need to be Subject Matter Experts in order to succeed? Coming from the perspective of a Subject Matter Expert who once ended up on a team of Learning and Development professionals who had little to no knowledge of the industry for which they were creating courseware around, I would have to say that yes — this role requires some level of experience and core knowledge. Others would probably disagree with me saying that to understand the principles of learning is enough; that the expertise comes later with time and practice. Let’s play 'devils advocate' for a bit and agree with me for the time being.

What Is A Subject Matter Expert?

A Subject Matter Expert [1] is an individual who has working knowledge of a particular process, product, or industry. This can take anywhere from a few weeks to a few years to obtain, depending on how complex the Subject Matter is. Once an SME has this knowledge, generally his or her role on a learning project is to communicate information so that it can be broken down, analyzed, and transformed into learning modules for others.

SMEs are also useful when they can offer to provide some structure to the delivery of the content, offer additional resources, and verify how accurate information is. SMEs are also very useful for being present during the testing phase of the training, when there are product or industry updates, and to guide the Learning and Development team towards the best possible learning experience for the need user. This is usually where their role stops.

However, in the case of a special niche area of an industry or one that requires a much deeper understanding of concepts and constructs, a Subject Matter Expert may be tasked with assisting with the design of actual learning materials. Why is this important?

Why Does Subject Matter Experts Matter In Learning And Design?

An SME is highly knowledgeable about the industry, including regulations and performance guidelines. Without this insight, L&D professionals may unintentionally leave out key concepts or information in the learning materials. When a Subject Matter Expert has a keen knowledge of lesson design and delivery, they can advise the methods of making the learning better through the use of technology. For example, in a highly technical setting, understanding best practices around certain tasks can dictate how lessons should be presented to learners.

Now, in most cases, Subject Matter Experts are not required to also be experts in Instructional Design. Most have a general knowledge of how they've instructed others on learning in the past. This often takes place as job shadowing, classroom instruction, and demonstrations. Others rely heavily on written materials such as product specifications, use manuals, and help menus.

In this case, should an SME stay along the fringe of the courseware development and delivery process? I would suggest that their role should be interconnected to that of the Learning and Development team. They will not take over, nor will they be completely removed from the learning design, but rather compliment it. A Subject Matter Expert may be one whom has already created instructional materials as part of their role in the past. Therefore, this material can form the basis for designing future learning modules.

What Happens If More Subject Matter Experts Are Involved In A Learning And Design Project?

Things can quickly become complex when more than one Subject Matter Expert is present during the course of a courseware development project. But, then again, this can be a good thing too. When it comes to being productive and time sensitive, oftentimes SMEs can begin working together to gather learning materials ahead of time to save on discovery time. But, when one or more SMEs disagree on the way a task is to be performed, it can take a longer time trying to confirm this.

If there are multiple subject matter experts on board [2] struggling to come together, take the time to mediate and narrow down the areas that all can agree on. Then, dismiss the Subject Matter Experts who are causing the most fuss. This can sometimes be the only way to solve a situation like this. In this case, the learning and design lead should be acting as a Project Manager and limiting the time that SMEs spend on the project. They should also be working hard to become proficient as a Subject Matter Expert, too.

In any case, a Subject Matter Expert who is also an Instructional Designer can be a valuable member of any Learning and Development team, as long as there are clear guidelines and limits as to what their role brings to the table.



[1] Understanding the Role and Purpose of the Subject Matter Expert

[2] Facebook Says Fake Accounts Likely Tied To Russia Bought $100,000 In Political Ads