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Ask a Trainer: How Can I Work With Unresponsive SMEs?

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Hi Tim,

I work as a learning experience designer, designing and developing learning programs. Some days I develop instructor-led courses, and other days I build e-learning courses. I really love the variety of what I do!

That being said, one constant pain in my work life are my subject matter experts. No matter what the project is or its size, it never fails that my subject matter experts are missing in action.

Let me give you an example of how it usually goes: We kick off the project and everything seems great—I’m excited, they’re excited, and everything is great. Fast forward to the moment I need them to review what I’ve developed and provide feedback, and I get nothing. It’s crickets!

Do you have any tips for how I can get my subject matter experts to provide timely feedback?

First, let me say this: You’re preaching to the choir. If there’s anything learning professionals can relate to, it’s this.

Here’s the thing about subject matter experts (SMEs): They possess the information you need to solve their problems. As much as we may all love the idea of never having to deal with our difficult SMEs, there’s simply no avoiding them. However, we must remember that it’s also a part of our jobs to make sure our SMEs understand why, when, and how we need their help.

Here are some strategies I’ve used (and still use) to get my SMEs to review my work and provide feedback.

Tip #1: Schedule Time on Their Calendar

It’s important to remember that your SMEs are busy people. In addition to the time you’re asking them to dedicate to your project, they also have their everyday duties to attend to.

Make it easier for your SMEs to dedicate the time to review your project by sending a calendar invite (with a link to the course or materials) for dedicated review time. This invite isn’t meant for you to meet with them to review your project but rather to help your SMEs dedicate a block of time to reviewing the project on their own.

Tip #2: Conduct a Live Review Session

One of the most efficient ways to manage a review cycle is to do it in-person. This lets you hear directly from the mouths of your SMEs to fully understand their feedback, ask questions, and make quick decisions regarding the edits provided.

Make it easier to get SME feedback by conducting a live review session. Send your SMEs a link to review your project followed by an invite to discuss their feedback a few days later. This will force your SMEs to review the project in preparation for the live review meeting.

Tip #3: Provide an Estimate Time to Review

It’s easy for your SMEs to overestimate how much time it will take them to review your project. Because of this, they will often procrastinate on it, in favor of their less time-consuming duties. And let’s be honest, we all do that.

Make it easier to get SME feedback by providing an estimated time to review. When you send your project for your SMEs to review, include how much time it should take them to do so. If your SMEs know up front that they only need to invest 15 to 20 minutes, they’ll be more likely to knock it out.

I hope these tips help make your life (and your SMEs’ lives) a little bit easier!


Do you have a learning question you’d like me to tackle? You can email them to askatrainer@td.org. Also, visit the Ask a Trainer hub to check out all of your questions and my answers.

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About the Author

Tim Slade is a speaker, author, award-winning
e-learning designer, and author of The eLearning
Designer’s Handbook.

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Introduce an organizational knowledge system into your process. You have a timing obstacle where you are asking SME to review solutions on old solved issues while they are actively working on the next set of new problems. With an organizational knowledge system, the SME has an application to record the solution when it is being developed. You can use the organizational knowledge system as a source for training and supporting end-users.
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You can build in a little clause to your project plan or other documentation that says you'll proceed with the content as provided if the content review has not been completed within a specified timeframe, too. There's a little bit of highwire act that goes into that, but it kind of jars them into a more focused awareness, usually.
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Provide an estimated time to review is great advice to ensure buy-in and engagement during a review cycle---and not just for SMEs but for anyone who has to review and sign off on your work. Now we just need to overcome the planning fallacy and get better at providing accurate estimates!
Thanks, Jack! For others who are reading, can you provide more insight into what you mean by planning fallacy?
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