Does the Instructional Designer have to be a Subject Matter Expert?

Designing Digitally


“SMEs (Subject Matter Experts) need not apply,” said no Instructional Designer ever. We’ve all had a “not so fantastic” experience working with an SME, but as we can tell you at Designing Digitally, Inc. our Instructional Designers value what an SME has to offer. Whether the SME comprehends why they are valuable is another issue, but the bigger problems lie in establishing these critical resources and their importance to project stakeholders. Given an investment in having a vendor develop an educational product there may be the expectation from the client that the vendor has expertise on hand to develop the content to be learned. Whereas the vendor will want to work with a company associated expert on the topic to ensure it meets the learner’s needs and the company’s goals.

So does the Instructional Designer need to be an SME?

In some respects all Instructional Designers have the potential to be an SME and an SME to multiple subjects. A key characteristic of talented Instructional Designers is resourcefulness: learning about the subject matter and formulating ideas and questions prior to speaking with an SME to confirm and solidify content. Sometimes an Instructional Designer is not afforded an SME so they research and familiarize themselves with the subject, any relevant key terms, and current or common topics or issues.

There is always a possibility that an Instructional Designer can function as an SME. Perhaps we have an Instructional Designer that has worked many years in the health insurance industry creating training for compliance topics. Given the factual nature of the subject matter, there may be no need to for an additional company-facing resource to assist in confirming the accuracy of the information presented. This also creates a monetary benefit, as having an Instructional Designer that functions as an SME reduces the time from research to analysis, analysis to design, and design to development. It also minimizes the risk of differences in expectations and information shared. This aspect alone can be compounded by communication disconnects and perceptions of job roles.

The limitation to this position is the inability to always comprehend the learner’s perspective based on the organization’s culture and vision. Perhaps Company X embraces a more collaborative, peer-sharing styled environment whereas Company Y has honed a more competitive workplace. How would handling and managing compliance look to a learner from each of these companies? How much value does each company place on compliance? Our Instructional Designer is only an expert on the subject matter, not on the company. This is why an SME can lend additional value to the project. SMEs not only comprehend the subject matter, but they also understand the manner in which their organization finds it significant.

If the Instructional Designer is not an expert in the content and the product to be developed is for new learners, the Instructional Designer can identify with the unfamiliarity of the subject. However, holding this position is better when working with an SME. This way the Instructional Designer will leverage the novice perspective to ask targeted questions about the subject so they can design the content and learning activities to build the knowledge of the new learner.

That is not to say that the SME is completely out of touch with the learner, but given their advanced comprehension of the topic, SMEs tend to over share information that is “nice to know” rather than “need to know,” or they provide very broad brushstrokes to the subject matter leaving the learner with a lot of questions to fill in the gaps. The Instructional Designer re-packages this expert input so that the content speaks directly to the targeted audience. An Instructional Designer’s skills help them to recognize how to set up content and bring a learner down through the material for effective knowledge transference.

Now it probably does not seem like we’re strongly selling that an SME is really warranted given how talented Instructional Designers can morph themselves quite readily to a company’s learning need. However, we can tell you from experience that Instructional Designers like to focus on creating an engaging, effective, entertaining, and educational product for their client’s learners. If Instructional Designers are asked to function as the SME, this fragments their ability to concentrate on where they truly have expertise.

This does not mean that the quality of the product is minimized, but the time and effort for an Instructional Designer to remain comprehensive and neutral on the subject matter can impact the analysis and design of the project. A coupling of the Instructional Designer and SME has several benefits. It can aid in determining the best methods for engaging the learners as the SME will be more familiar with the motivations of the learning audience, while the Instructional Designer will know of strategies that will target those specific reasons. The SME can guide and confirm the accuracy of the content. SMEs can share common situations that a learner may encounter or best practices about the subject, and may even have thoughts about activities that might be useful for teaching and assessing learners. An SME and an Instructional Designer pairing really balances and complements the training initiative by providing an opportunity for both parties to share and collaborate on the subject matter.