Collaborative meeting with SMEs - advice needed!

Jan 23, 2012

Hi everyone,

I have been asked to facilitate a collaborative meeting with some subject matter experts in order to produce a new e-learning course for our company. This project is at the very beginning stages and the main purpose of the meeting is to establish what the learning objectives will be and what content needs to be developed.

In previous projects we have corresponded with our SMEs via phone and email, never face-to-face: can anyone offer any advice or tips on how best to approach this sort of meeting? I should perhaps also add that the meeting is scheduled to take place all day (9-5) and will include various senior managers.


9 Replies
Eric Nalian

Hi Hannah,

Maybe create an agenda for the meeting:

  • Start with an activity to warm up everyones mind: During grad school - we did an exercise where we paired off, and we had to write out instructions for 'how to tie your shoes', and then we would read the instructions and the persons partner would have to follow those exact instructions for tying their shoes (this is not as easy as it sounds)
  • Set expectations of the meeting
  • Choose topics for trainings
  • Create training goals/objectives
  • Choose 1 of the topics, and have a 'rapid e-learning design session' where the SME's are activly involved with creating the course right there in the meeting.
  • Create a timeline/due dates for the courses

Have a lot of fun, and try to get all parties involved engaged and ready to think outside of the box right when the meeting starts.

Jeanette Brooks

Hey Hannah! Really cool that you get to work directly with your SMEs in this way!

I like Eric's idea of having a results-driven activity to get everyone on the same page right from the beginning. Probably the biggest challenge will be to help them step a way from the model of "let's make this training full of important information", and help them instead think: "let's figure out exactly what trainees need to be able to DO after the training, and the specific ways the training will help them PRACTICE and MASTER those skills."

There was a good discussion last week here in the forums that was somewhat related... dealing with how to collaborate w/SMEs for course development. There were some great tips shared in that thread, which you can find here:

Tom also has some really good posts regarding working with SMEs:

What Everybody Should Know About Working with Subject Matter Experts

How to Get the Most Out of Your Subject Matter Experts

7 Proven Techniques for Keeping Your E-Learning Customers Happy

You might also want to take a look at the free project management tools in our Downloads section (particularly the one called Project Kickoff Questions).

Good luck with your kickoff meeting - let us know how it goes!

Rich Johnstun

Jeanette Brooks said:

Probably the biggest challenge will be to help them step a way from the model of "let's make this training full of important information", and help them instead think: "let's figure out exactly what trainees need to be able to DO after the training, and the specific ways the training will help them PRACTICE and MASTER those skills."

I completely agree with this. One of the challenging aspects of working with SMEs is that they have so much knowledge on the subject that they frequently want put it all into the training, which wouldn't be realistic or effective. 

I work a lot with very technical SMEs (engineers and developers) and our mantra is always, "what is the least they need to know to do the job".  Not that we are trying to "short" anyone of information, but we need to really pair it down and hone our content to focus on targeting and addressing the need. 

We start off by making a list of what the learner needs to be able to do at the completion of the training. Just like when writing an objective, these things need to be actionable and measurable. Once that list is flushed out, you can build your objectives based on that and start to map your learning out from there. 

Good luck!

Anna Sabramowicz

Hi Hannah,

This is a very important meeting. I always follow this up with meeting minutes - things that the team has agreed on, individual tasks and roles assigned... the follow up email is a written confirmation everyone is on the same page. Usually, I get more clarification about what everyone understood from the session in the replies to this follow-up.

Depending on your experience with SME's you might find this video I put together useful.

Also, I am a part of several Instructional Design groups on linked in and the members can usually provide you with (if not direct resources) excellent discussions on methodology.

Hope all goes well!


Pam Jones

It's always fun working with SMEs in this way. I find asking three key questions is a great start to kick things off. From these other questions and issues will usually come to the surface and help to define business and learning objectives.

What learners need to be able to do?

Why are they not doing it right now?

How and why can the e-learning module can help?

When learners know this information, what will they do with it?

If learners don’t learn this information, what might happen?

Hope that helps.


Jeanette Cefre

Seems like there are different roles in this SME meeting - I recommend that you state what your expectations of each role will be, especially for management.  Often times, 1 hour into an all day meeting, senior management gets anxious and starts wondering "What am I doing here anyway?"  So whether is project sponsorship, buy-in, etc...make sure it's clear.  

Another piece of advice to approach the meeting from a Performance Consulting point of view.  This advice I got from Tom Kuhlman himself.  It's really shaped how I approach all my projects (not just from a learning standpoint). 

Tom has a great article called "These Simple Tips Will Help You Build the Right e-Learning".  This way, everyone, regardless of their role, is focused on the same objective...which is not necessarily which font, image, etc. to use in the e-learning, but what is the expectation once they take this e-learning course:  Increased on the job performance (how is it measured), first contact resolution, improved process,  30% less complaints...etc.  

Good luck and let us know what the results of your meeting are.  

Hannah Hawkins

Thank you all for your responses and advice!

The meeting has now been reduced to 4 hrs and I have been asked to provide an agenda for that meeting: i.e. what methods I will use to extract the relevant information (goals, content, etc) from the SMEs. They are thinking in terms of brainstorming and exercises - this is a totally new experience for me so if anyone has any suggestions on how I can obtain this information effectively given the short timeframe I would be very grateful!


Jeanette Brooks

Hello Hannah, i think Jeannette Cefre is right about the performance consulting role she mentions. For your kickoff meeting, you will be part facilitator, part shepherd, and part babysitter, lol. The ultimate decision-making re: objectives, etc. should belong to your SMES, but you will need to be ready to guide the discussion to a productive end, and definitely capture everything on a whiteboard or flipchart as the SMES discuss these things - the conversation might get fast and furious if you have strong personalities in the room

In my former workplace we tried a few creative ways of brainstorming and exercises, such as making these sorts of meetings feel game-like or whatever, but in the end we found that a simple, straightforward approach always works the best. Your organization might be different, but ours was very no-nonsense, so this is what worked for us: start the meeting by clarifying who "owns" the project (typically one of the SMEs in the room is also the project sponsor or the main stakeholder, and that is the person where the buck ultimately stops)... it also helps to stress that the training is about SOLVING A BUSINESS PROBLEM, and the point of the training is to help trainees change their behavior or apply specific skills (not dumping information on them). It can help to share a few statistics, if you have them, about how much training costs (i.e., each learner-hour of training, plus development time) and how it's financially important to help trainees achieve proficiency in as SHORT A TIME AS POSSIBLE - meaning minimize the "nice-to-know" information and focus on critical skills.

Then we launch into just a few brain storming questions. The ones we used most often are very similar to what Pam posted above:

  • What "business pain" needs to be solved with this training? Is training the only remedy, or are there other support systems we need to put in place ?
  • What SPECIFIC behaviors / skills do we need learners to demonstrate or perform? How can we give them realistic opportunities to practice those behaviors / skills during the training?
  • What obstacles might get in the way of the learner's ability to practice the desired behaviors/ skills on the job? How can we anticipate and prevent those obstacles?
  • What BUSINESS EVIDENCE do we expect to see on the job, to indicate the learners have achieved the desired behavior change or skill mastery?
deb creghan

Hannah-  I've been successful with a format like Cathy Moore's Action Mapping - start with the overall business goal that you are trying to achieve. Then, identify what job behavior(s) do people need to demonstrate to meet this goal. What practice activities would support this? This is a great way to add interactivity that is relative to what they need to do on their job.  Finally, what do they need to know to perform this/these job behavior(s)?  This helps to identify the "need to know" information.  The "nice to know" info. can always be added as enrichment documents or other materials for those who want to know more. 

One of our biggest challenges is making roles and expectations of our SMEs clear.  When SMEs don't really understand what they need to do and when they have to do it it has a big impact on the project timeline.  So, while we are creating the timeline I ask them to commit to the timeframes in the timeline.  While this won't eliminate the last minute priorities, it does eliminate vacations, conferences, etc that they sometimes forget about, as well as make them think about how much time it will take them to do task A, etc.  We create a formal document that includes this - we review it with them in person and they sign it - it helps to make sure they have some 'skin in the game'.  Best of luck!

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