SMEs vs Training Designers Developing E-Learning: Pros & Cons

Hello community!

In some organizations, there's a dedicated training designer/ e-learning developer / or instructional designer who designs and develops training. 

At other organizations, employees and SMEs are the ones who design and develop training. 

If someone came to you and said "We've just bought a new authoring tool, and we're trying to decide whether we should have our existing SMEs and employees learn to use it, or if we should get a training resource to design and develop training."

What would be your advice?

What are the pros and the cons of having SMEs develop training, rather than an instructional or e-learning designer?

16 Replies
Jade Kelsall

Ooo good question!

My advice would always be to have a professional instructional designer, if an organisation can afford it.

I think one of the dangers of using products like Storyline that are so very easy to pick up is that it undervalues the expertise involved with creating effective online learning materials. It's all to easy to get SMEs using Storyline and let them get on with it without having any understanding of the instructional design that goes with it. I've seen some pretty awful online training materials as a result of this sort of approach.

It may be more expensive to bring in an e-learning professional, but you really do get what you pay for...

One approach I like to take since going freelance is to offer a combined service in which I'll work with an in-house team of SMEs to give them some instructional design training, help them to create a framework for their online training and create a few initial modules. This is proving to be a sustainable and effective model as I'm establishing a framework for them to work in to create e-learning that actually works, while at the same time equipping them with the skills they need to continue creating materials after I'm gone.

Nicole Legault

Great response, Jade - thanks so much for chiming in with your valuable input. 

Good point about the tools being so easy to use that people forget that the instructional design component is 90% of what makes the training great. 

In your experience, what is the main reason people choose to have SMEs develop training, rather than a dedicated training resource? Is it usually financial?

Bob S

While budgets are certainly the most common reason, there are a few others I've run across....

* Demand vs Training Resource -  In some of today's fast companies there can be more demand for content than a dedicated training resource can accommodate.  The truth is a dozen SMEs can turn our more stuff, faster than a single ID can (quantity, not quality of course)

* True under appreciation for ID -  Training, like Marketing, are two fields where everyone believes they are an expert.... or at least expert enough.  "Heck, I know what they have to learn. Why hire someone to tell us that?"   Just like armchair marketers are sure there narrow, mirror-marketing view is correct, so too do some SMEs believe they have all the knowledge needed to train others about what took them years to learn.

So... if we want to win the job (internal or free lancers), we need to be prepared to make the business case and potentially address all of these objections in a way that paints a clear benefit for the business.

Cindy Turner

SMEs are great for IDs to learn from and gather content from, but unless they have an ID background, I would have doubts about their abilities to think about things like sequencing, whole-parts-whole design, cognitive load, and the like... I know I'm preaching to the choir, but IDs develop "learning experiences" that guide learners. Most SMEs I've worked with don't think in terms of learning experiences, they think "content covered = content learned." And as IDs we know how untrue that really is...

Natalia Mueller

This seems to be a natural (though painful and expensive) process for companies to go through. They get hit with a  demand for training and it makes sense to turn to the experts and ask them to teach everyone else what they know. If they haven't already been somewhere burned by this method or have someone with a training background involved to tell them why it's a bad idea, they often just have to learn the hard way that ID is a completely different skill set. 


John Nixdorf

You can be a subject matter expert, or an instructional designer, but not both. If you try to be both you will be neither. There's no way a SME can devote the kind of time to learning how to use tools like Storyline, video editing, Illustrator, Photoshop, etc. or the very basic theory of adult learning that I have. There's no way I can devote the kind of time to subject expertise that the SME has.

Teaching a SME to develop modern e-learning is like teaching a pig to sing. It can't be done, and only annoys the pig.

David Ward

Imagine that your organization needed a new functionality added to its call center software. Would you ask a software developer to code the new application or a call center super-user? Hopefully, you'd have the developer do it with input from the user. This is a corollary to the scenario you paint (where software developer = instructional designer and super-user = SME), Nicole.

Kelly Blenus

In my mind, content comes secondary to process when it comes to training any subject. Without solid instructional design, the content means nothing. If we want learners to actually learn the material, the process of training has to be there. With a tool like Storyline, it's too easy for someone to "insert an activity" just for the sake of "keeping the learner's attention", whereas from an ID perspective every activity should be purposeful and well though out (both in structure and placement within the course). Content is almost always the most important thing to an SME - too often they say things like "Well, I covered all the material!" Covering the material does not mean anyone learned anything! 

Helen Tyson

One thing that I like to remind people who come through our ID training courses is that they are SMEs in their own right - a SME in instructional design

Often the term SME is used purely in terms of the content but put the two SMEs together each bringing their individual expert perspectives and you have a winning combination

Diane K

I know for our small non-profit it is financial. This being said, they dedicated the resources to develop in-house talent for ID, but we do work with the SMEs. I appreciated your philosophy of building internal capacity Jade. This definitely reflects our model of providing technical assistance to customers. Rather than come in and do it for you, let us work along side you to empower you to do it for yourself. As you said, this enables them to continue once you ar gone.

Rita Garcia

I usually work on change management projects for technology implementations and new ways of working which are already boring topics to start with... When I arrive at the project there are already a lot of training materials developed by SMEs, and it's usually 100% text and complicated workflows and 0% instructional design.

The outcome it's almost always no one ever reads the materials. They sit through the 1 hour presentations, retain whatever they retain, and move on. As you can imagine, text heavy elearning in change management projects, where people already are somewhat resistant, adds very little to engagement and performance.

So my advice would definitely be to get an instructional designer or elearning specialist. The projects where I got the chance of designing learning solutions or work with instructional designers had far greater success compared to the ones where SMEs developed the materials.

In my case, I don't think the issue is financial. I think it's a mentality issue. Organisations are so used to work like this they don't even consider the benefits of having an instructional designer. And that doesn't go only for projects leads, it goes also for the training and change teams that continuasly use the same aproach.

Ryan Austin

I don't know about this. There are several technologies that teach basic ID skills nowadays. for example.  For more complex projects around compliance or that have legal considerations, you need IDs for accountability for sure. If an IDs job is simply to design, then it directly conflicts with business value.  Nowadays, IDs need to learn additional skills like business case management, project management, performance support to stay relevant and provide value - they should be managing multiple projects for the organization to help L&D scale efforts and keep up with the speed of need. Too many LMS systems are pushing for employee-generated content so with the disruption of new technologies and Artificial Intelligence, IDs could potentially become de-valued unless they learn new skills to become more relevant in today's new world.  This is coming from someone who is a BIG supporter of IDs by the way. But we need to change our ways and think to scale.