Designer-SME Collaboration

by Nathan Eckel
2010: ASTD

(EN: This booklet was developed as a training aid, and as such, it's very brief. More importantly, it focuses on designer-SME collaboration in the specific task of developing training materials for the workplace, though I expect much of he content to be applicable to the interface between the two roles in a broader context.)


A person whose knowledge and experience make them a subject matter expert (SME) is not necessarily adept at developing training materials for others. Their intimate knowledge of a subject often makes it difficult to communicate to those who have less knowledge then themselves, as evidenced by the poor quality and effectiveness of training developed and/or delivered by SMEs.

This gave rise to the profession of the workplace learning professional who designs training materials (designer), who is adept at training, but doesn't have the level of subject knowledge as an SME. Their task is to extract the knowledge of the SME and present it in a manner that is accessible to the non-SME.

Initially, the designer was called in to improve upon training materials developed by SMEs, but later evolved into the designer leading the effort to develop training materials with the SME as a provider of input. The relationship has generally fallen short of their potential due to conflicting values, goals, deadlines, departmental animosities, and other factors, to the detriment of the trainees and, ultimately, the firm.

In the present day, there are many factors that make training critical:

The combination of training that has historically been highly ineffective and the pressing need to do more training point to the necessity of revisiting the way in which training is developed as an urgent need.

A critical requirement to serve this need is to revisit the relationship between the SME and the designer to collaborate rather than to work at odds with one another.

The designer must rely upon, and demonstrate respect for, the knowledge and experience of the SME while, at the same time, steer the SME toward a solution that will create an effective learning product - and while the roles of designer and SME have been formally separated and defined, the SME still feels justified in attempting to control the work output. "It takes a rare blend of intellectual capacity, thick skin, tolerance, and sensitivity for designers to do their job," the author asserts.

The present course was developed for the designer -t he responsibility for the quality of training materials is ultimately placed on the designer, who must rely upon the SME to provide the information that will be delivered in the training being designed. An SME may benefit from this material as well, if they seek top develop a more collaborative and productive partnership with the designer, but they are not the primary audience the author intends to instruct.

The Designer-SME Relationship

The American workplace has undergone transformational changes in the past fifty years, primarily, in the longevity of employment at a given firm. In previous generations, an employee could count upon a long duration of employment at a single firm and in a single industry. While the problem the precipitating need to provide training for a constant influx of new has been recognized, most workplace training remains entrenched in the older paradigm of lifelong employment.

Not only does this old paradigm involve slow learning over long periods of time, it also requires experienced workers to take a nurturing perspective on the new recruits to be willing to provide on-the-job training. However, given that the number of long-term employees has diminished, and the fact that their salary, over time, makes them a prime target for layoffs, there is little interest and some fear of sharing knowledge.

Aside of the treat implicit in training newer, cheaper employees to replace themselves, the experienced worker has a dim view of training. It is not their "real" job, there is no incentive for collaborating, and it takes time away from doing the work of the day.

Even the SME who is compelled or interested in assisting in instructional design is generally poisoned by ego: they feel that they are experts, "their way" is the only right way to do the job, and that a new worker must be subjected to a vast amount of information to do very basic tasks.

The designer's job is to overcome these tendencies, and to take the "side" of the new employee who needs to learn certain, basic things in an effective manner, knowing as much of the "big picture" as is necessary to be effective, but not so much that he is overwhelmed by a lengthy and complex initiation to his new job.


In any working relationship, expectations are set by the definition of roles and the acknowledgement of the expertise that qualifies an individual to serve in a given role. To that end, educational designers may come from several backgrounds, but they can largely be considered in terms of three categories:

  1. Those who are put in the role of a designer, but who have no training in design. Typically, this occurs when an SME is assigned to the role of a designer with little to no training: they may be handed a book, or given a brief "certification" course, but lack the depth of knowledge and experience of a seasoned designer.
  2. Designers with a significant amount of informal training, but no formal education in instructional design (such as a graduate degree in a related field). They have gained knowledge through experience, though they may be defending and perpetuating mistakes as "best practices" when the practices, themselves, are not at all "the best."
  3. Those with academic training in instructional design. They likely have a solid grounding in the theory of design, but are prone to remain rooted in "book theory" and fail to learn the lessons of practical experience.

In all cases, there are benefits and drawbacks to the separate forms of qualification for designers, but they can be remedied: for an academic designer to learn from real-world experience, for an experienced but uneducated designer to pursue formal education, and for an inexperienced and untrained designer to pursue both.


After considering the role and qualifications of the designer, the same degree of consideration should be given to the SME. In general, SMEs fall into five categories:

  1. Tyrant SME. Supervisors who are assigned to develop training often fall into this role, in which they seek to leverage training as a method of making employees do tasks "my way" rather than in an effective manner. However, even an employee who has no management authority may see training as a way to work the system, to inflict their will on their fellow employees.
  2. Disposable SME. In some instances, a person will be selected to work in training because they are disposable. In effect, the company is using training as an opportunity to get an unproductive worker off the floor, and they are of little value to the designer.
  3. Benevolent SME. This SME is more concerned with the social aspect of training, and wants to deliver an experience that is pleasant to the trainee, even at the expense of delivering a training experience that is effective.
  4. Myopic SME. This SME is concerned with the nuts-and-bolts details of a task rather than the "big picture" of the way that the task must be done to deliver value to the organization. Such an SME is focused on the ritual behaviors of "the way we do it" and cannot envision a better way that a task might be done.
  5. Buddy SME. This SME is especially easy for a designer to work with, because he's happy to let the designer do whatever he wants with the training. The drawback is that he does not contribute much to the effort.

(EN: Each of these "types" of SME embodies negative behaviors that may be present in any SME. But more to the point, the author fails to present a category of functional SME - they are not all bad, and a few are "Angel" SMEs. I expect the author may feel that dealing with negative behavior is a primary concern of someone reading this booklet, but if he does not presently, nor later in the training, suggest a functional role, it would be a considerable foible to the present study.)

The author provide a number of tips for figuring out what kind of person you are dealing with in advance, so you can predict problems that might arise. Specifically, consider:

It's also important to consider your own behavior in regard to the SME. You must work to establish a comfortable working relationship, show respect for their expertise and dedication to their goals, approach them with genuine curiosity rather than preconceived notions, and be respectful of the time they will spend working with you.


Competition can set in from the early stages of the relationship if you focus too narrowly on the task at hand without considering the big picture. One tip to avoid competition with an SME is to focus on your common interests: developing effective training that will have a positive impact on the job performance of the workers. You must set the expectation that you are working on a common goal, and joining forces against a common deadline.

It's also important to consider the SME's motivation, and to steer it toward a positive direction. If the SME is seeking recognition and appreciation for their contribution to the development of training, see to it that they get this from their supervisor.

It will also be necessary to help them understand the basic principles of design: particularly, that it must be engaging and accessible to a novice.

Differing education levels and job rankings may pose a roadblock to collaboration. Typically, the designer is a more educated individual who is granted higher esteem by the company. The SME may be intimidated by this, and resentful of it. However, the inequity may fall the other way, such as when training is being developed for doctors or engineers, in which the SME is dismissive of the designer, whom he sees as being a lesser person with little value to contribute.

There is also the influence of politics: upper management generally has expectations of the training, and both the designer and the SME will be caught in the crossfire. Sometimes, different executives will play them against one another, or use them as pawns in the opposite sides of an executive power-play. This naturally creates a conflict between the pawns themselves.

As such, it is not sufficient merely to establish common grounds and expect that collaboration will continue - it needs constant work and reinforcement to remain in a cooperative mode.


The goal of collaboration isn't necessarily a completely agreeable relationship: if they agree on every aspect of the design project, chances are that one or both is withholding an objection that should be raised to improve the overall quality of the product.

However, conflicts between the two must be carefully managed, as bickering and contentiousness make for a hostile working relationship that can be even more damaging to the outcome even than complete acquiescence of one to the other.

Achieving a healthy relationship, such that the attitude is cordial and the work remains focused on achieving the best results, is something of a balancing act.

The author lists a number of "partnerships" in entertainment - musical theater, comedy teams, etc. - suggesting that the relationships are synergistic: it is not one strong player carrying a weak partner, but two strong individuals, their strengths complementing and compensating for one another's, that has the most effective results.

It is likewise for the designer and SME, who must find a way to work together to bring to bear the instructional design skills of one with the practical experience of the other to create a solid work product.

The Three Cs

The author suggests that there are "Three Cs" to managing a designer-SME relationship: consult, collaborate, and continue.


While the ultimate goal of the designer-SME relationship is to collaborate, it takes time to gain the trust necessary to work in a collaborative mode. To attempt to collaborate prematurely is a setup for failure.

As such, the designer begins as a consultant, contributing his skills to help someone else succeed. The transition from consultant to collaborator is discussed at the end of this section - for now, the author focuses on consulting, as it must be handled competently until collaboration becomes possible.

Consulting for Designers

A consultant brings the knowledge of his own craft to a project, but adapts to the preferences, styles, and habits of the client. The particular details of a specific relationship between designer and SME may seem unique, but it is in essence no different than any other consulting relationship.

(EN: My sense is the author considers the designer to be a consultant serving the SME, but the situation may be reversed, or they may both be consultants to a project manager.)

In terms of craft-knowledge, the designer (ideally) begins with an body of academic theory that grows over time, and that is augmented through experience through developing training materials for actual use. The SME must have some basic respect for this knowledge and the benefits of its application, and the designer may improve upon this respect by demonstrating the practical benefits of the application of theoretical knowledge of design principles.

The need to demonstrate substance with each new project can be frustrating to designers, who have extensive experience, degrees, certification, and other credentials that they (rightly) expect will garner some esteem for their craft. Dealing with a new SME, especially one who is hostile and dismissive, is a challenge to the designer who expects some modicum of professional respect.

Your resume may earn you some regard, but experience at a given firm, such that you have esteem with an SME's peers and a track record of success, will carry more weight. But ultimately, you must earn the trust and respect of a given SME to have a productive working relationship with them. Until such time, you may find that you must "give" a great deal in order to have even a basic, functional working relationship and make any progress at all.

(EN: This is a bit oversimplified and optimistic. In many cases the SME does not choose to engage a designer, but one is assigned to their project - and as such, some SMEs begin with hostility toward the designer as an interloper in "their" project, and some never evolve beyond that. Scrolling ahead, the author does not address how to work with a hostile SME, which is not desirable but is in some instances inevitable.)

As such, the designer approaches and SME who has a preferred pace, communication mode, technological savvy, decision-making methodology and a host of other variables that describe their work style and preferences. The designer must adapt to the SME's preferences in this regard to gain trust and acceptance for approaches and methods that may initially be regarded as counterproductive.

Adapt Your Style

The long-term success of a consultant is in contributing his skills to produce successful training materials; but his short-term success is in working comfortably with his SME. If he does not attend to the short-term objectives, he may not be around long enough to achieve the long-term goals.

The best way to get along with someone is simply to acquiesce to them: to mirror your SME's preferences. In the field of sales, it's noted that a salesman who mirrors his prospect has greater success in building rapport and making a sale. The same is true of a consultant, who is "selling" his own expertise and must, to some degree, toady to the SME to win his acceptance.

Adapting your communication style is key: to speak at the same level as the SME. This may involve learning the vocabulary and jargon of a specific profession as well as "dumbing down" your vocabulary and sentence structure. This has a subtle, yet significant, psychological impact.

Transitioning from a competitive to a collaborative negotiation style may be challenging. Some SMEs cling tightly to ill-informed notions, such as demanding that training be delivered as a video when it is clearly not the most effective delivery channel. This can easily become a competitive situation that does not serve the larger purpose. You may be compelled to "conditionally agree" to such a demand - to indicate video would be a great choice if you can obtain the additional budget and time necessary to produce it.

(EN: I disagree. The danger in this tactic is that the project may get the funds necessary to do this - such that your "excuses" for not using video are overcome and you will either have to present a new round of excuses, at the risk of damaging your credibility, or go along with it and do video training, which you know to be ineffective. Capitulation, even conditionally, cannot be the default solution - but in situations where the designer is disempowered, it may be a last-resort tactic to sell the right solution.)

Ultimately, attention is given to the conflict style of the SME, to resolve areas of irreconcilable difference. Even the most emotional and belligerent of people operate on a core of beliefs, that can be addressed rationally and objectively - though with some individuals, this core is very ill-defined and buried quite deep, making emotional elements difficult to defuse.

(EN: It's not mentioned here, but in my experience it's also important to have a strong relationship with a supervisor, as a common tactic with hostile SMEs is to escalate often and prematurely rather than negotiating toward a solution. While cooler heads will often prevail, they do not always.)

Sidebar: Your SME's Style

The author provides some random tips for identifying and adapting to the working style of an SME.

It's noted that some of these "styles" can be highly counterproductive, and it's important to eventually wean the SME to more effective working styles. But until rapport is established, you may need to simply adapt and adopt to build the rapport necessary to make adjustments.

From Consulting to Collaborating

In a basic sense, consulting means adapting to the desires and preferences of the party that has hired the consultant, and that should be your initial tactic in any professional relationship. In time, consulting will give way to cooperation, working toward a common goal in which your expertise is given a modicum of respect and your input is given some consideration.

Collaboration goes beyond mere cooperation: it is a relationship of equals in which both sides can contribute fully. This requires the utmost level of openness, mutual respect, and trust.

To achieve collaboration, each side must overcome their resistance to one another, and mutual disarmament being rare, it generally falls upon one party to unilaterally disarm, even if that means acquiescence to the other. This is why the author's model of consulting advises the designer to show considerable deference to the SME, even at the cost of the quality of the work product.

Consulting places the SME comfortably in command of the outcome, and cooperation enables the SME to retain control by approving the suggestions of the designer. Over time, the designer gains trust and can work in a fully collaborative mode with the SME.

(EN: I'm generally sold on this notion, though the level of esteem and authority may shift to favor the designer in some circumstances, it's worthwhile to accept some damage in the early stages of a project, as it can be addressed after the relationship is more full developed. The alternative, constantly struggling for control, does not yield a better product. And in organizations where design is given some formal authority, it does not result in functional superiority: one person mindlessly obeying another does not achieve a better outcome, no matter who acquiesces to whom.)


Collaboration represents a working relationship in which both parties contribute their skills to an effort, and the output embodies the strengths and expertise of both their respective disciplines. It is the ultimate goal of any working relationship to evolve to a collaborative state.

That is to say that it should be, but not always is. Many people doubt the value of collaboration and feel they are disempowered by the degree to which they allow the other party to participate. They seek individual achievement and feel that they have lost something if they allow the other party to "win" even a minor point.

This problem is exacerbated in designer-SME relationships because many SMEs are "individual achievers" who attribute their success to their ability to work individually rather than cooperating with a team. Many of them are low-level employees (peons) who are unqualified to manage and often unaccustomed to working in concert with others. In some instances, this cannot be overcome.

Extreme cases aside, most people can learn to work with others in a collaborative manner. It takes time and patience on the part of the other party to encourage them in this direction, but ultimately, collaboration is possible - and considering the benefits of collaborative work, it's worth the effort for the designer to deal with such individuals. The author specifically counsels against "expecting the worst" of an SME, even if you have had numerous negative experiences.

SIDEBAR: Make the Most of Your SME

The author refers to a study done in 2009 to determine the cost to develop one hour's worth of training. The specific conclusion is not disclosed but the author says it is "high."

(EN: a little research found that the study was done by Defelice and Kapp of the ASTD. It is broken down by type of training, and the ranges are wide. For example, classroom training takes 43-185 hours; a text-only manual takes 93.-52; e-learning from 93-152; interactive models from 154-243; and full simulation from 949-1,743.)

(EN: I'm also struck by the concern that these time-and-money figures will be misinterpreted by the Bonehead School of Project Management to mean that if the course is half as long, it will cost half as much to develop. But my sense is that cramming an hour's worth of training into thirty minutes does not cost half as much - but likely costs more, for the effort required to cram too much information into too little time, and produces an inferior product. If budgetary constraints are encountered, best to reduce the scope of the training rather than its duration.)

Time management is a key issue: in addition to the high cost to develop the training, significant time is wasted on revision and rework due to unclear requirements or incomplete information. To that end, a handful of tips are offered:

There is also a brief note about the selection process for SMEs. Primarily, you should seek an SME who has a genuine interest in the task, whose agenda is to produce effective training, and who has adequate time to devote to the task. A disinterested, overworked SME with a personal agenda will torpedo a collaborate effort every time.


The author provides something of a clumsy acronym: "PREFR," which includes:

The first step is to explain the process: give contest to your activities so that the SME knows what to expect and understands why certain steps that may seem pointless are of value to the outcome. Remember to address the SME from the perspective of their interests : "What's in it for me?"

The reasons reinforce the process, providing concrete explanations of instructional theory, collective practice, and your own experience. You cannot take for granted that the SME has any respect for your experience, and explaining the rationale is necessary.

Empowerment involves ensure that the SME feels that they are in a position to exercise control (if they do not already have an abundance of this sentiment) to ensure their active participation in the project.

Friendliness is about keeping a cordial and non-threatening relationship with the SME. Showing optimism about the project, giving them praise for their contributions, and otherwise expressing that you value their assistance helps keep them from feeling marginalized.

Recognition involves praising your SME to others, particularly the peers and superiors of the SME. The appreciation you express will come back to the SME from someone whose opinion matters more to them than your own, and you will develop the reputation of being a conscientious, appreciative professional.

Additional Skills and Tools

Developing a sense of empathy can be helpful: you must get a good "read" of your SME to sense the early warning signs of negative emotions that can hinder progress so that you can intervene before they do so.

When interfacing with management and executives, be aware that you must address concerns related to specific management goals such as productivity, revenue, efficiency, safety, morale, and the like. Expressing outcomes in the form of numbers makes it easier for them to understand.

The author suggests a "SWOT" analysis on the SME, to consider their personal strengths and weaknesses and the opportunities and threats in the organizational environment. (EN: An interesting exercise, but not a real SWOT analysis in the sense it is used in strategic development.)

Persuasion skills and salesmanship are a significant part of consulting: you must be able to "sell" your SME on your own expertise and the value of the principles of training, and to steer them toward the right path.

People are fond of their own ideas, and resistant to anyone else's. The author suggests "Even when an idea is not really theirs, it can be embraced when they are made to believe it was theirs originally." (EN: This is exceedingly disingenuous, and particularly wise if the other party is reasonably intelligent and can detect the manipulation.)

The author suggests a specific pattern to discuss differences: feel, felt, found: "I know that you feel ____ about ______, and it's understandable since my last client felt the same way. What we both found was_____." (EN: Another warning is that the notion of "feel" implies a lack of intelligence and a preference for emotional reactions - be careful of suggesting this unless you are dealing with a "feeling" rather than a "thinking" person.)

Another handy acronym is "SSAP": the right SME, situation, approach, and process.


Once achieved, collaboration is not self-sustaining: it requires a constant effort to continue to remain in this mode. When the project encounters obstacles or external pressures to the team increase, people turn from collaborators back into competitors, sometimes instantly.

To that end, the author provides a handful of random tips:

It's also important to consider that, even if you find yourself working on several projects with the same team, you will need to foster collaboration in each one. Some goodwill will carry over, but if neglected for too long, it will not sustain itself.


(EN: There is no "conclusion" to the booklet ... it simply peters out after making the last point.)