How I Build and Nurture the LD-SME Relationship


As a learning designer (LD), my job is to work with subject matter experts (SMEs) to develop engaging online courses. This can be a rewarding process, but it can also present a challenge because often the success of a course development hinges on the strength of the relationship that develops between the LD and the SME during the development.

In any working relationship, individuals bring differing levels of expertise, talents, viewpoints, and work styles to the table. What’s special about the relationship between a learning designer and a subject matter expert is that it quickly becomes a true working partnership. How quickly the LD and the SME are able to enter into this collaborative partnership—and how well they sustain it throughout the entire course development process (usually several months)—is often in direct proportion to the overall success of the resulting course build.

Building the Relationship 

I know from hard-won successful experiences that if I, at the onset of course development, invest the time to build a solid working relationship with a SME, this goes a long way in facilitating the work we must do together in the weeks and months ahead.

How do I do this? I’ve often noticed at the beginning of a development—usually in a kickoff meeting—that there can be a sense of unease on the part of a SME about what we’re entering into—the process of online course design. This is particularly true for SMEs who have little (or no) experience developing an online course—but even for SMEs that have this experience, the process can seem daunting. So I work hard from the first to put a SME at ease

During my first few meetings with a SME, I actually do not spend much time discussing subject matter content. Yes, in time we review an existing syllabus, work on a development schedule, establish weekly meeting times that work for us both, and maybe we’ll even start on a course outline. But initially, my focus is to get to know the SME on a personal level. I ask about their background, how they came to be passionate about their work, and what their overall goals are. This often leads (usually in short order) to an informal discussion about their particular professional or academic interests, and their experiences with the content they care so much about. This then naturally leads to a discussion (often with great ideas that facilitate my own work!) of what they hope to realize in the online course we are developing together. In these first meetings, I learn a lot about the SME’s learning style and teaching style as well as their working preferences. From these initial conversations, I can assess their willingness to engage in the online course design process and participate with me as their partner in this important collaboration.

Clear Communication & Guidance 

Learning Designers are educators and bring their own expertise to the SME-LD relationship—expertise related to educational pedagogy, learning theory, online learning methodology, and the integration of content with technology—all with the learner’s experience in mind. In fact, creating pathways for learner success is what ultimately drives the work that I do. 

Additionally, sound learning design provides clear guidance for learners throughout an online course. I work carefully to build courses that include clear and meaningful assessments that contain instructions and prompts that are clearly written, and I draft clear learning objectives for these assessments that are aligned to clear course outcomes and overall programmatic outcomes. How I communicate these to the learner in a course (transparently and, yes, clearly!) is of the utmost importance. 

Likewise, as I work with a subject matter expert during an online course development, it is equally important that I provide the SME with a straightforward user experience as well, one that includes the same clarity of guidance, communication, and transparency that we are seeking to develop for our prospective learners. One process informs the other.

Nurturing the Relationship

This important work that learning designers engage in with subject matter experts throughout the process of course development—providing gentle, clear and patient guidance, communicating openly and regularly—is really all about nurturing the LD-SME relationship. In my own experience as a learning designer, I seek to nurture and sustain these relationships—these partnerships—in a friendly, attentive, and respectful fashion. I’m easy-going and optimistic by nature, and try to be encouraging, adaptable, and flexible. I offer support however I can when there is difficulty.

I’m genuinely filled with appreciation for the unique contributions—content, expertise, and experience—that all subject matter experts provide to the course development process. My SMEs sense this appreciation, and that too goes a long way in nurturing the collaborative partnership we’ve worked so hard to establish together.

About the Author

Marc Harrington

Working together with his colleagues at Ease Learning, Senior Learning Designer Marc Harrington has developed over a hundred online courses for university clients throughout the U.S. Marc is passionate about making a learner’s experience the best it can be.

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