Subject Matter Experts in L&D: Who they are and why you need them

What is a subject matter expert? - eFront Blog

An instructional designer, a learning technologist, and a training facilitator walk into a meeting room. What happens next? Nothing! Because they’re missing an important member of the team. Someone who’ll lay the foundations for training to come.

That person, of course, is the SME. But what does SME stand for? It stands for Subject Matter Expert. And what exactly is a subject matter expert? Let’s find out.

What is a Subject Matter Expert?

It’s Saturday morning, and you have dinner guests arriving at 7 pm. You promised them Duck a l’Orange, but you don’t have the first clue how to make it. So you open your trusty recipe book, follow the instructions, and voila! Dinner is served.

Who wrote that recipe book? Probably a copywriter. But they only knew what to write because they had the help of an expert in cooking, most likely a chef. Just the same with training, you’ll need an expert in the course subject matter if you want your course to be anything more than a collage of Google search results.

So, if you’re ever asked what a subject matter expert is, you can say that it’s the person who knows the information that everyone else in the company needs to know. Someone with a deep understanding of, and wealth of experience in, a particular job, process or technology.

And what does a subject matter expert do? What are their responsibilities in the course development process? You’re about to find out.

What is the SME’s role in training, anyway?

Let’s break down what a subject matter expert means in the context of training, starting with their key responsibilities.

Mapping the path to competency development

The first step in designing a new course doesn’t start with the SME. It starts with a training needs analysis to uncover skills, behavior and knowledge gaps in the company. This helps L&D to identify which training courses need to be developed, and what each of their learning objectives will be.

The very next step, though, is where the subject matter expert comes in. The SME (or a group of them) is responsible for mapping a path backward from the training goal to the training content. They’ll work with the instructional designer and decide on the best ways to achieve the required learning, like which activities are best suited to each objective.

For example, to develop skills in paid media marketing, the SME could suggest a simulated learning experience where learners can analyze real results. Because of his or her experience with paid marketing, the SME might feel that this kind of realistic application is more effective than notes or infographics.

Collaborating with training team members

Subject matter experts may be important, but they still need the help of other training roles in order to create high-quality courses.

In many cases, they’ll need to work with instructional designers, learning technologists, facilitators, videographers, graphic designers, branding managers, and even other SMEs. But their effective collaboration with the rest of the team isn’t just an added benefit. It’s an essential part of the role and responsibilities of subject matter experts.

Because without clear and frequent communication and open-mindedness to the opinions of others in the team, the course will never reach its full potential.

Creating training content

Subject matter experts aren’t expected to have the writing skills of J.K. Rowling or the branding know-how of David Ogilvy. They are, however, required to provide rough content for more specialized team members to transform into high-quality training materials.

For example, SMEs are often tasked with sharing rough notes, content outlines, presentations and video scripts based on their subject expertise. Then, copywriters, videographers and designers will create engaging infographics, notes and videos based on this information.

What is a subject matter expert? - eFront Blog

Essential Skills for SMEs

Unfortunately, not every SME is as good as the next. So, be sure to hire and develop the skills required for subject matter experts to excel in their duties. Skills like these:


You already know that collaboration is important in the role of any SME. And to collaborate, SMEs need teamwork skills. This includes guiding other team members in their planning and creation of content, sharing knowledge and experience openly and willingly, being an active participant in course development, and showing commitment to the team effort.


What is a subject matter expert if not a communicator of knowledge and insights? Because finding the most knowledgeable SME in the world won’t matter if they aren’t able to share that knowledge with the rest of the team. That’s why they need the ability to communicate information clearly and concisely, even to someone with no background on the subject.

Time management

Most SMEs practice their expertise in full-time jobs, which makes their training role just one of many they’re juggling in a week. What’s more, some SMEs work remotely. This means they need to be great time managers, or they’ll fall behind and create delays in training development projects.


SMEs are expected to sift through the libraries of knowledge in their minds, extract what is relevant for the training program, and then decide on the best way for those concepts or skills to be taught. This requires problem-solving skills, so that the most suitable learning activities are assigned to each learning outcome.


Now that you know what a subject matter expert is, you’ll also know that you’re not working with a complete training team unless you’re working with subject matter experts. They set the foundations for a meaningful learning experience. So, perhaps it’s time to give them a seat at your training table.

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