Reluctant SMEs

One of the more frustrating experiences you will encounter as an instructional designer working with a SME who is assigned to work with you, but just is not excited about the project. It can have a number of adverse effects on your project.


For an employed full-timer, a SME that doesn’t hold up his/her end of the bargain doesn’t just slow the project down, they can put a kink in your overall project plan. I’m sure we have all emailed a SME with a simple question and sat waiting for that alert that you have an email. More frustrating still are the persistent reschedulers.   You finally get a meeting on the books only to receive an email 5 minutes prior rescheduling, or worse yet, cancelling all together. My favorite of, course is, when they simply don’t show. The means you are explaining delays to managers and stake holders. Stress builds and eyes are suddenly on YOU. Someone else’s incompetence makes it look like you are not doing your job.


Freelancers, it can be even worse. Often times you are assigned a SME whom you have never, may not ever, meet face to face. The same things happen. The project slows down or stalls, schedules are thrown off, and everyone wants to know why you are not getting things done.

You’ve emailed, you’ve called, you may have even tried carrier pigeons or smoke signals. And still no answer. So what to do?

So, what do you do?

Full timers, or those who are working in the same office as their SME, has some advantages.  I’m pretty famous for walking down to a SMEs desk or office and asking if they have received my numerous emails. I have always worked full time, so I will often use the following process:

  1. Email with my questions or request for info
  2. Follow up email (can be anywhere between 20 mins or two days or more depending on what is appropriate)
  3. Phone call
  4. Take a walk
  5. Email and CC my supervisor
  6. Conversation with my supervisor

Typically from there my supervisor will get involved. At that point there is usually some resolution pretty quick.

When you are working free-lance, you can follow a similar process. Be sure to keep your main stakeholder, e.g. project manager, department head, person who hired you in the loop at all times. In these situations the SME should be especially motivated to help you keep things on track. If you don’t receive prompt responses, I would go right to an email with your contact CC’d. I would even follow up with an email directly to your main contact. The stakes are a lot hirer and can end up costing a freelancer money. A good technique to head this off early is to include terms in your contract regarding what will happen if someone stalls the project: payment schedule will continue as planned, regardless of progress do to stalled project, or If project is stalled more than one week, payment is due in full.

The key to working with reluctant SMEs is to remember that no matter what, it is you job to drive your projects forward. It is your project after all. The best overall strategy, freelance or fulltime, is to maintain absolute transparency. Make sure that all involved know what’s happening. I like to send a weekly update on big projects. Be sure to be transparent with your SME as well. Let them know that in the end this will benefit them as well. Often times when I can get a SME to realize that good training means less questions directed to them, they usually come around pretty quick. Don’t be afraid to be transparent. No one else is going to take responsibility for you project.

Ever onward!!!

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