When organizations post RFPs for instructional design or e-learning consultants, they will often list “PhD or Master’s Degree in [our organization’s field of expertise]” among the requirements.

Coworkers in office gather around and discuss ideas

The reasoning for this might seem like common sense (how can anyone create a training course on a subject they do not understand?), yet it misses some basic points about the relationship between subject matter experts, instructional designers and learners.

The legendary designer and educational filmmaker Charles Eames liked to say that clients like IBM, Boeing and Polaroid didn’t pay for his expertise: they paid for his ignorance.  In other words, Eames brought an outsider’s perspective which allowed him to bridge the gap between his clients’ subject matter expertise and audiences who might have little or no prior knowledge of the field.  And that’s without mentioning the writing, graphic design and filmmaking skills that Eames’ company brought to the table.

While training films have given way to interactive multimedia and adult learning theory has grown far more sophisticated since the 1950s, the basic value proposition for involving a learning expert in the design of a course versus leaving it to a subject matter expert remains fundamentally the same.


Subject matter experts have a talent and passion for their subject, however learners might not have the same aptitude or affinity.  An instructional designer can help reframe the subject matter to make it more relevant and accessible to learners.

Subject matter experts are often so far advanced in their knowledge that they might have trouble remembering what it was like to approach their field as a beginner.  This is especially true if they are designing training for learners in another field who have only a limited or tangential interest in the subject (for example, a laywer developing a course on labor laws for factory managers, or a geophysicist trying to explain satellite climate data to elected officials).

In these situations, an instructional designer can:

  • Break down complex concepts and processes into a series of smaller “building blocks” that learners can more readily comprehend
  • Find appropriate metaphors and case study examples that will resonate with the audience
  • Highlight the practical benefits to the learner from mastering the subject (“what’s in it for me?”)

Subject matter experts have a lifetime of knowledge while learners typically have a few hours, days or weeks to achieve basic proficiency.  Instructional designers can help strike the balance between covering a topic adequately and staying within the organization’s timetable.  

Typically, organizations need learners to acquire just enough mastery of a skill or concept to perform their jobs, yet subject matter experts often want to share all of their knowledge, and will load a course with far more detail, nuance and background information than necessary.

Here, an instructional designer can:

  • Keep the learning experience focused on the concepts and skills most critical for learners to perform their job (and avoid digressions into obscure or overly advanced topics)
  • Make difficult choices about how to spend limited instruction time (what to include, what to drop) based on the organization’s goals and learners’ needs, rather than the SME’s personal interests
  • Distill the SME’s experience into concise anecdotes that clearly and powerfully illustrate key concepts (not just rambling “war stories”)

Subject matter experts often see it as their job to transmit information, while learners need time to explore, practice and master basic concepts and skills.  Instructional designers can help design a course that balances information and application.

We have worked with talented individuals in fields from medicine to law to information technology who were both subject matter experts and skilled instructional designers – however, these individuals tend to be exceptions to the rule.  Most subject matter experts have no real background in adult learning, and end up being assigned to create training courses by default (i.e., no one else in the organization knows the content).   Thus, they tend to make common mistakes that most people make about training, such as an overreliance on lecture and multiple choice tests, which are generally not regarded as effective training methods.

Involving an instructional designer can help a subject matter expert to:

  • Design learning activities that provide opportunities for realistic practice / learning through firsthand experience and discovery
  • Encourage “teachable moments” where – instead of lecturing – faciltiators let learners try a new skill for themselves, then provide guidance afterwards, during the debriefing
  • Create meaningful assessments to let learners prove – to the instructor and themselves – that they have mastered the subject.

None of the above is meant to diminish the importance of the subject matter expert in the development of a learning program.  In many regards they are more essential than an instructional designer as, without an SME’s input, there can be no learning.  However, if an organization wants to ensure that time spent developing and delivering training will actually lead to behavior change and mission/business-related results, pairing subject matter experts with a learning expert is usually the best course of action.


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