How much time should a subject matter expert SME contribute to a project?

Question: My team and I are working to develop some parameters around which SMEs will be held accountable when accepting to be part of a design project. Are there any current guidelines or industry standards around how many hours a SME should dedicate to an eLearning project?

Answer Subject Matter Experts (SME) are frequently employees within the company that is developing a training program, as opposed to paid external experts. So this answer is specifically related to those SMEs who have regular day jobs and are participating in the design of training materials as an additional job duty. With this in mind, it is most important that the SME and his or her direct supervisor understand that a time commitment on behalf of the SME is in fact required if the training program is to be successful. How much time you will require from the subject matter expert depends upon various factors including:

  • Complexity of the subject matter
  • Length of the training program and total number of learning objectives
  • Training Modality (ILT supported by PowerPoint, eLearning, group facilitation, etc.)
  • Experience and efficiency of the instructional designer conducting the SME interviews
  • Other factors

The best way to determine the amount of time that will be required is to perform an initial 1-hour SME interview. Gather as much information as you can in the time you have together. Then, work with the material you have and develop it as far as you can.

Document follow-up questions and tasks for the SME. Meet again with the SME to obtain the clarification and additional support that you need and evaluate how effective the process is going for the two of you so far.

After the first few meetings you will start to get a sense of whether or not the subject matter expert has the technical expertise and if s/he is dedicating the necessary amount of time. You can also extrapolate approximately how much time you will need to finish the project based upon how much you have completed thus far. If you find that you require more time than the SME is willing or able to commit, then you should take a meeting with the SME and supervisor to work toward a solution or to assign an alternate subject matter expert.

Generally the subject matter expert role should not require too much time. I’d say that for the total labor required to develop training, the SME should contribute 5-10% or less of this total time. For example, for every 20 hours of effort the instructional designer/writer is working, the SME may be required for 1-2 hours to give initial guidance/information and to review the training materials for accuracy, etc.

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