How to Maximize Subject Matter Experts’ Limited Time


Subject matter experts (SMEs) are an organization’s knowledge base. They know critical information and hold key responsibilities. Their time is valuable and limited, so how do you gain the benefits of their expertise without interrupting their other duties?

After decades of working with SMEs across all kinds of industries, we’ve assembled a list of five time-saving techniques for getting the best information from SMEs in the least amount of time.

1. Gather Information First

Everyone is busy, and it’s critical that you don’t waste the time you have with the SME. Gather as much information as you can prior to meeting with the SME. This helps you build context for the project and gives you a view into the SME’s world. Even better—it demonstrates that you are interested in the subject and the knowledge the SME has to offer. 

When we start a new or unfamiliar project, clients usually provide assets such as outlines, first drafts, and previous work. We use these assets to get up to speed on projects before speaking with the SME (who likely played a hand in creating the data in the first place). There’s no need to waste time asking SMEs for information they’ve already provided. 

2. Apply Active Listening

Active listening is a sign of respect that shows the SME that you truly value their input. Don’t just listen to what they’re saying—pay attention to how they’re saying it. SMEs are passionate about their subject, and active listening will help you better understand their point of view. 

3. Stick to a Schedule

Be respectful of the SME’s time and other commitments. Discuss scheduling with them to ensure meetings don’t cause unnecessary disruptions. Never jump into a spontaneous discussion, because unexpected interruptions derail their activities more than scheduled meetings do. 

Complex projects sometimes raise questions along the way. Once in a while, these questions demand an immediate answer that only a busy SME can provide. More often, however, questions can be batched into a single communication. Sending multiple emails every time you have a question is a surefire way to hinder the relationship with an SME. 

4. Look for Answers before Contacting SMEs

Sometimes, questions answer themselves. Consider holding onto questions that aren’t urgent and will not affect other work. For example, one of our technical illustrators was reviewing a batch of handwritten revisions. At first, the illustrator considered contacting the SME for immediate clarification. We may have an impulse to gather all available information right away, but it’s sometimes better to wait. 

In this instance, the illustrator recognized that the SME maintained a busy schedule, so a one-off question would be disruptive. Asking for clarification on that particular note wouldn’t ultimately impact the project’s outcome. Rather than contacting the SME immediately, the illustrator made a note about the unclear feedback and moved on with the rest of the revisions. This created the opportunity to batch any additional questions into a single communication. Ultimately, after digging deeper into the revisions, the illustrator figured out the unclear feedback without needing the SME’s input.

5. Build a Collaborative Relationship

Subject matter experts have valuable insight, and you need it. Establish clear guidelines for collaboration and communication, and be mindful that your project will not always be the SME’s top priority. Use asynchronous communication such as email, document comments, and revision cycles so that everyone can communicate at times that fit their schedules. 

Do Your Subject Matter Experts Have a Story to Tell?

ProEdit specializes in helping SMEs communicate their knowledge through superior writing, training, and content management. Let us know how we can serve your organization.