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Learning & Development Blog

Seven Archetypes of Subject Matter Experts

The Seven Archetypes of Subject Matter Experts

We need subject matter experts as much as we need air in order to do our jobs effectively. Some SMEs are fantastic, devoting the time and attention your project deserves without argument or complaint. However, SMEs are human, too (can you believe it?) and sometimes need a bit of help or encouragement to perform at their best due to other demands in their work and personal lives.

We've found that generally, SMEs can be grouped into seven categories, or archetypes. Each type can be recognized by certain characteristics, though a few overlapping traits are shared between some. Keep in mind, though, that SMEs can shift, without warning, from one type to another, sometimes in the span of a single meeting!

As instructional designers and learning professionals, we need to recognize each archetype and adjust our approach accordingly to ensure happy and productive SMEs, and consequently, a successful project.

The 7 SME Archetypes Venn Diagram-1.jpg

Here's A Breakdown:


The Clueless SME.png

Description: The Clueless SME is confused and dismayed by their assignment to your project. Even when assigned and authorized by their supervisor to speak for the business function, they refuse to make any impactful decisions or fully answer questions.  Instead they feign ignorance and attempt to pass the buck.

Natural Habitat: Most often found sulking in the back of meeting rooms avoiding eye contact as much as possible.

Identified By: The confused and generally uninterested look in their eyes during brief moments of eye contact.

Care and Feeding:

  • Continually reinforce that their expertise is needed the project.
  • Instead of asking them to make decisions, make choices on their behalf and allow them to react to the choice.


  • Ask high gain questions
  • Use the 5 whys technique during interviews.
  • Draw them into the group as much as possible.

The Control Freak SME.png

Description: The Control Freak SME is characterized by extreme over-confidence in their ability to design and dictate every aspect of a course. They prefer to talk rather than listen and have strong opinions about minute details such as color and word choices.

Natural Habitat: In your business.

Identified By: Their ability to ignore others opinions and spend entire meetings convincing the room that their font choice is the only possible way to go.

Care and Feeding:

  • Validate their opinions as often as possible, and be flexible enough to incorporate their ideas as your design and standards allow.
  • Allow this SME to voice what is top of mind for them at the beginning of each meeting to prime them for listening when it is your turn.
  • Don’t allow this SME to fully take the reins or you will not get them back.


  • Provide detailed agendas and goals for each meeting and follow them.
  • Give the SME the opportunity to voice their opinion, but don’t allow them to hijack a session.
  • Explain your choices and the project standards repeatedly and show your work early and often to sway their opinion in your favor. 

The Busy Bee SME.png

Description: The Busy Bee SME is the Go-To person in their department – for everything. This SME is enthusiastic about your project, but is constantly in meetings, troubleshooting problems, and making sure that no birthday passes without a cake and a card.

Natural Habitat: Where ever they are needed most at any given moment.

Identified By: Their jam packed calendar and constantly buzzing mobile device.

Care and Feeding:

  • Respect their busy schedules and make sure meetings are ultra-focused.
  • A recurring weekly meeting is a good bet with this SME, though flexibility is a must.


The Include It All SME.png

Description: The Include It ALL SME is insistent that every detail about a process or procedure, no matter how small, should be included in your course content. They are true experts in their subject, but are unable to see things from the perspective of a novice. They also tend to remember what they deem to be key details while in content review meetings.

Natural Habitat: Diligently working at their desk noting additional details to add that you purposely left out of course content.

Identified By: Their tendency to make meetings run way over the allotted time and their fondness for adding hundreds of comments to material in red pen.

Care and Feeding:

  • Allow this SME to communicate all of their knowledge to you. You will understand the topic more fully, but be judicious about the content you choose to include in materials.
  • Keep lists of content the SME wants to add for future advanced sessions.


  • Take time to explain, and continually reinforce, the concepts and benefits of avoiding cognitive overload, chunking content, and building on ideas over time.
  • Use a parking lot concept in meetings to table discussions whose scope goes beyond what you need for the current project.

The Unfocused SME.png

Description: The Unfocused SME has trouble following any agenda but their own. They are well intentioned but have a tendency to hijack meetings with tangent discussions and provide interesting information that is not actually needed. When late to meetings, they insist on restarting to make sure they have not missed anything.

Natural Habitat: Having “off-topic” discussions with whoever will listen.

Identified By: Their tendency to interject ideas that have no bearing on the current discussion.

Care and Feeding:

  • To avoid alienating this SME, allow them to share their off topic ideas as often as is feasible.
  • Engage with them and provide avenues for their ideas to come to fruition whenever you can.


  • Provide meeting agendas and follow them closely, but build in some flexibility.
  • When the SME strays off topic, allow a brief 1-2 minute discussion and then table the topic for further discussion later.

The Unreliable SME.png

Description: The Unreliable SME is smart and capable, but terrible at time management and meeting deadlines. They are always ready to provide a creative excuse for incomplete or missing assignments.

Natural Habitat: Talking with project leaders before meetings explaining the latest crisis that prevented them from meeting a deadline.

Identified By: The varied and interesting excuses they use every time a deadline is missed.

Care and Feeding:

  • Sympathize with your SME’s challenges and allow them as much flexibility as your timeline allows.


  • Include this type of SME in your project planning process and allow them to provide input regarding their workload and deadlines.
  • Help them to brainstorm ways that they can ensure their project goals are met.

The AWOL SME.png

Description: The AWOL (Absent without Leave) SME is overscheduled, overworked and overwhelmed. This SME is habitually double or triple booked, may travel on business frequently without updating their calendar, and can only be found at their desk every third Tuesday between 1:37 and 2:12 pm.

Natural Habitat: Anywhere but their desk or scheduled meeting.

Identified By: Their conspicuous absence in meetings, on phone calls and in your inbox.

Care and Feeding:

YOU need to:

  • Set the meetings
  • Provide reminders
  • Confirm meetings 2-24 hours in advance
  • Don’t take voice mail for answer. Track them down in person if needed.


  • Communicate deadlines and the consequences of missing them verbally and in writing.
  • Feed content for review in small chucks with tight turnarounds to avoid SME forgetting to review or being overwhelmed by a large amount of work.
  • Demonstrate that you are prepared, in charge, and reliable in meetings and deadlines. 

 Stay tuned for Part Two of this post - The 7 SME Archetypes: How To Work With Them.

Seven Archetypes of Subject Matter Experts Ebook


Andrea May, VP of Instructional Design, Dashe & Thomson, Inc,

Fiona Quigley, Logic Earth

Dawn Mahoney, Learning In The White Space, LLC.