Note: This post was adapted from a workshop given by ODL Instructional Designer Wendi Iacobello and Price College of Business Marketing Lecturer Derik Steyn at the 2022 OU Online conference.

Subject Matter Experts (SME) and Instructional Designers (ID) each have unique knowledge, experience, and skills that can contribute to the other’s success. By working together, SMEs and IDs can create high quality courses that improve the student experience.

The SME is the content expert in this partnership and is primarily responsible for developing the content for the course. The ID on the other hand, is more focused on the online learning experience. They help the instructor review and build content into the Learning Management System (LMS) while making suggestions for improvement on how content is delivered or formatted.

Together, they both function as course experts who set goals and deadlines for the shared course building project. They do this by sharing ideas, discussing expectations, and communicating updates throughout the course of the project. They end the project by proofing the finished product before sending for final Quality Assurance checks.

A strong SME-ID partnership benefits everyone involved – students, the program, and the SME and ID themselves. The SME brings the expertise needed to build a meaningful course, and the ID helps the SME construct a course that meets program expectations and student needs.

How does this partnership work?

Shared/SME-ID Influences: Rapport and Shared Vision
Rapport: communicate for trust and openness, interpersonal connections, compatible personalities, investing time, showing kindness, having fun together / Shared Vision: share long-term vision, committed to same goals, hold similar expectations for students

Together, the SME and ID work to build rapport and a shared vision. They communicate and work to build connections. This is easier when they have compatible personalities, but always requires time, commitment, and kindness. 

They also need a shared vision for what success will look like. They must be committed to the same goals and hold similar expectations for students.

Three Main Concepts that Influence the SME-ID Partnership

There are three main concepts that influence how successful the SME-ID partnership will be. These are: mindset, proficiency, and leadership/initiative/voice, which we will discuss in more detail below.


The SME should be open and understanding, staying flexible while remaining confident in their expertise. They partner effectively by respecting other professionals, because they are committed to enhancing relationships and their work. At the center of this is a focus on students above all else.

The ID must remain amenable and cooperative. They bring passion and motivation to keep the project moving forward, while also remaining focused on student success.


The SME should be organized, knowledgeable, and professional. Their locus of proficiency is the educational content the students should acquire. Conversely, the ID is more focused on the skills and knowledge that lead to effective project management. They have a willingness to learn and a professionalism that helps the project move along successfully. 

Leadership, Initiative, and Voice

The SME should be supportive and transparent, always communicating clearly. The SME should acknowledge the skill of other educational professionals and set clear expectations. Feedback and gratitude are both required throughout the process.

On the other hand, the ID is there to provide input and fill needs. Their job is to support the instructor by offering feedback and encouragement. They should avoid trying to take over the process too much because in the end, the course will have the instructor’s name on it.

Throughout the whole working relationship, a successful SME-ID partnership is built on mutual satisfaction, commitment, and trust. Everything is built on trust, and without it the partnership will inevitably struggle. 

How can they build trust?

A man and a woman high fiving in an office setting
Ground Picture /

According to a book by Lewicki, Barry, and Saunders entitled Negotiation: Readings, Exercises, and Cases, there are four concepts we should consider:

  1. Calculus-based trust
  2. Calculus-based distrust
  3. Identification-based trust
  4. Identification-based distrust

Calculus-based trust is the ongoing, economic calculation of how valuable the future outcomes of a partnership are compared to the costs of maintaining or ending that partnership. It is based on how consistent and predictable behavior is. To build this type of trust requires both parties to do what they say they will do, and this behavioral consistency is enforced by the hope for rewards or the fear of punishment, either directly or indirectly. 

Conversely, calculus-based distrust is the calculation of what someone might lose if the relationship is maintained, compared to the cost of either ending it or finding another way to meet those needs. This will be high when you are confident that the other person’s conduct will be negative and is built on a belief the other person won’t do what they say they will do.

Identification-based trust is a deeper sort of trust that is built on identification with the other person’s desires and intentions. It is high when both parties agree on what is most important. When everyone understands and empathizes with the same values because of some shared goals. There is a confidence that interests will be protected by the other person without the need for monitoring.

On the other hand, Identification-based distrust occurs when one person has negative expectations about what the other person does because they believe they have incompatible values or goals. It can also occur when there is negative emotional connection or feelings. Both parties fail to identify or empathize with the other’s desires or intentions and have very little in common. They tend to be suspicious of the other person, often even believing they are in a competitive partnership.. 

In a healthy relationship, you want high levels of trust and low levels of distrust. In order to get to that point, both parties should assess levels of trust early and decide if the partnership will be short-term or long-term. 

In a short-term project, the focus should be on building calculus-based trust while minimizing calculus-based distrust. Both parties should be very up front concerning agreements, expectations, and deadlines, and each person should work to establish credibility by meeting those expectations. Throughout the project, each person should look for any evidence of the other person’s trustworthiness.

If you anticipate a long-term project, start by building calculus-based trust and managing calculus-based distrust. That will allow you to keep moving forward on the project as you get to know the person. By getting to know them personally, you can eventually establish identification-based trust and manage identification-based distrust.

What are the outcomes of a successful SME-ID partnership?

The SME-ID Partnership: student/program focused, trust, identification-based trust, connect, communicate, mindset, role-defining, shared vision, long-term collaboration

In a healthy SME-ID partnership, the outcomes will be positive for everyone involved – the SME, the ID, and the eventual students. Together they will complete the course design and reflect on the finished project. They will acknowledge what went well and celebrate their successes while also recognizing areas they could do better in the future. 

This will result in high quality courses that enhance student success and will lead to continued positive collaborations in the future. 

References and Additional Reading

Biggs, E.E., Gilson, C.B. & Carter, E.W. (2016). Accomplishing more together: influences to the quality of professional relationships between special educators and paraprofessionals.

Research and Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities, 41(4), p.256 –272.

Geyskens, I., Steenkamp, J.-B., Scheer, L.K. & Kumar, N. (1996). The effects of trust and interdependence on relationship commitment: a Trans-Atlantic study. International Journal of Research in Marketing, 13(4), p.303-317.

Hobson, L. Ph.D. Collaborating and Building Relationships with SME’s. Virtual Course. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 

Lewicki, R.J., Barry, B. & Saunders, D.M. (2015). Negotiation: readings, exercises and cases. McGraw-Hill Education: New York.

Skarmeas, D., Katsikeas, C.S., Spyropoulou, S. & Salehi-Sangari, E. (2008). Market and supplier characteristics driving distributor relationship quality in international marketing channels of industrial products. Industrial Marketing Management, 37(1), p.23-36.

Vesel, P. and Zabkar, V. (2010). Comprehension of relationship quality in the retail environment.

Managing Service Quality, 20(3), p.213-235.

Zenger, J., & Folkman, J. (2016). What Great Listeners Actually Do. Harvard Business Review. 14 July. 

Zhang, Y., Fang, Y., Wei, K., Ramsey, E., McCole, P. & Chen, H. (2011). Repurchase intention in B2C e-commerce – a relationship quality perspective. Information & Management , 48(6), p.192-200.