How to Leverage Internal Subject Matter Experts to Optimise Learning & Development

How to Leverage Internal Subject Matter Experts to Optimise Learning & Development


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They’re needed everywhere: training peers, optimising business plans and literally in the field just doing their work. Yes, we’re talking about subject matter experts.

The subject matter expert has a deep understanding of a particular topic, area or process. Not all are created equal, which means it takes a little coaxing to get the benefits you need from them. So, how can organisations effectively identify, utilise and retain their subject matter experts?

Who are the subject matter experts in your organisation?

A subject matter expert (SME) is an authority on a particular job, area, technology, process, field or subject. Their depth of knowledge is such that they are considered uniquely qualified to provide guidance and strategy regarding their area of specialisation. Within an organisation, this often applies to those who have been in their roles for a long enough period that their knowledge is second nature.

Why deep understanding matters

They’re an important role because with the current pace of change, subject matter experts are often the people in your organisation who can accurately advise what you need based on their nuanced knowledge of both the business and their field of specialisation.

Your organisation will likely have a top-down hierarchy and a recruitment strategy that aims to hire top talent. Consider, then, those promoted based on experience and influence, those recruited to train based on expertise and those asked to contribute to projects because they possess all of these qualities. The list of SMEs in your organisation may include managers, technical leads, analysts, contributors to any business platforms or publications, and even people who are commonly sought out by peers.

Identifying internal subject matter experts

While “subject matter expert” might call up images of expert witnesses, the SMEs in your organisation are likely to be found across business areas (support, operations, marketing, IT, etc). Keep an eye on those who balance careers and their own progression with a hands-on approach to guidance, or those considered a source of truth by their peers.

The latter identifier is important because it demonstrates an individual is able to articulate what could be dry or dense information in a way most people can understand. The following questions may be useful when determining subject matter expert criteria:

  1. What defines expertise in your organisation?
  2. What processes do you require ensure SMEs are available when needed?
  3. How is expertise captured, developed and reviewed over time?

To keep track of your internal SMEs (or potential SMEs), we recommend creating a profile for each that becomes part of a living document (that should be consistently updated). This will help you quickly find the thought leaders you need when you need them.

Why you should look internally for SMEs

Most people think of SMEs as thought leaders, speakers, university professors and esteemed authors—and most of the time, they are. But much like recruitment, looking internally for a subject matter expert will yield a pool that have firsthand knowledge of both the subject matter and how it applies to your organisation.

Consider the legal department. Their skillset needs to be highly specialised, but new graduates may not be well-versed with the legal actions unique to your organisation. This is where an SME can help them meet challenges while giving them key takeaways – turning specific problems into learning opportunities.

You may also have SMEs hiding in the shadows. No doubt your managers and leaders will be considered experts in their disciplines, but there are always those in waiting who can bring new perspectives and critical skills from prior roles. There’s also the added benefit of saving on fees or stricter time constraints that external SMEs usually have, and the trust and confidence you convey when you spotlight internal talent.

Why would you need a subject matter expert?

Subject matter experts are vital to helping understand a topic or solving a problem where general knowledge is insufficient. Let’s break it down again.

Combined, these three benefits not only offer more relevant and accurate information to your employees, but it gives your organisation’s services or products heightened credibility and competitiveness.

Optimised workflows

If you consider that an internal SME is already familiar with organisational processes, then you’ll understand how they can help streamline workflows in a way that achieves business outcomes. Channels of communication are also strengthened by a subject matter expert’s input; depending on their specialisation, they can clearly articulate arguments or information in a way that improves job performances or enables improved workflows and processes.

Use case

Internal SMEs can occupy anywhere from mid-tier to top floor roles, so they’ll have more nuanced knowledge than most when it comes to the different workflows across your organisation. They’ll also often have worked their way up from entry level, so they have a deep understanding of how their role and team fits into the business, organisational processes, and how environmental changes affect both of the former.

Relevant learning content

Provided you give them a solid understanding of learning outcomes, engaging an SME to develop learning content for employee training can boost learner performance and alignment with management goals by 73%. This comes down to an in-depth knowledge of their subject matter, authenticity and an understanding of the challenges the content is addressing.

Use case

It’s important to note that SMEs will seldom have the time to actually flesh out content. They’re the heavy lifters, so having other team members work alongside your SME to make sure content is beneficial and understandable to users is the best way to utilise an SME’s expertise. It’ll also help the team understand how to do things in future, meaning you won’t need to lean on SMEs for every project.

Money & time saved

Looking for SME knowledge externally is often an expensive endeavour. Internal SMEs, on the other hand, are more easily sourced (which equates to less time spent finding them) and often come without the fees external SMEs require for their services (literally saving you money)—meaning you don’t accrue time debt (considering internal SMEs will already be familiar with both the people, challenges and processes in your organisation).

Use case

Your SMEs are likely tied to a specific business area. When you’re designing employee training programs like, say, onboarding (which needs to cover a lot of information about different areas) an SME from each important organisational function can more accurately and efficiently provide the relevant information a new hire needs that non-SMEs wouldn’t know and would have to spend their already limited time learning—which may increase their fees and the time needed for a project, too.

How to get buy-in from your subject matter experts

It’s one thing to highlight the colleague or manager as the subject matter expert you need. Getting them to invest in the project you need them for is a whole other ballpark, least of all because they are likely:

  1. Already managing their own team and projects;
  2. Therefore, extremely busy; and
  3. Not immediately familiar with the people you need them to work with.

Sound a little scary? There are some dos and don’ts when it comes to working with SMEs, but it comes down to clearly defining their role and giving them a reason to contribute.

Involve them from the start

No matter if you’re creating a training program or starting a new project, best practice is to make sure your SMEs know the thinking behind it and what the expected outcomes are. This also helps ensure only the right and relevant information is presented; the sheer amount of knowledge SMEs possess can obscure the concepts people truly need to understand without clear metrics.

…but don’t solely rely on them

You are just one priority in an SME’s workload. The most efficient use of everyone’s time is therefore to be prepared on the topic they will be advising on; this saves on back-and-forth communication and allows you to set agendas for their time, which only helps them better separate the information that is need-to-know from the nice-to-know.

Demonstrate the value

Failing compensation, the next best incentive when an SME devotes their precious time to a project is credibility and publicity. It’s important to show them both the impact their work will have and the value working on your project can add to their portfolio, especially since not being recognised as an expert is the main reason many SMEs leave an organisation.

…but only include them when it’s necessary

After all that, it’s important not to bring them in unless they’re truly needed. This isn’t a job opportunity for them; there will be processes they are not directly involved in, and it wastes time and expertise they could better use elsewhere by dragging them into meetings or tasks they aren’t needed for.

Accept their feedback

Part of an SME’s role is to appraise and critique components relating to their particular area of expertise. If you’re bringing them on because they are experts, don’t get mad if and when they provide feedback. Some may even be hesitant to give unsolicited advice, so ensure you respect and welcome the (highly valuable and informed, let’s not forget) feedback they offer.

…but do define your expectations and their role

Likely, you are bringing a subject matter expert on as a consultant, or they may only have the time to contribute to a project on a casual basis. This is where it’s important to assert the role they play in a team dynamic and what their responsibilities will be. Communication will flow more smoothly and you’ll avoid any SME attrition by giving them a focus for their efforts.

In conclusion

Subject matter experts, as the name implies, are an invaluable source of knowledge. However, first you need to identify the SMEs in your organisation and then contend with their busy schedules. Getting SMEs to invest time in L&D and other projects can be tricky, so it’s important to involve them only when necessary, show them the value of their time spent and welcome the contributions they do make.

When all is said and done, you’ll get to enjoy your optimised return on L&D investments—thanks to the diverse areas of specialisation your SMEs will hark from—and you’ll see the benefits in the comprehensive content and enhanced workflows they help create and the resources they’ll save you.

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