In the learning and development world, the term “subject matter expert” or “SME” is used often to refer to individuals within organizations who have valuable knowledge in a particular subject area. Effectively leveraging SME knowledge is an important part of nearly every L&D program, which means it is critical to understand what makes an individual an effective SME. Nearly all employees share some form of niche, unique knowledge that can be leveraged to improve learning and development experiences, but how can your organization select the best SME for the job?
First, let’s take a deep dive into the importance of SMEs in learning and development. At Dashe, we often highlight the importance of building training programs that are custom-designed for specific learners and learning goals. Every organization has different learning goals and environments, and using SMEs to transfer valuable knowledge can help create the most effective solution for learners. Subject matter experts are useful in identifying potential challenges in complicated subject areas and will give your learning and development team the information they need to create unique learning solutions. Simply put, SMEs provide learning and development teams with insider knowledge on the exact areas in which improvement, and thus training, is needed.
How Can an SME Benefit L&D?
Let’s break SME benefits into two categories and touch on how they can positively impact each business area.
Processes and Protocol. Subject matter experts can provide valuable knowledge on how to build learning programs that maximize efficiency within your organization. As mentioned above, every business has their own unique processes that work best and consulting an SME within your organization will help you create a learning plan that increases employee awareness of process. Furthermore, subject matter experts can provide important information on protocol in place within your organization, which is often a critical piece of employee education.
Content Development. Perhaps the most common use of SMEs is for L&D program content development. Once you have identified your employees’ learning goals, you’ll need SMEs to dive deep into exactly what employees need to know. For example, speaking with a Human Recourses SME can help an L&D team understand the exact knowledge learners will need to meet compliance standards. Often, an SME is involved in the early stages of L&D program content development to ensure learning aligns with their knowledge.
Deciding How to Use your SMEs
When creating a new L&D program, it can be difficult to pinpoint the exact individuals you need to leverage to maximize outcomes. First, you’ll need to decide how you plan to use your SMEs. There are two ways in which you can use subject matter experts to create content for your training program: in a group or as a standalone source of truth. This choice often comes down to logistics, as using many SMEs or a single elusive SME can create issues with efficiency.
Consulting A Single SME as a Source of Truth
If you are planning on using one single SME as a source of truth, it is important that the individual has the time and resources to contribute to the project. It is ineffective to use an employee that has limited time to think critically about the solution you are creating (think, generally, C-level management). Nonetheless, it is also a poor choice to select an individual that has a limited scope of knowledge in a particular area simply because they have more time and resources to contribute to the SME knowledge transfer process. Often, the best SME for a single source of truth is one that is willing and able to commit time and resources to employee development.
Before finding an SME, try to think about the individual that will have the most specialized knowledge in the area you are looking for. For example, if you are creating a new learning and development program focused on compliance, the head of your HR department is a good option, but perhaps not the best. Finding a resource who works directly and exclusively with compliance regulations is most likely the best option and will help your learning and development team receive the information they need quickly and efficiently.
Leveraging a Group of SMEs
If you are planning to leverage a group of SMEs to develop a new learning and development program, consider time, knowledge, and logistics. Not only will you be taking time away from more employees within your organization, but you will also most likely be spending more time gathering information. One of the best times to use group SME knowledge is in the creation of a new education program that focuses on unifying knowledge across employees in the same role. This means that you will most likely need to gather information from many employees in the same department or on the same team, which can cause logistical issues. To start, we recommend creating awareness for the training program and focusing on organization-wide buy-in to ensure employees are able to contribute.
Using SMEs to Build Training for the Future
As your organization settles into 2022, working to maximize learning outcomes should be a top priority. Effectively leveraging subject matter experts is one of the best ways you can ensure the information you are providing to learners is accurate, effective, and impactful. When building your next training program, consider consulting with and leveraging SMEs throughout your organization using the tips listed above—it may just be the difference between your learning and development program’s success and failure.