A subject matter expert (SME) is a person who has special skills or knowledge on a particular topic.
In the L&D space, an SME usually refers to an employee who possesses expertise that is crucial for the development of learning experiences from which other employees can benefit.
SMEs abound within an organization. They may be a co-worker or manager, or perhaps even a contractor, on whom a department relies for expertise on a particular project or for a specific skill or process.
For years, companies traditionally relied on external expertise when needing to introduce new learning into the organization. However, organizations have begun to realize that employees—especially those with years of experience in a particular industry or "institutional knowledge" of the company itself—could also serve as a valuable source of competitive advantage.
Why outsource something that exists right within the four walls of the organization?
Further, employees actually prefer to learn from others within the organization. When they want to learn a new skill, employees first turn to their peers, then to their bosses, according to a report published in Harvard Business Review.
But rather than simply give in to employee demand, organizations have begun to notice the value of encouraging on-the-job interactions between peers, teammates, and managers. In this year's Global Human Capital Trends report, HR consulting firm Bersin by Deloitte found that organizations are moving towards a "joint ownership, joint accountability" model of workforce learning, in which L&D and the business share responsibility for developing learning.
Further, employees have less and less time for training. According to Training Magazine’s 2018 Training Industry Report, the time employees spend on training has actually been decreasing. Employees received on average 46.7 hours of training in 2018, compared to 47.6 hours in 2017.
With less than one hour per week for training, employees can make the most of it by learning from their peers in their department—making learning a natural extension of everyday work.
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Getting Subject Matter Experts to Say Yes
Working with subject matter experts is not without its challenges. For one, they're nearly invisible: the L&D team often finds itself having to lean on managers and internal word-of-mouth to identify these important experts.
Another challenge is that advising the training department and building courses is not in the SME's job description. How can the beleaguered L&D manager get SMEs to take the time out of their busy schedule to help in the course building effort?
Explain to the expert that his or her input will lead to a specific outcome, and actively involve the SME throughout the entire lifecycle of a learning project.
For further engagement, contact the SME's manager, and devise a plan to correlate the SME's participation in course building with learner outcomes. Monitor the assessments of learners of the courses created based on the SME's input and cooperation. In this way, the SME's knowledge will have a direct impact and deliver ROI to the company's bottom line.
Giving Subject Matter Experts the Tools They Need
Leveraging technology, SMEs and other non-instructional designers involved in the course development process can build and deliver courses that adhere to proven design principles.
Automation elements can streamline your front-end development process -- from crowdsourcing training requests to performing a needs analysis, then incorporating design, content assembly, storyboarding, prototyping, testing, version control, and maintenance.