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Harnessing the power of SMEs for successful workplace training

When I first started out as a corporate trainer it was very easy for me as I mainly focused on customer service courses and I had been a customer service representative with that particular company for a while. I knew exactly what I was talking about, I had tons of personal examples and as a result I was believable and efficient in passing knowledge along.

Then a change in the structure of the L&D department occurred and suddenly I had to deliver training across all channels. It was a big step forward for my career as I got to learn new things and be exposed to new situations and new people but it also came with the enormous challenge of teaching people something I had just learned myself.

The expert opinion matters

The solution I found after a couple of sessions in which the feedback was that ‘the trainer did not provide enough personal examples’ was to incorporate stories of Subject Matter Experts.

Read more: The role of SMEs in e-learning – cooking up the perfect course

Participants react better to something that comes from a person rather than a book or scholar article. When it was possible I invited SMEs to come for half an hour and talk to the participants and when that was not an option I either told the stories myself or include video materials such as interviews or real footage of them at work.

People were a lot more inclined to ‘buy’ what I was teaching if it was supported by a SME. This is actually a very natural reaction – learning is not an easy process and if we are going to do it, we want to make sure we learn the right (and most useful) thing.

The role of the SME in e-learning

The shift from traditional classroom training to online modules comes with its own perks and challenges. In the case of instructor-led interventions people were more or less compelled to listen and participate due to the school-like environment and the constant possibility of being asked a direct question.

E-learning is a much more personal experience and getting participant engagement is paramount. While design has a big role in this, having a SME look over the material, provide feedback and maybe even participate with content ensures the module will be credible and users will consider it worth their (very limited) time.

The video and podcasting options make it possible for SMEs to be also present every time somebody enrols in that particular course.

Read more: The power of the spoken word: including podcasts in training

They can prioritize best

Apart from being good sponsors and ambassadors of a learning program, SMEs are able to save instructional designers a lot of time and effort.

One of the biggest advantages of e-learning is that it can support micro learning. The modern employee has very limited time and wants to get the information only when it is needed. For e-learning content designers this means that they have to go through all the knowledge and filter out everything that is redundant.

But since designers are not necessarily the most informed on every subject, SMEs can come in and decide what makes the cut and what is not that important. They can also help with recommending additional readings, videos or podcasts for those who want to expand their horizon in a certain field.

SMEs can help sort out difficult challenges

Because in today’s workplace people need to get their information on a need to know basis, PBL (problem based learning) is becoming increasingly popular. This is a constructivist approach to learning that involves a mentor rather than a trainer.

Read more: How many types of mentoring are there?

Since it is very hands on and practical it has a visible immediate ROI, develops problem solving skills, critical and creative thinking. The learner is the one who is asked to identify a challenge that the organisation faces and work under the guidance of the SME in order to find innovative ways to either solve the issue or improve the situation.

The learning becomes very active and engaging and results in a greater understanding of the topic at hand. It’s also an instance when actual work gets done in the process so it is a winner all the way.

Communities of practice are excellent learning venues

Learning and development both have strong social components. People learn best from each other and sharing experience always has some valuable take away. With this in mind, L&D departments should consider setting up SME communities – if they have the human resource they can do so internally, if not it’s best to allow their employees to join external platforms.

These can work like communities of practice as people with common interests and knowledge that come together with the purpose to collaborate, solve the issues they face in their work and ultimately innovate are more engaged, productive and satisfied with their jobs.

Read more: Expanding your company L&D strategy to CoPs

This sort of professional version of social media offers the place for fast knowledge acquisition and support – both very sought after in today’s workplace.

SMEs are very valuable to an organization

The bottom line is that SMEs are not that easy to come by. In a time when information is so easily accessed, everybody can find out the basics of any topic – since most of them also have a ‘for dummies’ version targeted at those who really don’t have the first clue about a subject.

Those who take the time and put in the effort to know more, to understand intricate workings and gather an extensive experience in a certain field are very valuable and should be treated as such.

Apart from involving them in all that has to do with formal learning programs, setting up mentorship protocols may also prove to be very productive. Newer employees will feel they get the support they need while experienced ones will feel that their input is valuable and sought after – this can be a rather strong incentive to stay with an organization.