Using Internal SMEs to Leverage Internal Skill Sets and Training

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Jared Koesten

Utilizing internal subject matter experts (SMEs) has long been a way for organizations to facilitate learning and development in a cost effective manner. While this has been a traditional way of thinking, the value of internal SMEs goes well beyond the financials of facilitated learning. In fact, using internal SMEs may not provide a cost savings in all situations.

Human Resources must start their learning and development (L&D) planning early on, participating in the organization's strategic planning process and linking the desired outcomes of training activities to organizational goals. Using this as a starting point, training programs should focus on business issues, not on programmatic content. The use of internal SMEs begins after strategic planning, leveraging their internal knowledge to gain a better understanding of business issues within functional areas and providing guidance on how to structure training content in support of each individual issue. Properly leveraging internal SMEs in this way provides for a positive impact in employee engagement and organizational productivity.

SMEs provide positive impact on employee engagement and the development of both those receiving the benefit of the SMEs' knowledge and the SME’s themselves. Monopolizing on the SMEs' knowledge of organizational culture, they are commonly able to quickly engage their target audience. There will always be situations in which employees are not receptive to internal and/or peer resources for development, mostly due to resentment caused by jealously; however, these situations are less common than the alternative. In addition to rapid employee engagement, SMEs have the ability to build trust and repair past wounds between departments who may rely on one another, yet have had a difficult past. Situations where blame was placed on departments or individuals for failing to meet objectives can be repaired; or at least the healing process can begin. Human resources benefits from this engagement as well, partnering with outside departments and lines of business to develop and facilitate learning and development efforts. This close relationship provides for learning objectives that are tailored to specific needs and a collaborative relationship between human resources and others.

Organizations that use SMEs strive to not only engage recipients of the SMEs' knowledge, but to also grow the SMEs' skill set and engagement. Most employees desire to be engaged by their employer, and by doing so employers stand to utilize one of the greatest retention tools they have. Asking SMEs to step to the plate and share their knowledge and a perspective with colleagues is an easy way to motivate the SMEs, essentially building up their confidence and morale. A byproduct of this engagement is also the opportunity to grow the skill set of the SMEs in areas such as presentation skills, project management and leadership.

Organizational productivity stands to be directly affected by learning and development opportunities. Because of their specialized knowledge, both SMEs and outside providers are able to deliver content, although in different ways and with differing perspectives. More important to organizational productivity is what is done with the knowledge that is shared and after the formalized program is completed. When implemented correctly and followed up on by organizational leaders such as human resources, targeted learning opportunities will provide solutions to the business issues they were developed in response to. Challenges arise when learning and development is tied to business issues, but the organization fails to incorporate the solutions into department and employee goals, activities and thought processes. When this link is missing, the value of the training program diminishes and the costs outweigh the benefits.

While using SMEs has many advantages, it also may have certain disadvantages. By nature, SMEs are employees with specialized knowledge of subject matter. Engaging them to share their knowledge may take time away from their primary duties and responsibilities, which has direct costs associated with it. For example, if regularly responsible for revenue driving activities such as sales, there is the cost of lost opportunity associated with the SMEs' participation in learning and development activities. SMEs may also not be educated on how to facilitate training or knowledge sharing sessions. When this is the case, it may take the effort of others to co-facilitate while referencing back to the SMEs and their body of knowledge. Finally, learning and development opportunities may take longer when using SMEs simply because of scheduling around their primary responsibilities and the schedule that accompanies them. In each of these circumstances, the total costs must be weighed against the cost of utilizing outside sources to fulfill learning and development needs. Professional trainers hold sound knowledge of adult learning techniques, are experienced in facilitation and understand the academics of workplace dynamics. External consultants understand business relationships on an analytical and financial level, use problem-solving skills to address business issues and can add an element of coaching to the learning activities.

In times of budgetary constraint, human resources professionals must weigh the cost-benefit of each method of learning and development to determine what is best for their organization, at that point in time, with the available resources and budget. The use of SMEs can prove to be quite beneficial to an organization with the proper planning, oversight and focus.