In the quest to run efficient training departments, learning and development professionals wrestle with the conflict between staffing resources and keeping up with the demand for learning services. There are rarely enough resources to support all of the learning projects that most businesses require from the training department. To help solve this problem, learning organizations are moving towards a model in which there is a small core team that is surrounded by the use of outsourcing, learning technologies, and subject-matter experts (SMEs) to design and deliver training.
I am personally experiencing a struggle having to train a wide range of new employees who have been hired to perform different jobs. For example, we may hire 14 new people in one week. Of the 14 people, there could be four groups hired for separate and unique projects, requiring different job skills. In a perfect world, if we have four new hire groups, we would have four new hire classes taught by four trainers. The problem is that we do not have four trainers.
Involve Subject-Matter Experts
As there is more than one way to skin a cat, there are undoubtedly many solutions to the problem of handling spikes in the demand for training. We choose to leverage the use of subject-matter experts as a primary means of handling these spikes. Learning professionals often argue that SMEs might be great at their jobs but they are not great trainers. “Just because someone knows the subject well, doesn't mean they can teach it.” Fair enough, but certainly learning experience (LX) designers can agree that SMEs must be part of the design process. The problem is that we have a paradigm that LX designers are the gatekeeper to training, using SMEs as a tool for extracting content. In this instance, an LX designer is an intermediary, a bottle-neck, a choke-point, and a capacity constraint, which can slow down the process even further. When teams are stretched thin and cannot get to everything on project list, they must think differently.
So the question is, “How can we use subject-matter experts, who are not learning professionals, to help us design and deliver training at a quality level our organizations expect?” Here are a few ideas:
SMEs as Facilitators
Before we engage the valuable and effective use of SMEs, we must first acknowledge that SMEs do not have the facilitation skills that you posses. They have expertise in the technical job you need to train. You have expertise in facilitating learning. Furthermore, a SME may not be a people person like you. Perhaps the SME does not know how to articulate how to perform the job without using jargon. Those are the negatives. On the positive side, the SME is an experienced, smart person who can at least show people how to do the job. All a SME may need is some help from you on how to facilitate effectively. Whenever you engage a SME for help, take them through a train-the-trainer and share with them your expertise.
SMEs as Designers
SMEs are often making presentation slides for the organization on all types of subjects. On process changes, new products, proposals for new policies, etc. With the right authoring tools, a SME could convert existing presentations or put together simple, e-learning that can be distributed to new hires or to existing employees for follow up training. If a SME has any moderate level of Power Point skills, they can certainly learn an e-learning authoring tool like Mindflash, for example.
Keeping Up with the Jones'
You quite simply cannot build a team of learning professionals large enough to support everything you need to deliver. We all wish we could and hope we will, but the truth is it is not going to happen. We must create a model in which we have a small, core team surrounded by an extended, flexible army of subject-matter experts who care about helping people learn new things in their jobs. How do you leverage subject-matter experts on your organization? Do you use them as facilitators or designers? I'd love to hear how you do it. I believe others in our profession would love to here your stories, too.
Bill Cushard, author, blogger, and head of learning at Allonhill, is a learning leader with extensive, in-the-trenches experience building learning organizations in start-up and hyper-growth organizations like E*TRADE, the Knowland Group, and Allonhill.