Master Class David James Lesson Four Transformative Learning
Training & Learning

L&D Master Class Lesson 4: How to Work Alongside Subject-Matter Experts to Solve Business Problems

As L&D leaders, we understand the value and importance of engaging subject-matter experts (SMEs) to help create targeted content and solve business problems within our organizations.

But understanding this importance and actually working alongside SMEs are two different things. So, how and when should you engage your experts? And how can you make sure these partnerships are solving urgent business problems?

In this fourth lesson of our L&D master class, David James discusses four key steps that L&D leaders can follow to work alongside subject-matter experts (SMEs) in order to solve real business problems. He also explains why it is important to make it as easy and pain-free as you can for SMEs to contribute.

Missed Episode 3 of our L&D master class? Check it out here!

How to Work Alongside Subject-Matter Experts to Solve Business Problems

*This content is provided by 360learning, an independent company, with no affiliation with the “MasterClass” brand.

1. Realize that user-generated content isn’t the only answer

As David explains, many learning and development professionals are reluctant to engage SMEs just in case they say no. In his view, there are a couple of things going on here. 

“Number one, you've got a tech market telling you that user-generated content is the way to go. The market says that all you need to do is create a culture of learning and sharing, open up a platform, and then off you go.” 

On the other hand, as L&D leaders, we’re often wondering how we can engage SMEs when they believe that we in L&D are the font of knowledge and the creators of content. And in the middle, we have the challenge of actually making this collaboration happen.

“First of all,” says David, “you've got to dismiss what the tech market is telling you. User-generated content isn't the answer to all of your problems, and opening up your platform to mass user-generated content isn't going to solve the problems that your employees need solving for them. We need to go beyond that.” 

Case in point? David points to examples during his career where he tried to enlist the help of line managers to take on more of the role of learning and development, as well as trying to get SMEs to help to create content–with mixed results. 

“Yes, we had some successes along the way,” he says. “But in the main, people aren't always willing to take on the role of learning and development. A lot of the time it's because the solutions that L&D are trying to initiate are too unwieldy.”

As David explains, if we think about the challenge through the lens of helping to solve problems employees are facing as they transition into and through an organization, then we can remain laser-focused and create lighter solutions aimed at affecting the real problems. Then, enlisting SMEs becomes much easier.

So, how can you design solutions addressing the real problems people are facing? According to David, you should start by defining the critical business gap.

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User-generated content isn't the answer to all of your problems, and opening up your platform to mass user-generated content isn't going to solve the problems that your employees need solving for them. We need to go beyond that.

2. Define the critical business gap

As David says, the SMEs you really want to engage are some of the most in-demand people in your organization. Their time is limited, which is why recognizing and approaching the right SMEs starts with knowing the problem.

“They will want to help you to solve real problems, but they'll want to see the data to know that it is an actual problem.” 

To help you identify the actual problem, David says you should think of the critical points of failure in any operation. What is it that people are expected to do that they are not able to do? If you can demonstrate to your SMEs that the answer is causing enough of a problem for your organization, they are more likely to get involved and help you.

“The subject-matter experts worth their salt in your organization are going to be able to detect whether this is an actual need for them, or if it’s just a pithy learning need in which they've been enlisted to create some content.”

“So, recognizing and approaching the right subject-matter experts starts with knowing the problem. But if you don't know what the problem is, then how on Earth can you find out who to approach?”

According to David, understanding and having the data to validate the problem will lead you to the people who are performing already, and who already have both the experience and expertise in order to help others. In other words, the right SMEs.

“So, if you're speaking to subject-matter experts who are true experts in the thing that you're helping other employees with, then you can explore with them what it is that those people need in order to perform and get results.”

Now, it’s time to work alongside these talented individuals.

So, recognizing and approaching the right subject-matter experts starts with knowing the problem. But if you don't know what the problem is, then how on Earth can you find out who to approach?

3. Work alongside your experts to address points of failure

In David’s experience, it is important to work with your SMEs to address the problems you’ve set out to address. To highlight the point, he uses an example of something that we’re all responsible for: induction.

“If we recognize that our induction isn't working because we're not keeping the best people, they're not passing their probation the first time, or they're not ready to work, then we can take this data to subject-matter experts and share with them the problem is that we're seeking to address.”

“By enlisting their help, we can find out from them what was successful for them. Then, we can find out what they can pass on to other new starters in order to help them to do more of the right stuff in order to get the results that we're looking for.” 

To compare and contrast, David explains something that is not an urgent problem holding businesses back. “Many of us, myself included, have been enlisted to make sure that leaders can have ‘courageous conversations’. Look, I know it's easy to jump on board with this, but there's no data.”

In this case, you’re starting with the solution rather than the problem. And as David notes, SMEs worth their salt will recognize that it isn’t necessarily worth their time, but is instead an HR initiative appearing to be passed off to them.

“We shouldn't be asking subject-matter experts for their help in creating classes. We're asking for their advice on how they've solved this problem already so that we can scale that for the rest of the organization and certainly for those who need it.”

By enlisting their help, we can find out from them what was successful for them. Then, we can find out what they can pass on to other new starters in order to help them to do more of the right stuff in order to get the results that we're looking for.

4. Make content creation quick and painless

The final step? Once you’ve identified and engaged your SMEs, it’s crucial to ensure that it’s quick and easy for them to contribute their experiences and guidance.

“Don't think of this as scaling their expertise in the form of a class or a course,” he says. “Think of this as scaling their expertise as a mini-mentor or as somebody you were sitting next to who you could ask those questions, then they would be on hand to share their experience.”

“So, it's what they've done, not what they would do, in the context in which you're helping people to perform and get results,” says David.

Stay tuned for next week’s lesson on how to prove your impact as a strategic business partner. And remember, you can get all lessons delivered straight to your inbox by signing up for our weekly content newsletter below.

So, it's what they've done, not what they would do, in the context in which you're helping people to perform and get results.

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