CLO Connect - Sana Labs
Training & Learning

The Performance Ecosystem: Rita Azevedo’s 5-Step Playbook for Supporting Subject-Matter Experts

The golden question: how can L&D teams engage and support subject-matter experts, or SMEs, to share their knowledge and help us design and create content that makes an impact? 

L&D leaders know this process is challenging. We also know that if we make collaboration more accessible, we can capture expertise and help our learners upskill from within.

In my latest interview, I speak with Rita Azevedo, Strategic Learning Partner Manager at Sana Labs, about her playbook for supporting SMEs in creating impactful content. We also discussed how best to prepare for stakeholder engagement meetings and the importance of measuring impact in ways that your stakeholders recognize.

Read on to hear why engaging with stakeholders to identify learning goals is crucial for supporting your SMEs in content creation.

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Rita’s career journey from the NGO sector to L&D

Before working at Sana Labs, Rita began her career in the NGO sector, where she experienced the power of coaching and helping others to learn and become better teams. 

“After that, I decided to go into the world of L&D and slowly moved into the corporate sector. I worked in several industries, my most recent industry being within banking and tech, where I worked as the Head of Learning,” she explains.

“Then I said, ‘Let me go to the other side of the coin and work not as a customer but more as a vendor.’ And here I am now, helping other partners and companies to make sense of their learning goals and to help them accomplish them.”

Rita starts by engaging with stakeholders to identify these learning goals.

Engaging with stakeholders to identify learning goals

When identifying learners’ needs, one approach Rita uses that has proven successful is working with, and not in isolation from, her customers.

“I've always tried to meet very frequently with people in that change management role, specifically senior vice presidents or vice presidents, and really trying to work together on understanding what they want to achieve,” she says.

For example, if you meet with a vice president in engineering, you should discuss where they want to be in two years from now, where engineering will be, and where the gap is that will stop them from getting there. 

“Of course, you can either hire, or you can grow people internally. If you do decide to grow people internally, you will get a lot of interesting knowledge from those conversations with your stakeholders.”

If you do decide to grow people internally, you will get a lot of interesting knowledge from those conversations with your stakeholders.

Rita has noted that companies are hiring younger and younger people primarily focused on growth and development. “So, you can identify that through several tools like an engagement survey or making an inventory of the skills your organization desires based on individual needs.”

“But long story short, it's a work in progress,” she explains. “You might end up with more questions than answers. But the good news is that you will work with the organization and not alone. That's my main message.”

So, how do you go about planning for these stakeholder engagement meetings? Rita’s best piece of advice is to approach those meetings with empathy and curiosity.

Looking for more tips on how to engage subject-matter experts? Download our cheat sheet: 5 Top Tips to Win Over Your Subject-Matter Experts.

Want more subject-matter experts on your team?

Preparing for stakeholder engagement meetings

In Rita's experience, data is crucial when preparing for a meeting with stakeholders and keeping track of what people are talking about. 

Empathy and curiosity are the two primary skills she finds most effective for L&D professionals when engaging with stakeholders. When she hosts stakeholder meetings, she keeps these front of mind by asking questions like:

  • What problems are you currently having in specific teams in your organization?
  • What isn’t happening, and what is the ideal scenario for you?
  • What are the behaviors that you would like to see? 

“It could be that the answer is not technical at all,” Rita explains. “It could be that we need them to sell the engineering features better to stakeholders. Perfect, then let's make programs for that.”

Rita would work to understand from a particular stakeholder what they see as the key factors that would influence the performance ecosystem in their organization. “I would come prepared with questions. I would listen, think about it, and possibly work together on building a solution.”

“Most importantly, the stakeholder would actually identify subject-matter experts in their organization to solve the problem with the L&D team.”

Most importantly, the stakeholder would actually identify subject-matter experts in their organization to solve the problem with the L&D team.

Rita Azevedo's 5-step playbook for supporting SMEs to share their expertise

In a previous role, supporting SMEs was something Rita and her team wanted to do strategically, so they set about removing barriers and the hassle for them to engage.

“We were aiming for any SME or any person involved in change management in that organization to be able to share knowledge and to build learning programs for everyone,” she explains.

Rita’s playbook starts with an excellent example of SME collaboration.

1. Create an organizational-wide pilot

First, Rita would work with one particular SME on a training course that could be important for everyone in the organization. 

“Then I would brand it as much as possible,” she says, “and make it a learning product with an actual brand name with an amazing look and feel with everything that I could do in terms of making the training as effective and engaging as possible.”

Next up, Rita makes it as easy for SMEs to engage with her team as possible.

2. Make it easy for SMEs to engage with your team

In Rita’s experience, SMEs are more than willing to engage with L&D teams. You just need to get the word out to them. 

“If the SMEs were interested in building something similar, we gave them a Google form to fill out and said we would reach out to them. And in less than a week, we had more than 40 people interested in creating content.”

3. Build processes that enable effective SME collaboration

Because the SMEs did not come from the L&D world, Rita and her team set about making it as easy as possible for them to create engaging and effective training.

“We created a lot of templates and how-to videos,” she says. “We built the processes around creating engaging and effective learning, and we set the expectation of quality.”

4. Set high standards for content

Right from the start, Rita and her team set a threshold of quality for the SME content, with backing from senior management to remove the training that fell short. 

“So, the SMEs knew from the get-go that quality was very important,” she says. “But it was also an exercise for my team to prioritize and to see that if we have a particular request for a training that is meant for the entire organization, we need to be extra careful about.”

5. Tailor your SME support

Finally, in Rita’s experience, SMEs were interested in creating the training themselves, so it was up to her and the team to provide the relevant support. 

“So, we set up a tiered level of support, almost like when you sell something you offer a golden or premium package. Depending on the time the SME has available, they can have a different level of support from the L&D team.”

“And that's how we went from having a world of mandatory trainings to having thousands of in-house trainings.”

Rita’s five-step playbook highlights the benefits of collaborative learning. By connecting her team with SMEs, they were able to create content that met high standards and helped prioritize organizational learning needs for the future.

Measuring the impact of SME designed content

When measuring the impact of these collaboratively created courses, Rita explains that it is a process the team is still actively figuring out. 

“But if you follow a methodology called ‘Understanding by Design,’ whereby you design a course for understanding, chances are you’ll make more of an impact. Why? Because the behavior will be transformed and the learning will be more effective,” she explains. 

In terms of showcasing the impact, Rita and her team take a product management approach by analyzing what happens if a particular population does a particular learning experience versus if they don’t. Then, they compare to see if performance is improved with a new course.

“Another way would be to plan backwards,” she explains. “I always try to start with a measurement map. Going from the final goal we want, for example, an increase in sales and the actual measurement of that, and then planning backwards to understand what you need to achieve the goal. This way, we know this is something we 100% need to cater for in the training.”

For the higher value, higher visibility learning experiences, Rita always tries to work very closely with stakeholders and, in the end, showcases how impactful the learning was according to the stakeholder’s own measurement.

“And that's important. Instead of only talking about satisfaction or completion rates, we need to speak the same language as our stakeholders. That's how they will see that something is impactful.”

Related: Did That Training Really Work? Measuring the Impact of L&D With Kevin M. Yates

CLO Connect quote - Rita Azevedo - Sana Labs

Expert tip: Start with the specific learnings needed to impact performance

Rita's final piece of advice for L&D professionals is to use Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe’s ‘Understanding by Design’ methodology.

“I would highly recommend this book,” she explains. “It completely changed how I approached learning from planning the learning experiences to starting from the specific learnings that we needed, what the current state is, and what the ideal state is that we're looking for.”

Thanks to Rita for sharing her experience and insights with us! 

For more insights and expert advice on collaborating with SMEs, check out how Joe Ryan at Maltego is freeing up SMEs’ time through his deep dive investigation approach for unlocking domain knowledge or Kirk Wagner’s four steps for creating memorable learning experiences with SMEs at Udacity.

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