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Digital Learning: Using the Power of Subject Matter Experts

No one understands a topic or a skill like someone who has mastered it. No one understands how to create effective learning like a master Instructional Designer. Both roles are essential to creating effective learning. Yet, often, it can be difficult to understand how to work with the other. Today, Learning and Development can better utilize Subject Matter Experts (SME) and Influencers to help create and curate content. As a learning and development professional, our role should include coaching and mentoring them in learning design and strategy. They can provide good content and ideas. SMEs are our partners, not potential people who will take our jobs.

Throughout my design days, I have used a variety of SMEs. Depending on the topic, their role can change. When creating technical training, they were essential. They understood the technology better than I ever could. In Leadership Development, good leaders and managers suggested areas of focus, fixes, and how to address gaps. In HR Learning and Development, HR Business Partners suggested ideas and topics. But in all those cases, the Instructional Designer created the flow and the connective tissue.  

Subject Matter Experts and Digital Learning

This partnership is even more critical in Digital Learning. Most companies address the change to digital learning by adding blended learning. They want content that mixes internal, external, formal, and informal modalities. They need to expand past the course catalog on the learning management system (LMS). And they need quick solutions and resources. Subject Matter Experts know that content. They use informal content to grow their own knowledge. They have trusted external links that they use to upskill themselves.

SMEs are often that quiet person in the corner who everyone goes to for the answer. They are the ones who might not be a leader or a manager, but the person who has the knowledge and shares it. Sometimes they write blogs, and sometimes they are recognized -- but not often enough. The challenge can be to find these people.  

Their role in digital learning includes:

  • Finding informal content
  • Suggesting trusted external resources
  • Creating pathways with learning and development coaching
  • Identifying skill gaps and new knowledge areas

They become the digital champions that help make blended learning a reality. In the transition, Learning and Development should identify them, train them, and use their network to grow the use of the content. As champions, they can help identify and build content, as well as network to other champions.

Creating Digital Learning Champions

While many companies have different rollout processes, the identification and preparation of champions is a key initial step of building a digital learning enterprise. Then, once you have the initial group identified, it’s time to bring them up to speed. If you are using an ecosystem, create a help channel with answers on how to use it, strategies, and where to go for more help. I recommend a workshop to get everyone aligned. Provide the why and what of the move to digital learning. These champions will also be advocates, so remember to help them market the solution.

Give them good tools to create content. Make it easy for them. Set up easy ways to add blogs, to add links to key content, and to create short videos. Show them what good is.

Content creation is no longer just in the realm of learning and development. Learners today want to have peer to peer resources; they want to know what the expert says; they want to find quick answers. That type of content comes best from SMEs. Help them to not overwhelm the learner. Help them to focus the answers to the minimum. Help them to think of a flow. Provide guides on best practices. Show them good content by creating short simple paths. And be available to coach.

The Role of Content Creation Tools

Tools like knowbly™ are critical to help learning and development departments and SMEs to create good learning. The easier it is to create, the better the content. Tools that allow video, animation, and text mixes will help.

This is where good resources also help. Have tools on tools! Talk about the value of a storyboard. Talk about blending content and not overwhelming the learner.

Other ideas to make it simple for your SME include doing a curate-a-thon. If your champions are co-located with your team, this is a great exercise to do face to face. Bring in a group of champions and do a one-hour class on how, what, and why to curate. Set them up with rooms to work in teams to curate and provide coaches. A two-day curate-a-thon can net hundreds of pieces of content.

Nurturing Subject Matter Experts

Subject Matter Experts are powerful. Their involvement can help drive engagement more than any other process. Their reach and network can build up usage. Those that are SMEs often go unrecognized. Providing them a media to stand out will help to retain these valuable employees. Making them Digital Learning Champions helps inspire them and others. So be sure to recognize their efforts and coach them to be the best.  

Once they are trained, set up monthly calls with the Champion community. There, you can provide any technical updates, answer questions and provide feedback. With good nurturing, the community will grow. As the SMEs grow, so does your content and the value of your content.

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