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Carrie Van Daele

Quality Insider

The Value of Subject Matter Experts

Knowledge is capital to be shared throughout the organization

Published: Thursday, June 4, 2015 - 11:33

After the economic downturn of 2009, when many workers were phased out, subject matter experts (SMEs)—people who held the most knowledge about companies’ products and processes—found themselves assuming more job duties. Feeling overworked and underappreciated, SMEs have been biding their time waiting for greater employment choices. As the economy improves and more jobs become available, the most in-demand SMEs will seek out better benefits, higher wages, and above all, greater job satisfaction.

For example, Dow AgroSciences, based in Indianapolis, is currently looking for a seed-treatment subject matter expert. The primary responsibility of this position is to provide operational support and training, in addition to offering guidance to project teams for new installations and supporting the supply chain in making decisions regarding seed treatment. He or she will evaluate all new treatment chemicals. Another example of a SME candidate is a project engineer subject matter expert for Coca-Cola, who will manage equipment for new product and package commercialization projects. Both of these examples define the need for SMEs in manufacturing.

Ironically, even as these jobs catch the eyes of your existing SMEs, your own company’s next wave of economic growth is likely to come from these very same employees. Therefore, the smart manufacturing companies of today will leverage the inventiveness, ingenuity, creativity, and tricks of the trade from their SMEs when launching new products and services, all in a way that encourages them to stay.

To ride the next wave of economic growth, you must mine the knowledge of your SMEs, because they hold the skills you need to shorten the sales learning curve necessary to achieve greater market share.

Where is your company’s value?

The value of a company is often reflected in its stock price. This isn’t true of a company like Microsoft, however, because it generally trades at a market value far in excess of its book value. Bill Gates is the world’s richest person, but he didn’t start out that way. Gates doesn’t own any mines, mills, refineries, lumberyards, or factories, yet he’s worth tens of billions of dollars. How did he get so rich?

The answer is that great wealth no longer depends on the control of physical assets. An intellectual capital revolution has superseded the agricultural and industrial eras. Your SMEs bring to the table a wealth of skills, knowledge, and abilities (SKAs). Work with these assets.

You’re now operating in an intellectual capital economy. Just as Henry Ford exploited his own knowledge to create his empire during the industrial revolution, you must now create new wealth in harnessing the SKAs of your subject matter experts. Microsoft controls SKAs, and that has made Bill Gates immensely wealthy. Gone are the days when a company can completely own its products, services, or people. The best a company can do now is to own the SKAs of your SMEs, and that’s done by documenting the information that they possess and then growing the company by sharing this information with all employees.

Companies have long understood how to manage physical and financial capital—the brick and mortar of facilities and equipment. The challenge is in managing the intellectual capital, the intangibles, such as one’s ability to solve complex problems, and make decisions using one’s education and experience.

In my experience as a business consultant, I’ve seen many managers who have purchased new equipment to replace their SMEs, only to overlook their all-important SKAs, which are a mix of experience, education, values, information, expertise, and intuition. These SKAs represent the explicit knowledge of your subject matter experts found in their tribal expertise, without which another can’t do their job. This knowledge often isn’t stored in company documents, but resides in the minds of those SMEs.

From recent articles written about the skills gap, a tremendous amount of tribal knowledge is walking out the door along (not to mention the SKAs), leaving a company to face a potentially mammoth talent crunch.

An example of this can be seen in the public utility industry. The exodus of retirees in that sector has hampered the ability of public utility companies to carry on their mission of effective customer service and operational excellence. In the past, public utility companies have depended on the staff, rather than the company, to hold SKAs. This was effective due to a high level of employee loyalty and the fact that the baby boomer generation was invested in their jobs. Now, in the 21st century, this is not good business practice. Utility companies and other industries must come up with a solution to mine the information resident in their SMEs.

A knowledge management system will mine your SMEs by capturing, documenting, and leveraging their information. I read about the City of North Miami Beach Public Utility, which implemented a knowledge management database for its water utility. The primary purpose for this database is to capture the existing documents that are currently filed throughout the department in an electronic format . These documents currently reside in non-centralized locations such as office bookcases as well as in the minds of the SMEs. Knowledge management is critical to the long-term business plan for any company in any industry.

A knowledge management system is about identifying your SMEs from your workforce to be able to reuse and transfer their SKAs for best practices to other employees and new hires.

The right way to achieve knowledge transfer

In my search for the latest and greatest tablet, I recently bought a Surface Pro. When I arrived at the store, I was greeted by an enthusiastic sales associate who was eager to sell me a Surface Pro tablet. The associate told me a lot about how the tablet operates and, because of his enthusiasm, I left the store with a Surface Pro in hand.  The sales associate was a SME and used computer jargon that was unfamiliar to me, so I was confused about how the tablet would benefit my work. I left wanting more training on how to use the Surface Pro at work.

The sales associate is an example of a SME with a great deal of knowledge and expertise about his product, but who is unfamiliar with how to train or transfer his product knowledge and expertise to others. As companies address the skills gap, they’ll need to call upon their SMEs to deliver more and more effective training.

We all understand that SMEs are vital to the success of manufacturing because they have special in-depth skills, and the knowledge and understanding of one or more manufacturing operations. Their SKAs, when shared with others, can significantly elevate performance within the company.

The only way to capture what your SMEs know and transfer it to others is to recruit your SMEs to deliver classroom training, create knowledge management databases, videotape top performers, write standard operating procedures, create apprenticeships, and mentor and cross-train others. As more and more companies streamline their budgets, they’ll need their SMEs to deliver training.

SMEs are typically recognized among their peers as “expert” and are frequently and in demand within their organizations to assist with complex issues, though rarely trained in instructional design.

Invest in your SMEs by providing them with a “Train the Trainer” system to learn how to follow a detailed lesson plan, define training objectives, select the proper training method, write training materials, prepare trainees to learn, present the training information to the trainees, practice what is taught, and evaluate the learned skills, knowledge and abilities. Your SME is the person who possesses the highest level of SKAs in performing a specialized job or task in your company.

Your SMEs know a lot about content, but not so much about the needs of adult learners. Sometimes I’m accused of giving a long answer to a simple question like, “What time is it?” Like me, SMEs, without learning how to train, will ramble on and on and on. Your SMEs need to know how to become learner-centric and action-oriented to get their learners on board to fill the skills gap.

A core challenge for any company SME is that he or she typically has a “day job” that doesn’t inolve training others. Your company has no choice but to leverage the SME into a training position because the SME is the catalyst for business growth. Leveraging the SKAs from your SMEs is largely a matter of organizing current information about their education and experience, documenting the information, and then sharing it with others in your company.

Many of the skill sets you need already exist in your SMEs. Their SKAs are your company’s most important competitive advantage. Many other sources of competitive advantage have been eroded away, and more and more of what is bought and sold is intellectual capital.

Let your SMEs take your company to the next level of success.


About The Author

Carrie Van Daele’s picture

Carrie Van Daele

Carrie Van Daele is president and CEO of Van Daele & Associates Inc. at www.leant3.com, featuring her Train the Trainer System for trainers and subject matter experts. Van Daele’s company was founded in 1993 as a training and development firm in the areas of leadership, train the trainer, continuous process improvements, team building, strategic planning, sales/marketing, workforce development, and general business consulting. Van Daele is the author of 50 One-Minute Tips for Trainers published by LogicalOperations.