Shifting roles in learning: how to engage your SMEs in 2023

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Roles in learning are changing. Tighter budgets, higher demand and different pressures on L&D teams mean they are often too busy to keep up with the ever-growing need for up-to-date, relevant content. To progress, they must make the switch from doers to enablers, passing the ‘creator’ baton to their subject matter experts. But, with many people hesitant to step into this role, how can L&D engage subject matter experts (SMEs) to create valuable learning content?

Whilst other internal and external factors have a role to play, there are four essential steps to engage your SMEs in learning content creation, each helping to transform your experts into inspiring learning creators:

      • Answer three important questions on SME engagement
      • Use templates to bake in best practice
      • Make it easy for SMEs to contribute content
      • Keep them engaged!

Before we dive into the details on each, let’s take a look at the role of subject matter experts in learning.


What are the roles of SMEs in learning and training?

SMEs wear many different hats. But when it comes to digital learning production their role as subject matter expert will cover:

      • Content contributor
      • Content approver
      • Content creator

They may take on just one of these functions or they may cross all three but the crux of it is: subject matter experts play a crucial role in learning and training. Because SMEs possess a powerful combination of in-depth expertise that is both specialist AND organisation specific, they are THE gurus and it’s their knowledge and experience that learners, trainers, and instructional designers need in order for people to learn.

And their knowledge isn’t just used for typical elearning courses. Depending on the needs of the learner, the organisation and even the SME, this expertise can be shared in different formats (articles, videos, presentations etc), accessed through many digital channels – from learning platforms to internal comms to external websites and more.


SMEs as a contributor to elearning production

As a proverbial fountain of knowledge, the traditional role of an SME is someone who contributes to learning and development programme content. They share their wisdom (anything from key concepts, theories and principles to real organisation-specific examples, case studies and more) to help L&D create the relevant training content for people to learn.

On top of their day-to-day responsibilities, SMEs contribute to reviewing, editing and revamping course content, adding course assessments, designing and developing programme curriculums as well any new course material.


SMEs as an approver of digital learning

What is essentially a final sanity check, the SME role also oversees the approval of digital learning courses. This is an important step to make sure training programmes are accurate, relevant, effective and genuinely help bridge the gap between theory and practice.


44% L&D professionals are turning to internal experts to support content creation

Elucidat – State of Digital Learning 2023


SMEs as creators

In the past, creating content has been a staple of the L&D function. But SMEs as creators of learning content is a role-shift quickly gaining traction. According to the Elucidat 2023 State Of Digital Learning report, just under half of L&D functions are looking to collaborative content creation as a solution.

When you stop and think about it, the role of SMEs as creators makes perfect sense. They are the experts after all. And when 70% of training already comes from your own people, it seems crazy that L&D are only now embracing this new way of working. Research from RedThread and Elucidat explains how this approach has been born out of chaotic workloads and perpetual backlogs, and it’s this ‘creator economy’ that will be vital if L&D is to start thriving again.

Using the right processes and tools, the benefits of SMEs as learning content creators, both for the SMEs themselves and L&D as a whole, are numerous:

      • Builds trust
      • Engages learners
      • Cost-effective
      • Unlocks knowledge
      • Scales learning production
      • Develops skills

Our guide to user-generated content in learning provides more insight into how content created by your own people can make a real business impact.

With the changing role of SMEs comes a shift for L&D too. If SMEs are the creators, L&D are the curators: co-authoring, co-creating, providing structure, infrastructure and scaffolding for SMEs to generate valuable learning content.

Each of these SME roles shows that involving your experts is the best way to create impactful digital learning. And, we would argue that in times when demand is high and L&D resources low, lifting your SMEs from contributors or approvers into a creator role is key to success.

What do most people get wrong when engaging SMEs in elearning?

Throughout our years of helping SMEs share valuable insight, we’ve seen some common mistakes organisations make when working with subject matter experts in learning:

      • Lack of purpose
      • No guidance
      • Limited access to the right tools and scaffolding


Lack of purpose

Too often organisations fall into the trap of forgetting to give people purpose – the ‘why’. It’s critical for employees sharing knowledge. If your experts don’t know why they’re creating something and how it will be used to solve a specific challenge it won’t be at the top of their to-do list.

And the same applies to learners engaging with that expertise. It’s vital that SMEs communicate why their peers should learn from their experiences.

Being clear on why something matters increases engagement and impact. It helps people understand the reason for doing something, and the benefits in the context of their organisation and role.


No guidance

The majority of people (82% according to one piece of Harvard research) struggle to reflect and codify work experiences so it’s no surprise most people lack confidence when it comes to sharing expertise at work.

If you ask someone to share their experiences without giving them guidance, you’re likely to get a long, rambling and potentially irrelevant learning resource. Employees are drowning in content yet they’re struggling to find or understand what’s relevant and this lack of direction is just exacerbating the problem.

Not everyone sees themselves as an SME and crafting something valuable is an important but rare skill. You need to help people stick to the brief, keep within word or time limits, achieve decent production quality and much more. How can you remove the cognitive load?


Limited access to the right tools and scaffolding

Generic content creation tools don’t offer support or scaffolding. Let’s take video as an example. For small cohorts of SMEs, you might choose to interview your SMEs via video conferencing tools. If you’re asking your SMEs to record an informal video, unsupported self-filming on phones or laptops can work. However, if you need on-point, meaningful insights more guidance is required.

Phones and laptops don’t offer the scaffolding needed to guide people to share the right content and recording with tools like MS Teams isn’t as simple as it first seems.

Three hidden costs include:

      • Arranging and setting up calls: Booking and rescheduling calls is a common complaint, especially when colleagues are busy with meetings, or working in different time zones.
      • Recording the interview: Interviews can take up to an hour each. Small talk, warm-up sessions and re-takes all add up. This can feel tough work especially when covering challenging or complex topics.
      • Edit the final video: Transforming 60 minutes of content into a bite-size video takes time and skill. Making Teams recordings look polished with poor-quality video and interviewees gazing offscreen is challenging.

Removing this friction will help both your SMEs and your curators. It’s so important to make it easy for people to create relevant content with technology that gives direction and removes barriers to success.

If you’re looking to use video to share meaningful SME expertise at scale, guided video storytelling will transform complex experiences into on-point, ready-to-use content.

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Transform all your experts into inspiring video creators


Top tips for empowering your SMEs to create learning content (with examples)

There’s lots to consider when asking your people to create content. Follow these tried and tested tips to achieve success with your SMEs.


1. Engage SMEs by answering three simple questions

If you’ve struggled to engage your subject matter experts to create content, which of these three questions didn’t you answer?


Why should I create?

This goes back to our point about giving people purpose. Whilst money is a big motivator for creators in the consumer space, you need to delve deeper when it comes to learning at work.

You need to communicate the ‘why’ including context, the WIIFM (What’s In It For Me) and links to organisational goals for full impact. How you do this will likely depend on your objectives. For example, many of our customers run SME video campaigns to break down knowledge silos and spread good practice across their organisation. For each campaign, curators record a welcome video explaining why they want them to share their stories and how simple it is to do. This reinforces the ‘why’ and leads by example!


Do I have what it takes?

Imposter syndrome is real! People need to see the value in what they’ve got to say or they won’t want to share. They need guidance to be able to reflect on their experiences.

Using the right technology can help people overcome a lack of confidence and recognise their own value. StoryTagger is one such tool that does this by using a ready-made narrative structure. It allows creators to select talking points and enables them to craft a video story, in their own words. Other tools, like Elucidat, use guided authoring to offer reassurance and enable effective collaborative content creation.


How do I do this?

Technology should be easy to use, accessible, provide direction and nudge people to share quality content without endless instructions.

StoryTagger lets learning curators invite SMEs to share on-point individual stories quickly, and without the usual stress associated with recording videos for work. By following in-app customised story topics that prompt and guide them at every turn they soon feel comfortable with the process of sharing.

Video elearning tips to engage your creators: The Creator Venn

2. Use templates that share best practice

Using templates is a bit of a no-brainer. Your SMEs aren’t learning designers so setting a brief without providing this as a basis is essentially asking them to start with a blank canvas.

In practical terms, there are many benefits to using templates: consistency, clarity, efficiency and reusability. Sharing them is an important step towards achieving better results. Of course, you’ll need to offer guidance, context and help them see where they’re adding value but a good template builds a solid foundation.

So, what kind of questions should you include on your template? Naturally, this depends on your end goal.

Here’s an example SME template our customers often use to curate valuable information from their SMEs. This helps them share complex work experiences as on-point video stories that engage, teach and inspire coworkers:


Example template: Share your subject matter expertise
Part 1


Open with the headline or objective of what you’re going to share.

Highlight who this information is designed to help.

Why is it important?

Part 2

Core information

In what context will people need this knowledge?

Share the must-know information.

Describe any critical steps or elements.

Part 3

More detail

Share an example or scenario to illustrate the point.

Are there any watch-outs that will help people?

The most important thing to remember is…

Effective learning means asking your SMEs the right questions so be sure to use the best ones from the start.

Having tools with in-built templates makes it easy for SMEs to follow. In StoryTagger, they can even add notes to prompt them on what they want to say whilst recording. These templates are ready-to-use out of the box and can be customised, making it simple for both curator and creator to capture the knowledge learners need.


3. Make it easy for SMEs to contribute

Subject matter experts won’t share their valuable knowledge if you make it hard to do so. Their time is precious and if it’s not easy, they’ll be reluctant to engage with your campaign.

When we speak to people about working with SMEs to create the content they need, we often hear three SME objections:

    • I don’t have the CONFIDENCE
    • I don’t know WHAT TO SAY
    • I don’t have enough TIME

The right tools and technology will overcome these barriers and democratise content creation making it easy for everyone. You can then widen your pool of subject matter experts and unlock valuable tacit knowledge from across your organisation.

Things to consider when using technology to help everyone quickly and seamlessly create on-point learning resources include:

    • Can anyone access it? Where are your SMEs? Frontline employees might need to share content on the go, so a mobile app is useful. If your SMEs are office based, perhaps a desktop tool is easy. Tools (like StoryTagger) provide both these options.
    • Is it easy to use? Tech skills shouldn’t be necessary to share specialist expertise. Remove complexities of creating content by letting the tech do all the hard stuff.
    • Will content be relevant? They might have access to your mobile app, and it’s simple to use but is it still a blank canvas? This goes back to our point about scaffolding – make sure it’s included in whatever technology you use.


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4. Keep SMEs engaged

Once the excellent content from your subject matter experts starts rolling in, how can you keep them engaged? Our guide to transforming experts into inspiring content creators offer a number of ways you can keep up the momentum. We’ve shared a few tactics our customers use to keep their SMEs engaged below.


Tap into what people care about

This reiterates how important showing purpose is. When you invite people to contribute and create content make sure you also:

    • Understand your audience
    • Align your message to company values
    • Be clear on purpose and what the content needs to achieve
    • Include a realistic deadline


Recruit ambassadors

It always takes a little push to get the ball rolling with employee-generated content creation. Recruit and engage ambassadors for a go-to group to share knowledge when you need it. Apply community management principles by:

    • Going first! Reinforce purpose and role-model what you expect your ambassadors to do
    • Making sure you’re inclusive and don’t just focus on those who shout loudest
    • Getting SMEs to test and feedback on your initial creative brief and scaffolding
    • Improving and repeating your brief if necessary before going to a wider audience


Plan to nudge

Unless you’re 100% confident your request is already top of your creator’s to-do list expect to have to chase for the content you need.


Celebrate creators

Your SMEs have done something great for themselves, you and the organisation. Celebrate knowledge sharing! Build engagement by recognising your creators:

    • Send a personal thanks
    • Reinforce the value and the impact of them sharing their expertise
    • Identify future ambassadors and potential repeat creators
    • Highlight people’s contribution to their line manager and give public kudos


Final thoughts

The traditional role of SMEs is changing. With challenging times ahead, L&D needs to adapt and channel them as a valuable resource for the benefit of the organisations, individual employees and themselves.

As part of this changing role, engaging subject matter experts in digital learning is vital. Avoiding the common pitfalls and empowering your experts to create learning resources means L&D will deliver the content you need while supporting complex culture and behaviour change from the ground up.

With the right tech, tools and strategies, a ‘creator economy’ designed for learning at work has the potential to be engaging, organisation-specific, personalised and low cost.

To find out how you can use StoryTagger to engage your SMEs into creating valuable employee-generated video, book a demo.

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