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Subject matter experts

Building an effective subject matter expert community in your company

Every company has a valuable resource at its fingertips in the skills and expertise of its employees. In particular, those employees who are subject matter experts (SMEs) can add a great deal when they are invited to the table.

And that is, essentially, what a thoughtfully cultivated SME community is. It is an invitation for SMEs to join those strategic conversations and elevate the discussions and resulting solutions with their hard-earned expertise.

SMEs are those employees who are most knowledgeable about your products or processes. They can come from every department and every level. The strategy for building an SME community will vary from company to company, but figuring out the answers to these four questions can give you a blueprint for yours.

What value can an SME community bring to your company?

Ask any director of an enterprise Center of Excellence (COE) if they think an SME community is valuable to their company, they likely will not hesitate: Of course it is. But a key factor in realizing that value as you build your SME community is first identifying what you need it to do for your company.

For some companies, their SME community’s value lies in its fortifying presence during organizational change. They are the place to start for defining the business problems that propel organizational change initiatives, as well as key players in crafting and validating solutions. Their in-depth knowledge in their particular niches within the company also makes them an important resource in the critical, but often inadequate, employee training and performance support phase of organizational change initiatives. In these scenarios, SME communities are a stabilizing and sustaining element in times of flux.

For other companies, their SME community is essential in day-to-day operations. They document and communicate each critical business process and bring COE best practices to life in their own work. They are the hub of a working knowledge network that can help mitigate universal productivity problems for companies. Namely, that the average employee spends up to 1.8 hours per day just searching for the basic information needed to do their job. SME communities work to make that information more accessible for every employee, increasing process efficiency and employee productivity.

How do you identify and coordinate SMEs?

Often, it is easier for companies to look outward for subject matter experts for help in their various initiatives. But if they aren’t also looking internally, they are missing out on a gold mine of expertise right there in their own company. To find your SMEs, like with any precious material, you will have to do some digging to unearth them. Here are a few places to start:

  • Identify the developers and stakeholders in past relevant initiatives. For example, if you are undertaking a new SAP implementation, find out who contributed to the implementation of your legacy system. Not only are they the clear go-to in the area of their previous contribution, but they also have the additional expertise of participating in that project and observing its outcomes.
  • Ask business unit managers and HR who the high performing employees are. From their vantage as team leads and moderators of employee reviews, they will have a keen assessment of the employees who are experts in their roles.
  • If your company is in the midst of an organizational change initiative, go to its source. Who helped define the business problem your current initiative is working to solve?
  • As you add names to your list and reach out to your SMEs, don’t forget to ask them who they would recommend you add to your growing community. There is potentially an informal network you can capitalize on.

Now that you have a solid list of internal SMEs, you can mobilize them around your current initiative or an overarching strategic objective of your company. When you start with a clear set of objectives and measurable key results for your SME community, it will focus their efforts and help them to see its purpose and value in a concrete way. 

How do you keep up engagement in your community?

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Once a company has laid the foundation of its SME community, it is common for the organizers to step back and think the level of engagement will sustain itself. This is certainly possible, but only if certain conditions are met. In order to keep your SME community active and continuously improving, consider the potential impact of these structural practices and what they can do for your company:

  • Embrace the living document. Since one of the important functions of SME communities is to communicate and preserve institutional knowledge as it evolves, static documentation methods will only be a hindrance. The more agile your SME community can be in its approach to and tools for business process documentation the better. It will make their efforts more efficient and minimize the burnout of creating an opus resource that will be obsolete with next month’s digital transformation.
  • Encourage your SMEs to engage with SMEs outside your company. By building networking objectives into your SME community’s charter, you are enhancing their expertise and deepening your company’s network in ways only your SMEs can do.
  • Make space for and incentivize the collaboration of SMEs from different areas within your company. Depending on the initial objectives of your SME community, this practice may not be a given. But it can have big returns. Often, these cross-functional, integrative conversations are where the innovation that gives your company a competitive advantage comes from.

What tools do your SMEs need to deliver their value?

When you started your blueprint for your SME community, you determined its most valuable functions for your company. But without the right tools, realizing that value will be long in coming.

No matter the overall objectives of your SME community, a simple but effective tool is the SME performance benchmark. In particular, effective SME communities utilize performance benchmarks around expanding and deepening their expertise. This readies your SMEs for future organizational change initiatives and contributes to your company’s agility.

In addition to benchmarks, SMEs will need the means to meet them. This can look like providing resources for professional development opportunities like speaking engagements, hosting networking events, or engaging LinkedIn groups. These professional activities not only enhance your SMEs’ expertise, but it also gives them a place to showcase their credentials – which in turn builds trust and authority in your SME community both within and outside your company.

A digital adoption platform that supports your SMEs

Every SME community also needs a tool for efficiently digitizing and disseminating their knowledge. In order to embrace the living document and be equipped to weather constant organizational change, more and more SME communities are utilizing digital adoption platforms (DAPs). DAPs streamline the efforts of your SMEs by making it easier to document the critical, and often complex, business processes for your enterprise software.

Instead of drafting cumbersome manuals that few employees read and won’t be relevant with the next upgrade, DAPs allow SMEs to codify best practices in minutes with step-by-step guides for your company’s end users. This increases process efficiency and data accuracy for all employees, and it has a substantial impact on the effectiveness of your SME community.

OnScreen is the agile digital adoption platform for SAP and web-based enterprise applications that boosts process efficiency and employee productivity by empowering any user to become a super user. Contact us to schedule a demonstration and see how OnScreen can support your subject matter experts.

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