See the wood for the SMEs

In my previous blog post, Everyone is an SME, I argued that all the employees in your organisation have knowledge and skills to share, because everyone is an SME in something.

Sometimes this “something” is obvious because it’s a part of their job. For example, Sam the superannuation administrator is obviously an SME in unit switching, because he processes dozens of unit switches every day.

But sometimes the something isn’t so obvious, because we’re either too blind to see it, or – Heaven forbid – our colleagues have lives outside of the workplace.

Martha the tea lady

Consider Martha, the tea lady. Obviously she’s an SME in the dispensation of hot beverages. That’s her job.

But dig a little deeper and you’ll discover that she’s also an SME in customer service and relationship management. That’s her job, too.

Oh, and she speaks fluent Polish and Russian.

Gavin the IT grad

May I also introduce you to Gavin, the IT grad. Gavin is proficient in several programming languages, as you would expect. In his spare time, he develops iPhone apps for fun.

You’re working on a mobile strategy, right?

Li the BDM

Then there’s Li, the Business Development Manager. Li’s an expert in socratic selling and knows your product specs off by heart, but did you know she’s halfway through a Master of International Business degree?

She also recently emigrated from China – you know, that consumer market you want to break into.

My point is, when we seek subject matter expertise for a project, a forum, a working group, an advisory board, or merely to answer a question, we might not see the wood for the trees are in the way.

Does your organisation have a searchable personnel directory that captures everyone’s expertise? Their experiences? Their education? Their interests? The languages they speak?

If not, you are probably oblivious to the true value of your payroll.

Colleagues holding question mark signs in front of their faces

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6 Comments on “See the wood for the SMEs”

  1. pennyjw Says:

    You’re right, of course, Ryan – we did keep track of community languages, because there was an allowance paid when we drew on those speakers’ expertise, but otherwise found it difficult to interest HR in an expertise directory as a super-intranet project (‘who would verify the skill?’ ‘who would keep it up to date?’ ‘how could we justify asking someone to use expertise we don’t actually pay them for?’ ‘what about privacy concerns?’)
    I love the idea of finding people outside the functional area to serve on a project’s advisory board.

  2. Ryan Tracey Says:

    They are valid questions, Penny. “How could we justify asking someone to use expertise we don’t actually pay them for?” is a curious one for me though; while it’s a reasonable concern for an HR department to have, I suggest most people would jump at the chance to work on something that genuinely interests them!

  3. pennyjw Says:

    Absolutely, Ryan – the objection made sense in HR-land, but, personally, I’m a big jumper :)

  4. Ryan Tracey Says:

    Oh yes, that was understood :0)

  5. elearningguy Says:

    Reblogged this on The Hitchhiker's Guide to Learning and commented:
    A great pair of entries from Ryan Tracey (@ryantracey) on the nature of the SME. This discussion leads us into the territory of “Unconscious Competence” as pioneered by Gordon Training International. Thanks to Ryan for sharing these gems.


  6. I absolutely adore this idea, simply from the perspective of acknowledging that we are all people with interests above and beyond (and often with more passion for) those we have at work.

    Finding out more about who people are 100% of the time is the best diversity policy you can have…


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