Tag: SME

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.

Three illuinated questionmarks among many black question marks.

Everyone is an SME

One of the recurring themes on my blog is a call for Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) to share their knowledge with the wider organisation.

In my view, this isn’t just an expectation: it’s an obligation. Organisations whose people embrace collaboration will prosper, while those who don’t will be left behind.

While the stereotype of an SME is a Sheldon-like character with superhuman intellect, the convenient truth is that we’re regular folk.

Of course the level of expertise in a particular domain will vary across a population, and the label of “expert” will naturally be assigned to those who have the most. However, it would be a folly to assume that the eggheads are the only ones who have anything to contribute.

You see, everyone is an expert in something. When humans work in a domain day in, day out, they familiarise themselves with it; they grow to understand its subtleties; they think up ideas to improve it; and they recognise the difference between business reality and academic fallacy when other people talk about it.

So while they might not be experts in the entire domain, they will be experts in parts thereof.

A businessman at his desk in the office.

Take Sam for example. He’s an administrator in the back office of a financial services organisation.

He’s no expert in superannuation, but he sure knows how to process a unit switch – even complicated ones. He processes dozens of them every day.

So when you need someone to record a unit switching tutorial, who you gonna call? It sure as hell won’t be Carl the CFP, or Mary the MBA, or anyone else with an acronym after their name. It will be Sam, the unit switching expert.


When we view the concept of subject matter expertise through this lens, we realise our roles as learning professionals need to change:

  • We need to stop deifying the few. This creates an “us & them” mentality which – even if affectionate – discourages the participation of the mortals.
  • We need to empower the many to share their expertise. In the modern workplace, this will involve social technology.
  • We need to cultivate a participatory culture. The best technology in the world is useless in an organisation with inhibitive policies and attitudes. Tools are meant to be used.

So unless they are doe-eyed novices, all the employees in your organisation have knowledge and skills to share. And if they don’t or won’t, let them find alternative employment with your competitors.

Introducing the Social Intranet Index

There’s a lot of talk about social intranets these days. It even threatens to overtake the blogosphere’s current obsession with gamification.

But what exactly is a social intranet…?

Everyone seems to have a different opinion, from a human-centred platform, to the intersection between portals, team sites and social sites, to a system that ties the business’s processes and data to the employee’s social behaviour.

Which one is correct? They all are.

You see, a “social intranet” is simply an intranet with social media elements that allow the users to interact with the content and with each other.

While everyone’s definition covers this functionality more or less, what is different is the degree of the functionality.

So, to introduce a common language and some standardisation to our discourse, I propose the “Social Intranet Index” (SII) – a metric that denotes the degree of social functionality afforded by an enterprise’s intranet.

From 1 through 10, the SII represents an increasing level of sociability…

Smile Clusters


An intranet with an SII of 1 is the traditional, old-fashioned broadcast medium. Its content is published by a select few (usually members of the Communications team) and remains read-only for the target audience.


An intranet with an SII of 2 accommodates special account holders outside of the golden circle. These are typically highly motivated individuals, because the backend is clunky and illogical.

Unfortunately these individuals tend to find themselves in the unenviable position of publishing content for other people, because said people are either too dumb or too lazy to learn how to do it themselves. Strangely, though, they all know how to use Facebook.


An intranet with an SII of 3 introduces a star rating or a “like” facility. The target audience can interact (albeit minimally) with the content by judging its quality and relevance.


An intranet with an SII of 4 introduces a commenting facility. Beyond a reductionist score, the target audience can now post free-form comments in response to the content.


An intranet with an SII of 5 bolts on third-party social applications such as Yammer, Compendium and Confluence. While these apps aren’t components of the enterprise’s intranet proper, they’re accessible from there and thus form part of the network. The target audience is empowered to generate their own content within these ringfenced zones.


An intranet with an SII of 6 integrates social media elements such as a discussion forum, blogs and wikis into a single sign-on solution. The user experience is seamless.


An intranet with an SII of 7 maintains a bank of user profiles that includes everyone in the organisation and is accessible by anyone in the organisation. The profiles are rich (including photos, contact details and subject matter expertise) and integrate with the other components of the intranet (eg the discussion forum) to facilitate social networking.


An intranet with an SII of 8 enables the users to personalise the interface. This typically involves the selection and arrangement of social widgets (eg a particular blog, a discussion sub-forum), a filterable activity stream, plus external functionality such as a customisable RSS feed.


An intranet with an SII of 9 empowers anyone in the organisation to publish and edit “regular” informational content beyond the aforementioned social media elements, though still within certain ringfenced zones. For example, a team site may host user-generated content pertinent to that team.


An intranet with an SII of 10 is the poster boy of heterarchy. All content is easily publishable and editable by everyone in the organisation. Devoid of ringfences, the platform effectively becomes a giant wiki. The corporate community pitches in to produce and maintain organic knowledge.

Outlandish and unworkable, or innovative and game changing? At the very least, I say an SII of 10 is aspirational.

Concurrent trends associated with the Social Intranet Index.

From 1 to 10, the Social Intranet Index represents a series of concurrent trends.

Most radically, the direction of publishing shifts from one-way to two-way to multi-way. This is typically associated with an increasing ease of use, which in turn encourages an increasing number of content producers.

Knowledge contained in silos is increasingly shared, and a broader community blossoms. As governance loosens, the organisation puts more trust in its own employees. Effectively, its hierarchy flattens.

As more control is relinquished by the company to its people, however, the risk of something going wrong increases. The content that is generated by the users might be flawed, and in extreme cases an individual might abuse their privileges and do something malicious.

On the other side of the coin, though, loose governance does not mean no governance. Sensitive content may still be locked, while an approval process and a reversion facility can prevent disaster.

Moreover, it may be argued that the shifting paradigm places an increasing obligation on the SME not only to share their knowledge with the wider organisation, but also to maintain its currency and relevance. Those who can’t or won’t will soon get found out.

Man looking at his laptop.

Clearly, a “social intranet” is not just about the technology; it’s about the culture of the organisation. Just because sophisticated functionality is available does not necessarily mean it will be used!

Notwithstanding this truism, I submit that culturally speaking, an SII of 1 is poles apart from an SII of 10. The former is characteristic of a restrictive, distrustful, clunky organisation, while the latter is characteristic of an open, empowering, nimble one.

Which organisation do you think will be more collaborative?

Which one is more adaptable to change?

Which one will ultimately perform better in the market?

Closer to home, what is the SII of your organisation’s intranet…?

The 2 sources of freebies

A little while ago I attended the latest Learning Cafe in Sydney. The theme this time around was Learning in a cost conscious environment.

We’ve all seen it with our own eyes: when a company hits hard times, its training budget is one of the first casualties.

Bob Spence rightly pointed out that the training function is often seen as a cost rather than an investment. To counter-act that perception, the L&D team must do a better job of demonstrating its worth to the business in terms of performance and, ultimately, profit.

Stack of money

We all nodded in agreement and a lively discussion ensued on how we should go about doing that.

However in the back of my mind I was empathising with the poor bunnies who are stuck now with slashed training budgets. What can they do about their current reality?

Of course the remedy is simple: spend less. The challenge is doing that without compromising value.

While there are many pieces to this puzzle, I think an oft-overlooked one is the exploitation of freebies. Freebies are everywhere, just waiting to be gobbled up. The trick is finding them.

There are 2 broad sources…

1. The external environment

Everyone knows there’s a wealth of free learning resources on the web, and many of them are relevant to the corporate sector.

I’m referring to things like:

• Blogs
• Slides
• Videos
• Podcasts
• Webinars
• Social networks
• E-Journals
• News articles

Why waste money reinventing the wheel?

Whatever topic you care to nominate, odds are some expert somewhere around the world has written about it, talked about it, filmed it, or presented a slideshow about it.

And published it to the web.

2. The internal environment

This one isn’t as obvious, but it’s arguably more important: every employee knows something worth sharing with their colleagues.

Furthermore, I contend they have an obligation to do so.

Our job as L&D professionals is to facilitate that collaboration. I’m referring to things like:

• Discussion forums
• Wikis
• Communities of practice
• User groups
• Brown bag sessions

Why pay for training when you have an army of SMEs at your disposal?

Whatever topic you care to nominate, odds are some expert somewhere in the organisation can write about it, talk about it, film it, or present a slideshow about it.

If that person does not exist, perhaps a number of employees can chip in their nuggets of knowledge and experience, and together make a whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts.

Doctoring the Informal Learning Environment

Anne Marie Cunningham is a GP and Clinical Lecturer at Cardiff University, Wales. She authors the blog Wishful thinking in medical education, which she uses to advance thinking about the training of student doctors.

Recently Anne Marie blogged Location and Learning (which I have reproduced here) and she asked me whether or not I consider her central idea an example of an Informal Learning Environment (ILE).

My short answer is “yes and no” – which I will explain – but for the moment please read Anne Marie’s idea for yourself…


In the last few weeks I’ve been thinking about how we can support the learning that takes place when medical students are on placement.

We know that entering wards can be a daunting experience for students. They don’t feel part of a team. They don’t know who everyone is. They don’t understand what is happening. They don’t want to interrupt nurses attending to patients or junior doctors catching up with paperwork at desks. They see other members of the team wandering in and out of the ward but they don’t know what their role is. They don’t recognise the social worker or the pharmacist or the OT. They might not even know what their own role is. They miss out on opportunities to attend meetings and teaching sessions because they don’t know they are happening.

In fact they spend too long waiting around for someone else to turn up to teach them, and on activities that have little educational value. They generally have a haphazard learning experience.

But placements are very rich environments with many unique opportunities to learn. So what can we do?

Imagine instead that before coming to the ward the students had access to a network which let them find the profiles of all the staff who worked on that ward. They could see the timetables for teaching. They could even see what the last students who had been on this placement had seen and learnt. They can select what they would particularly like to gain from the placement, and this will become part of their profile which will also be available to all the staff on the ward.

The network will also contain links to information about initiatives that are happening in the ward to address patient safety and quality improvement. The students can see if there are opportunities for them to get involved in this work and learn about the input their colleagues have had in the past.

When they turn up on the ward the students check in. They can see the profiles of the staff who are working there and when they should be finishing, when they will be on call and what clinics or theatre sessions they will be doing that week. Their calendar updates with activities that are happening that day that they should know about.

The network that they are tapping into is the same one that all the staff in the hospital use to keep themselves up to date. The students can record their learning and their thoughts about how the ward works. Their input is valued by the staff on the ward and their fellow students from other disciplines.

Do you think this will happen soon? Why hasn’t it happened already? And how could patients use this network?

[Source: Location and Learning]

Light bulb

What a wonderful idea!

Given the realities of the workplace for student doctors, shifting the pedagogy – if ever so slightly – from formal to informal sounds long overdue.

I certainly support the idea of staff profiles. If they include the name, photo, role, expertise, work roster and contact details of each staff member, the student can identify the right SME for their problem and avoid wasting precious time on a wild goose chase.

I also support the idea of the student having their own profile, and connecting it to a personal blog. The blog provides the student with a vehicle to express what they hope to gain from their placement, record their experiences, reflect on what they have learned, and even voice what they have struggled with.

Other students could read the blog to find out how their fellow student is faring, and perhaps make a social connection. The administrators and teaching staff could also read the blog to evaluate the student’s experience and remedy any problems.

Using laptop

In addition to profiles and blogs, I would also suggest facilitating an open discussion forum. Unlike a blog (which may or may not be read by others) a discussion forum enables the student to push a question to the crowd, thereby leveraging the collective intelligence of the hospital.

Senior doctors and nurses could participate in the forum to contribute their expert knowledge and lead the students in the right direction. Of course the student can also share their knowledge by answering someone else’s question, and they can learn incidentally by reading the questions and answers of others.

The discussion forum would also be a suitable vehicle for promoting the various initiatives that Anne Marie speaks of, providing reminders about upcoming teaching sessions, advertising project opportunities, and sharing other hospital-related news.

Doctor with iPad

Having said that, I think a big missing piece of this puzzle is a wiki or some other form of bulk content repository.

I would imagine that in a big institution like a hospital, knowledge is distributed everywhere – on scraps of paper, in folders on shelves, on a poster in the canteen, in people’s heads – which makes it really hard to find (especially when you need it). A wiki enables the hospital to centralise that content so that it can be retrieved quickly, easily and on‑the‑job via a mobile device.

I’m salivating over the thought of the kinds of resources it might contain!

Essentially, then, I would base the hospital’s ILE on three core components:

1. Wiki – the first port of call,
2. Discussion forum, the second port of call, and
3. Staff profiles, the third port of call.

Of course I recognise the importance of formal learning too. I’m not suggesting the hospital ditches face-to-face instruction, for example, with 3D animation. On the contrary, I believe formal and informal modes of delivery complement each other. The trick is determining which is best in each situation, and it might involve a combination of both – why not run a face-to-face demonstration and make the animation available in the wiki for future reference?

In the hospital, then, formal teaching sessions remain a core component of the student’s learning environment. They require support resources such as timetables, agendas and follow-ups.

Taking this one step further, the student’s shifts in the ward may also be considered a core component of their learning environment, as they are instances of on-the-job training. They require support resources such as a roster and perhaps an online check-in facility.

So Anne Marie’s wishful-thinking learning network for student doctors could look something like this:

Hypothetical medical learning environment

As you can see, the interface segregates learning from its management.

The former comprises the ILE (wiki, discussion forum and staff profiles) plus elements of the FLE (work shifts and face-to-face teaching sessions). This zone is where the student goes to learn something.

The latter zone comprises the remaining components of the FLE. This is where the student attends to administrative matters (calendar, floor maps, 60-day checklist), assessment (quizzes, assignments, due dates, grades) and performance management (PMA, development plan, 360° feedback, performance appraisal, manager’s reports).


As an organisation shifts its pedagogy towards the informal end of the learning continuum, its ILE and FLE increasingly represent the distinction between the act of learning and its management.

However, organisations are rarely so extreme in their learning model, and some (like hospitals) probably never will be because formal instruction is so crucial.

So I see nothing wrong with “doctoring” the ILE by associating it with formal elements. ILEs and FLEs are flexible concepts that should be manipulated according to the contexts in which they will be used.

Doctor with iPad

I know if I were a student doctor, I would completely immerse myself in this learning environment. I would get myself an iPad and carry it with me at all times as an indispensable learning aid.

I would check in every day. I would look up what was going on. I would attend teaching sessions. I would search content. I would browse. I would post queries. I would discuss. I would contact SMEs. I would blog. I would read other people’s blogs. I would check out my fellow students’ profiles and perhaps meet up for lunch.

The more I think about it, the more I am convinced this idea is bigger than any individual hospital. It is something the Health Department should implement across the sector. Now.