Checklist for Finding and Working with Subject Matter Experts

10 Steps to Capturing Critical Information from Retiring Workers

This week, I will be speaking to a local manufacturers’ association on an overview about how to identify and capture knowledge from the mass exodus of retiring workers.

It forced me to break down the entire methodology of two books into a few slides. After coming up with 10 steps, I thought I’d share the 30,000 foot view with my blog viewers, as well. As those of you who have been following this blog for a year or more already know, the devil is in the details. However, the high level view is a very good place to start so the devil has context.

The 10 steps have three major divisions. They are:

Part 1: Identify Critical Areas of Information within Your Organizationt

1. Make a thorough assessment of your organizational chart

2. Don’t overlook the obvious

3. Don’t overlook the un-obvious

Part 2: Ask Them the Right Questions

4. People don’t know what they don’t know

5. Do a well-thought-out interview

6. Get them talking

Part 3: Assess Your Current Information Assets

7. Review current knowledge and training materials

8.Update material where possible, fill in gaps where necessary

9. Consider all information assets and connect them with trends in your company and your industry

10. Iterate regularly

Currently scheduled public workshop: I will be conducting a workshop on how to work with subject matter experts at the 2nd Annual AGXPE meeting in Annapolis, MD from September 25-28, 2016. AGXPE is an organization dedicated to best practices in the pharmaceutical and related regulated industries. For more information or to register, click here.

What to Include In a Full Knowledge Capture in Your Organization

As you work through cataloguing the knowledge in your company, it is easy to overlook some things either because they are so obvious you forget they are important or because they are so obscure that they may be out of your direct line of sight. In the interest of doing a full knowledge capture in your organization, you can run down a systematic pathway that can reveal items that you might otherwise overlook.

I started to assemble a list of places to look and things to consider as you run through a whole-house inventory of your corporate assets.Here is my first pass to help organizations identify corporate competitive advantages and assets.

  • Your patented products and processes
  • Trademarks and copyrighted materials
  • Proprietary lists of customers and suppliers
  • Personnel with unique relationships with individual employees, customers and vendors
  • Software and training programs developed specifically for your company
  • Contracts – real estate, insurance, employees, vendors/suppliers, equipment and machinery purchase, repair, lease
  • Labor – professional, full and part-time, contract, consulting
  • Capital investments – lease/purchase buildings, machinery, vehicles and craft, infrastructure (private roads, rails, airstrips, etc), including valuable locations near customers, sources of supply or transportation
  • Special circumstances – laws, exceptions, waivers, licenses, etc that allow you to do business in a certain way, in a certain location or under certain conditions.

Please feel free to add your input in the comment box below to make additions and even deletions from this list. What would you include? What would you consider irrelevant? Would something like this list be helpful in assembling your corporate knowledge base if you didn’t have one, or if you have one that needs revision?

I look forward to your comments!



In Favor of a CLO? When NextGen Learning Needs a View from the Top

When organizations do knowledge management well, it is usually because territorial battles waged. Someone with authority at the top made decisions and roles of responsibility in the training department realigned. That is why it is critical for organizations to have a chief learning officer sitting in the C-suite. Territorial battles need referees who have the big picture and no entrenched interests in preserving an individual fiefdom in the kingdom that is your corporation.

Knowing which knowledge to capture, retain or discard requires trainers to be part of the inner circle of business leaders in an organization. It becomes the role of the training expert to also understand business in general as well as their organizations and industries specifically so they can be at the helm with other executives to assist them in making these decisions. We are beginning to see Chief Learning Officers (CLO) alongside the CEO, CFO, CIO and, in medical organizations, CMO. As we think about successful businesses as learning organizations, it follows logically that the training department is an essential member of the team that determines the direction of the organization.

This critical role at the big kids’ table requires trainers to learn the business of business, as well as the industry in which they work. Without industry knowledge, programs lack context and this contributes to the fact that training programs often wind up as shelfware, never used or cast aside after a brief time. If the instructional designer has little knowledge of the business or industry in which they work, how can their programs have context or relevance to the enterprise? The answer, of course, is that they can’t.

The subject of knowledge management is now as much part of an organization’s success strategy as its sales, R&D and marketing strategies.

Here are 5 steps to guide your organization’s critical knowledge capture requiring a champion in the C-suite

1. Funnel all training and knowledge management through one pathway in the organization that ends at the top

2. Identify the expertise you need to capture by doing a matrix walk-through

3. Create a plan for working with your critical subject matter experts and conduct interviews that result in capturing critical information for your training programs

4. Develop a logical single system for storing and retrieving critical knowledge

5. Establish a review process to assess the ongoing relevancy and accuracy of critical knowledge stored in your organization

The final arbiter of the value of existing knowledge and its relevance going forward must be someone who has the widest possible vantage point in the organization. That person needs to have as few attachments to the way things are done as possible because it is their job to envision the way things need to be. CLOs,  or someone in a similar high-level, above-the-fray capacity, needs to be able to make the tough calls regarding which training is most effective and which consultants are adding value.

Does your training department have a strong voice in the executive suite?

Join Us 4/18 at 7 pm for a Free Working With SMEs Webinar

Do you want to talk about Subject Matter Experts? Then join us on Monday, April 18 at 7 p.m. for a free webinar on finding and working with subject matter experts in your organization.

The Eastern Pennsylvania Chapter of the Association for Talent Development (ATDEPA) is sponsoring this free, one-hour webinar where we can talk SMEs- why to find them, how to find them, and what to do when you’ve found them. You don’t have to be a member of ATD or our chapter to attend, although we’d love to have you as a member.

Our chapter wants to thank DeSales University for hosting this online event as we take their new Blackboard software for a ride. We played with it yesterday and the technology is a go. It’s got some cool functionality so you can pop in on your microphone, join us by video or call in from your phone.

Our host from DeSales University in Center Valley, PA is Eric J. Hagan, Ed.D., Director, Distance Education and Instructional Technology, who will be driving the webinar and also bringing academia’s perspective to the topic.

So if you’ve got an hour to spare from anywhere to talk SMEs and want to engage in some conversation, please join us by clicking on this link. It will take you  to the Eastern PA ATD website where you can sign up. You’ll receive verification of your registration from the chapter.

Here’s that link again. I hope to see you there.

Been On SME Blog Hiatus!

Yes, it’s true. I’ve been on a Working With SMEs blog hiatus. I started a second book, Finding Your SMEs, and it is chugging along more slowly than I had anticipated. So I am carving out time to attack it and finish it.

Finding Your SMEs is more than half finished, and has been for nearly a year. The webinar will cover some of the new material from the book and the live workshop under development.

One more time, here’s that link to our ATD Eastern PA chapter website where you can register to attend. We plan to record it and make it available later, so if you sign up and can’t make it, you’ll get the replay.

Innovation versus “The Way We’ve Always Done It”

For the last few months, I have been writing about the value of preserving your core competencies. If you’re GE or Kodak or Microsoft, or even if you are you (!), your core competency is the heart and soul of your business.

Where you are going and what you are building will happen on the bedrock of who you are to the public and your customers. At core, Kodak will always be about preserving images. GE will always be about great engineering and manufacturing industrial and commercial machines. Microsoft is about processing and storing information.

By connecting to the reason you are in business, you can make good decisions about where to place your focus now and in the future. If you want to drift too far from your core mission, consider starting a new business. But just because you stick to your knitting, as it were, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t embrace change. In fact, staying in business is all about the art of embracing life-sustaining change.

The Art of Embracing Change

Change for the sake of change is just so much wasted motion. Healthy change is very different. Healthy change is innovation and the life blood of your organization. It is knowing when the environment or external conditions require your response to stay vibrant. Healthy change can also come from inside your organization. The best kind of internal healthy change comes from developing new products, services and processes that set a new standard requiring others in your industry and the external environment to respond to you.

Living organisms are always changing. With rapid advances in technology and global 24/7 interconnectivity, nothing stays the same for more than a New York minute. To remain competitive, your organization will respond to this change, and perhaps even initiate some of it. That doesn’t mean that the core elements that define your organization don’t deserve the respect they have earned. Consistency is a good thing, especially in the midst of change.

Preserving Core Competencies is not Stagnation

Let me repeat that. Preserving your company’s core competencies is not about stagnation. It is healthy to preserve what works and how your customers know you. Play to your strengths.

Stagnation is different. Stagnation is that enemy of innovation: “This is the way we’ve always done it.” If something is the way you’ve always done it, it’s time to look at your products, services and processes and rethink it. When you rethink it, you may find you have already optimized the way it can be done. For now.

Due to the rapid changes in technology, and changes in education and (get this) people, the way you have always done things is probably not the best way to do things now. Real healthy change is about keeping things alive. Like a shark, if your organization stops moving, it’s dead.

BYOD, IoT and Embracing Change

I have been kicking around the tension between preserving core competencies and embracing innovation for a few months. An article from from CIO Insight last week gave me the clarity to organize my thought on this issue. In How the IoT and BYOD Increase Business Agility , author D.P. Morrissey discusses the vulnerabilities, inevitability and impact of both the Internet of Things and Bring Your Own Device on companies. Quoting a survey by Tata Consultancy Services, the article says:

“The topic has become the focus of passionate examination and spirited debate at the top-most level of a growing number of major companies around the world … The early IoT leaders are more likely to digitally reimagine their businesses and produce substantial value for customers, not just value for themselves.”

Like a Shark

Yes, the value of your business’s core competencies cannot be overstated. They cannot be lost. However, as long as your company plans to operate in the 21st Century – and perhaps beyond – it must keep moving.

Morrissey encapsulates the essence of this tension when he says, “There is little forgiveness for the slow in business. Just as evolution rewards the strong, businesses that embrace agility and IoT practices will be rewarded by leading markets and financial categories.”


The Difference between Thought Leaders and Subject Matter Experts

Several people have asked me about the issue of thought leaders recently. In particular, a colleague who read my book Working with SMEs approached me at a charity event before Christmas and posed the question, “What is the difference between a thought leader and a subject matter expert?”

She didn’t ask the question as a challenge, and I don’t think she expected an answer on the spot. She asked it in an exploratory way. We looked for a moment at each other, and I said I would think about it. I knew there was more to the distinction than an easy definition of each term. For the last two months, I’ve been thinking about it.

Another colleague recently said she is sick of the term “thought leader” and thinks it has become overused and meaningless. I agree that the term and concept is in vogue, but after much consideration, it is not meaningless. If someone is known as a thought leader, they are someone who has earned recognition for their opinion because their experience gives them a catbird seat on a particular issue. The term “thought leader” is only meaningless if someone refers to themselves that way.

I liken “thought leader” to the term “sensei” because it is not an honor you can bestow upon yourself. When I studied Lean, I encountered a man who referred to himself as a sensei or “wise one”. Other Lean practitioners took me aside to explain that he had committed a faux pas because one does not refer to oneself as a sensei. It is presumptuous. Other people may refer to you as a sensei, but you may never call yourself one. In that way, just because someone calls themselves a “thought leader” does not make it so.

Thought Leaders Have Perspective and Vision

A thought leader is someone who has perspective due to their vast and deep experience in an area. They are sought by others to share their opinions with the group to help others gain perspective. Because of their perspective, thought leaders also have vision. They can usually see around corners into the future. Due to their perspective and deep experience, a thought leader can make an educated guess about the direction events will take. A true thought leader earned it through years of experience, and sometimes after years of making mistakes, too.

Thought leaders usually have some sort of platform. It could be within their organization, industry or profession. It may be a broader platform like the New York Times where a columnist can inform and influence millions of people. The visibility of a platform like the New York Times will catapult someone into thought leadership.

Thought leaders are exactly that – they have thought about things a long time, have opinions that are valuable and valid based on their background, and are willing to be out in front of the crowd leading others in a certain direction.

Last week, I spent four days attending a live, online seminar by author, speaker and trainer Brendon Burchard called the Thought Leader Roadmap. I wanted to see what he had to say about thought leadership. He is of the opinion that you can either be a thought leader by experience or you can become one by studying an issue in depth and then speaking out about it from a position of knowledge after repackaging what you’ve learned from reading and interviewing experts.

Which neatly leads us to the difference between thought leaders and experts.

Experts Have Deep Knowledge about a Subject

Some academicians have actually come up with a literal definition of a subject matter expert. An expert is someone who has studied a topic for about 10,000 hours or at least five years. Many true experts in complex topics like physics and biochemistry become experts only after 20 years or more of diligently working in the field. However, their subject matter expertise does not necessarily make them a thought leader. Some of the world’s greatest SMEs are unknown people toiling in the corner of a lab somewhere. They aren’t leading anything or anyone. However, they may be blazing trails in science or technology that very few people will ever know about, except that your smartphone knows where you are, your Internet connection gets more reliable every year, and cancer is now considered a chronic disease in some circles.

A SME is not always the brilliant biochemist in the corner lab, though. A SME in your organization is someone who knows something very well after years of being in your company. You have subject matter experts who know your business deeply and possibly even irreplaceably in accounting, sales, engineering, manufacturing and administration. They aren’t thought leaders. Most people don’t know what these quiet SMEs are thinking or even know who they are. And for the purpose of being a SME in their corner of the world, the concept of thought leadership is irrelevant.

Some SMEs are thought leaders, but being a SME does not make you a thought leader. Most, but not all, thought leaders are SMEs.  However, if you are a thought leader in your field either because you put yourself out there as one or other people turn to you as one, you will eventually need to develop deep and broad expertise. If you are a thought leader and not an advanced expert, your thought leadership will have limited value. Yes, some people are always behind you and those people will regard you as a leader. Others who are true SMEs look to thought leaders who have the same or greater level of expertise, so the farther ahead you are in your field the more people by sheer numbers are behind you.

A thought leader who is a SME with deep and broad knowledge is suited to lead many. A thought leader who is developing their expertise but willing to step out front will lead fewer. Both will have impact but one will have much greater influence on the future because they are speaking into many lives.

How would you define a thought leader? Who do you know who you would consider a thought leader?


Preserving Core Competencies: At GE, Everything Old is New Again

A few weeks ago, this blog looked at Kodak’s counterintuitive entry at the Consumer Electronics Show, featuring its return to the Super8 movie camera. Film, really? Yes. Kodak represents a perfect case for retaining your core competencies because you just never know when film will make a comeback.

Today, an article in strategy+business makes a similar point as it traces GE’s headquarters move to tech hub Boston from its former home at 30Rock in Manhattan. GE had planted its headquarters in Manhattan due to its acquisition of NBC Universal and the growth of its financial division, GE Capital.

The strategy+business article  makes the point that GE’s pivot to Boston is responding to two things:

  1. a change in focus and
  2. a change in the workforce.

The new technology workforce it wants to attract are centered in hubs like Boston, and the young engineers and researchers want to live an Uber-friendly urban lifestyle. The article summarizes this point in its last two sentences where it describes a GE advertisement:

Owen, a young, skinny, apartment-dwelling software professional, tell[s] his surprised friends and family that he is going to work for GE; instead of working on apps, he’ll be working on trains and planes and engines. You can be sure that Owen would much rather take the T to work in an open-plan office at the Boston Seaport than fight traffic to get to an isolated campus off the Merritt Parkway.

But the more salient point for our purpose here is that GE’s change in focus is a return to its core competency as a pioneer in engineering and research. The writer, s+b executive editor Daniel Gross, discusses touring plants in Schenectady featuring 3D printing, in South Carolina building turbine engines and in North Carolina building jet engines.

GE’s new focus is just a return to its primary purpose, harkening back to a time when it built the large turbines that drove hydroelectric plants and helped put the first man in orbit building rockets at Cape Canaveral. I just wrote a book for a former GE executive Elmer D. Gates who sadly passed away in December, only three weeks after his book signing. In his book, U-Turn Leadership  , he describes his 30-year career leading GE divisions as a manager with an engineering background and being part of those efforts that built modern industry.

GE’s move to a tech hub to attract talent from the research universities in Boston is really a return to its core competency. GE is coming home to engineering from its foray into the entertainment and financial industries. The article in strategy+business is just another reminder to retain your core competencies. Especially if you want to blaze trails into the future by continuing to engineer solutions that catapult human beings into space.

An organization is not, like an animal, an end in itself, and successful by the mere act of perpetuating the species. An organization is an organ of society and fulfills itself by the contribution it makes to the outside environment.– Peter Drucker, The Effective Executive


What is your company’s most valuable contribution to society and how might you perpetuate it?

Can You Buy Your Company’s Core Competencies?

I can make this my shortest blog. The answer to this question is:

Sort of. But not really.

However, you don’t pay me the big bucks to give you five small words and no long-winded explanation to accompany it. So, here’s your money’s worth :)

You Can Buy Talent

You can buy people who know how to perform the functions within your organization. Colleges and technical schools turn out people every day who have up-to-date knowledge. Other companies have people you can hire away from them. They can write code for you in the most popular programming languages. They know the tax laws.

Here’s the problem. You can hire people who can write code, but they don’t know the history of your particular needs and why your code was written as it was. They won’t know why you included certain fields and chose to delete others. They won’t understand the rationale behind your drop-down menus.

Tax attorneys and accountants know the latest tax laws. However, they may not understand your industry, your business structure and how your particular situation affects the way you report and file.

When you are capturing internal knowledge, you are capturing the details of what makes your company tick, and the design and quality that makes your products valuable in the marketplace. You can only get that kind of information from the subject matter experts who have expertise in your organization. Your SMEs know who to call, and which button to push to make your unique machine operate. If you don’t ask your internal experts now, you won’t know about it until the machine breaks down and they aren’t around to tell you. Or when the IRS comes calling.

You Can Buy Training

You might decide that if you lose your internal experts, you can always buy training. That is partially correct. You can always buy training, but you may not be able to buy the training you need. If you hire a generalist training company, you will get general training. An outside firm can teach you skills like project management. Or they can come in and write customized training for your needs. If you hire a company to come in and write customized training programs, they still need to talk to your internal experts and the problem becomes a self-perpetuating loop.

You Can’t Buy What Makes You Unique

Your internal trainers are all about you. Your internal trainers know your business. The key is to make sure they are able to do what you need them to do. They need budget and they need bandwidth to help you capture and preserve the knowledge and skills that make your customers keep coming back.

Internal trainers become experts-by-association. For that reason alone, internal training isn’t a nice-to-have and first-to-go when you are cutting back. Your internal trainers, and by extension all the mentors and experts you have internally who train new hires and people moving up, are the lifeblood of your organization.

The C-suite needs to be working with the training department to make sure that the current business is well-understood and well-mapped, and that future products and markets are in their line of sight. Training is about equipping your most valuable asset, your people, to maximize the profitability of your company, and that calls for ongoing alignment between the strategists and those required to execute the plan.

You may be able to buy smart people and good training on an as-needed basis, but you can’t buy your internal culture and company-specific knowledge off-the-shelf.

Does your C-Suite align with the training department?

Your Organization’s Kodak Moment: Preserving Your Legacy


The Consumer Electronic Show, CES to you tech junkies, featured acres of new tech toys at its annual convention last week. One car company, Faraday Future, even displayed a concept car that would make the Batmobile jealous. Amid all these Back-to-the-Future goodies, Kodak had the audacity to feature its Super 8 movie camera as its next great product release.

Here’s an excerpt from an article from eWeek, 10 Innovative Tech Products Grabbing Attention at CES 2016.

Kodak Wants to Turn Back the Clock With Its Super 8 Camera

Kodak wants to prove that old film camera really isn’t dead. The photographic products maker shocked CES with the announcement that it’s reviving its Super 8 camera, first released in the mid-1960s, for the digital age. Early reports suggest Kodak will launch the camera later this year in limited quantities. The Super 8 shoots video on 8-millimeter photographic film. Owners then have two options: ship out the film to Kodak so it can be developed for viewing on a film projector or have it converted to digital format. Either way, it’s nice to see Kodak’s determination to keep film alive.

Kodak is being at least counterintuitive here, if not downright stubborn. Kodak’s name was synonymous with film and cameras for most of the 20th Century and, by darn it, plans to carry that legacy into the 21st. This move is an object lesson in finding your internal subject matter experts, and making sure you don’t lose your core competencies. You never know when film will make a big comeback, and you will have lost your first mover advantage, even if that first move is 70 years old.

Kodak as the Poster Child for Innovation #Fail

In business management and tech circles, it is often said that Kodak lost its edge in photography due to its failure to recognize two things

  1. The pace and direction of technological change, in this case the potential for digital photography and the speed at which the new technology was advancing, and
  2. The business it was really in, which was capturing memories, not camera, film and chemicals.

When you are looking around your organization and thinking about what knowledge needs to be preserved, think big and think outside the proverbial box. Don’t assume that you can read the tea leaves regarding either the pace of change, the direction the change will take, or the ongoing need for your goods and services despite changes in your market.

One More Case in Point, and a Plug for a Relative’s Product

Film might not only be the medium that has more staying power than the futurists give it credit. Think about vinyl records. For those of you under 40, that was the way people bought music and listened to it at home before CDs and downloads.

Vinyl records are being pressed and sold again. It’s a cottage industry, mostly, but one that is gaining a new audience. Musicians and bands are turning to “pressing vinyl” again as a cool retro move. This has even spawned a business for turntables again. Take my cousin Lance, for example. His band NO BS! Brass just released its latest funky cool jazz record on vinyl. Here’s the link and shameless plug.

Whatever business you are in, you might think that the world is changing so quickly that you will soon be looking at your customers in the rear view mirror. Not necessarily. Look at technologies that you think are passe, but in the bigger picture will always have a place with small, niche markets, rebuilders, and collectors.

Preserve your core competencies. You never know when the gramophone will make its comeback.

If You Lose Your Subject Matter Expert, It Isn’t the End of the World. Or is it?

What is the value of your internal, proprietary corporate knowledge? What would it cost your company if you lose it?

It might be tough to quantify. Even if it is difficult to figure out what it might cost you to lose some of your valuable internal insight and intelligence, it is a worthwhile exercise. Just ask The Company itself – the Central Intelligence Agency.

The Central Intelligence Agency has found the cost of losing its internal subject matter expertise is quite worrisome. In fact, especially if you are the CIA whose name actually includes the word “intelligence”, losing vital subject matter expertise could prove to be bad news for the US. So much so, that The Washington Post devoted a feature article to the CIA’s intelligence deficit last week, Lack of Russia Experts has the US Playing Catch Up.

Briefly, the article says that after the breakup of the Soviet Union, the CIA put less effort into retaining its Russian intelligence experts and shifted its efforts to what it perceived to be the next threat, the Middle East. The article concedes that the CIA may have underestimated both the post-breakup power of its former Cold War rival as well as miscalculated whether we would remain on friendly terms. Oops.

Today, Russia and the US are growing increasingly hostile toward each other, and the article’s interviewees are concerned that the US no longer has the intimate intelligence it needs to make good decisions about how to handle our growing animosity. A US-Russian conflict has all the makings of a nuclear showdown. Threats are flying between the two superpowers, and it is clear that Russian President Vladimir Putin (ex-head of the Soviet CIA counterpart, the KGB) retained his US intelligence capability. Putin appears to know which moves to make, which veiled and not-so-veiled threats to lodge, to maneuver the global situation especially in cases where US and Russian interests diverge.

This quote from the article sums up the problem nicely:

“We’ve been surprised at every turn,” said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.). “We were surprised when they went into Crimea, we were surprised when they went into Syria.”


What Will It Cost Your Company To Lose Your Internal Experts?

Do you know the cost of losing your internal expertise? In the case of the US, our lack of retaining top drawer CIA Russian counterintelligence could mean nuclear winter for the planet.

Maybe losing your internal subject matter expertise isn’t exactly an extinction level event (ELE) for life as we know it on the big blue ball. However, it could have devastating effects on your bottom line – maybe temporarily, maybe permanently. It could be an ELE for your company.

It would be difficult, if not impossible, to put a precise value on the expertise held by your critical people. It may be tough to specifically quantify, but it is an exercise worth undertaking to find out exactly what you could lose, even if you can’t assign a monetary value to it. Specific subject matter experts’ internal proprietary knowledge impacts your long-term survival.

Lessons Learned from CIA’s SME Deficit

Private corporations have learned and adopted many strategies from our military, among them the post-event analysis we sometimes call Lessons Learned. As we reflect on the CIA playing catch up with Russian intelligence, let’s ponder the takeaways for private corporations, perhaps your own. Here are my top three:

  1. Retain personnel who know your markets, competitors and competitive advantages
  2. Critical long-term strategies don’t change quickly, so maintain and update your important knowledge sets
  3. Keep your core competencies alive even when a shiny new object requires a pivot

What would it cost your company to lose your critical knowledge? Can you put a dollar value on it? Or would it cost an important competitive advantage that could ultimately be your corporate extinction level event?