How TIFF Leverages SMEs for Internal Development - HR Open Source


The Toronto International Film Festival®, also known as TIFF, is a not for profit charitable organization founded in 1976. We celebrated our 40th Film Festival anniversary this year, however, it wasn’t until 2010 that we moved into our permanent home, TIFF Bell Lightbox, which allowed us to expand our programming to run year round. This was a significant growth stride towards achieving our vision to “Be the Global Centre for Film Culture”.   

Our space includes five public cinemas, gallery/exhibition space and plenty of additional spaces for both internal and external events to be hosted. Over the last five years, our staffing needs increased and diversified greatly to support all of this. With approximately 250 year round employees, we expand up to 1000 employees for the Festival every September. This all creates some unique challenges for our team, particularly around developing and training our staff.

What We Did

One of our five core values is “People Are Our Strength”, which we take very seriously at all levels of the organization.  This value drives our emphasis on talent development, and inspires us to overcome limited resources to deliver for our employees. As a not for profit charitable institution, we work with limited resources to deliver meaningful training and experiences to our staff in order to support both career growth, and the needs of the business. The backbone of these development initiatives is our professional development programme, HR360.

HR360 categorizes training into three groups:  

  • Managing the Business focuses on how we operate on an operational level
  • Managing Others is geared towards people who are in a people manager role
  • Managing Self is for anyone who wants to learn different techniques and tools to manage their work and wellness.  

Our training and development programmes are split into training led by external vendors (i.e. Management workshops, CPR certification, Smart Serve, Conflict in the Workplace, etc) along with topics that fall under our HR Wellness Programme (i.e. sessions on nutrition, sleep therapy, stress, visits with Therapy Dogs, etc.).

As we continued to grow, we encountered an increasing appetite for training and professional development outside of our established courses. Given our budgetary constraints, we need to find new ways to deliver on this expectation. That’s what led us to launch the “Subject Matter Expert Programme”, a new co-learning initiative that allowed us to identify and engage internal SMEs with expertise ranging from public speaking, to organizational skills and film bookings to lead educational workshops for their colleagues.

Why We Did It

Financial resources limited the number and frequency of externally led workshops. Most of our external budget was already allocated to building business and management skills. We needed to expand beyond the current offerings of external workshops, as well as the limited number of training offerings being performed by Human Resources department staff.

In early 2015 the Human Resources team identified a gap in our current Professional Development programme - we weren’t fully taking advantage of the wealth of information our current employees already had. Our expanding number of employees always requested more variety and frequency in professional development workshop options. Our growing employee population brought a wealth of new experience to TIFF we saw as a great opportunity to leverage, engage, and empower them to share.

How We Did It

The “Subject Matter Expert Programme”, also known as SMEs, was created and rolled out to TIFF Staff in April 2015. We initially introduced the programme at an All Staff Meeting and then further information was sent via our weekly newsletter and Intranet site. Staff were encouraged to reach out directly to the Human Resources team if they were interested in participating or had any questions.  We also contacted people directly who we felt had a skill that would be beneficial to the programme. Since April 2015, we have had twelve employees come forward to offer fourteen topics.

The basis of the programme was quite simple. Essentially, we asked employees, “if you feel that you are an expert in any area and you’d like to share the information with your co-workers, let us know and we’ll work with you to create something.” The typical format for these training sessions is a Lunch and Learn. After volunteering to participate in the programme, someone from the Human Resources department would meet with the employee to review the topic, how it would be delivered, and the timing/scheduling of it.    

At TIFF, each Full Time employee (and those on contracts longer than six months) are a part of the performance agreement process. We put a great deal of time and effort into ensuring all Performance Agreements are in line with the organization and leadership’s plans for the year. In addition to the Performance Agreement, we also ask each employee to identify two or three professional development goals for the year. A goal that often comes up is “speak in front of a group” or “take a course in public speaking or presentation skills”. The Subject Matter Expert Programme provided an opportunity for our HR team to expand our training offerings, and a space for TIFF employees to share information and knowledge with their co-workers, and accomplish professional development goals they had set for themselves for the year.

Specific Results and Impact

The initiative has received plenty of positive reactions from both the presenters and TIFF staff who have attended the sessions. To date, we have had twelve employees offer up their skills to us, on topics ranging from technical skills to public speaking. Going forward, sessions with high attendance and strong feedback will be considered to run annually and we will continue to run new ones for 2016. Our most popular sessions to date have been public speaking and film bookings which makes sense given sector.

Some key results include:

  • 80% of Subject Matter Experts strongly agreed that the the format and time allocated worked well for them.  
  • 100% agreed that they would recommend the SME Programme to a co-worker who is looking for Professional Development

It is too early to know if the sessions will continue to be well attended, but to date we have had strong interest, attendance and feedback. Attendance has averaged twenty employees at each session.  With the new year, we will have a new set of Performance Agreement and Professional Development goals and we plan to grow the number of Subject Matter Experts in 2016.  We have also received feedback as to what types of topics people are looking for in Professional Development in 2016.  Popular themes include: conflict resolution, managing up, Excel, project management, film projection and a deeper look at what each department does.  

Financially, adding Subject Matter Experts to our professional development programme is a great addition. Being able to rely on our internal staff to lead some important sessions throughout the year will allow us to direct our monetary resources to sessions outside of an internal expertise/capabilities that need to be led by an external facilitator.

This programme allowed us to  get a better understanding of the different skills individuals here have. It gave us an opportunity to create stretch and lateral growth opportunities for our staff, resulting in increased engagement and morale.  The feedback our SMEs received post-session has been extremely positive and the Human Resources team has also received positive messaging from the staff.  With numerous successful sessions completed, more employees are willing to participate in the programme as SMEs in the new year.

What We Got Wrong

We schedule our Professional Development calendar months in advance to ensure we give employees plenty of notice. When scheduling internal facilitators, other factors surrounding timing need to be considered. Several times we ran into the scenario of having employees volunteer to run a session and then be unable to deliver based on their workload or schedule conflict. At times it was difficult to manage their desire to participate in the programme versus the reality of their workload. Therefore, manager buy in is a significant part of this as it does tie into professional development.  During our most recent All Staff meeting, we tied in the topic of 2016 Professional Development goals to the SME Programme, highlighting that it’s a great opportunity.  Connecting the programme to formal Professional Development goals will increase manager buy in.

Though we had noted this as a concern in early discussion of the programme and we took steps to communicate the message, we did have to reiterate several times the flexibility of the delivery method. While most topics worked well in the Lunch & Learn format, there were some topics that did not. There were also some SMEs who didn’t feel comfortable presenting to a large group. We worked with those SMEs to create a different method of delivery. For example, one “Excel SME” meets with individual departments to work on a specific problem they are having in Excel and tailors the meeting to their needs.

What HR Can Learn

The ease of bringing in an external facilitator can stand in the way of the other resources we have in front of us. There will always be Professional Development sessions that will need to be run by an outside facilitator, whether it’s due to the necessity of professional expertise or if it’s due to the content of the session.  

It’s important however to recognize that we are working in an environment with co-workers with a vast amount of diverse knowledge, whether it’s from formal education, work experience, or life experience. While being able to offer sessions to our employees on topics we hadn’t even considered, we are also able to further the professional goals of our co-workers.