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What Is a Subject Matter Expert & How Do You Hire One?

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December 22, 2022Interviewing Recruitment

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For some business challenges, you need to call in the experts — the industry veterans who always seem to have (or find) the answer that remains just out of reach for everyone else.

We’re talking about subject matter experts. Some in this category are high-powered consultants that swoop in to solve an immediate crisis. But others prefer the stability of in-house employment and provide ongoing benefits even after the crisis.

Most businesses would benefit from having at least one subject matter expert in-house. Here’s what you need to know about this type of employee and why getting one (or more) on board is worth the investment. We’ll also provide a step-by-step guide for finding and landing the SMEs you need.

What Is a Subject Matter Expert (SME)?

Subject matter experts (SMEs) are experts or authorities in a particular area, be it a discipline, field, role, process, or industry. They are the people others turn to for answers to specific questions as well as general guidance because they know more or have experienced more than anyone else. Subject matter experts often possess advanced certifications, specialized knowledge, and years of experience, delivering a deep understanding of particular job competencies.

Subject matter experts are sought-after employees who are extremely knowledgeable in their fields. They are also targets for poaching for several reasons: SMEs tend to be more visible than the average employee, there are a finite number of them in any discipline or area, and they are rarely in need of work.

Why Is Having a Subject Matter Expert Important?

Organizations seek out subject matter experts because they can deliver more than the rest. They also serve as a source of knowledge for others in your organization and can educate team members using their SME knowledge.

Having subject matter experts available is one element of staying competitive in this new age of talent. There’s also a symbiotic connection between SMEs and industry leaders: most of the time, an industry leader has more SMEs than its peers, and the typical SME has a significant advantage in getting on board at an industry-leading company.

Additionally, when someone with a high level of expertise leaves a company, they often leave a void in company knowledge that needs to be filled. Otherwise, the company can no longer serve its customers and employees in the same way. A junior- or entry-level employee can’t supply this missing knowledge. Often an SME is seen as the primary or only solution for knowledge gaps such as these.

Last, subject matter experts (whether on the payroll or brought in as consultants) can solve a technical problem or provide a specialized skill that your generalist workforce can’t.

Step-by-Step Guide for Identifying and Recruiting an SME

Some high-profile SMEs are well-known, but most are far from famous. Here’s a step-by-step guide to finding eligible SMEs — and then successfully recruiting them to join your team.

1) Prioritize Your SME Needs

The SME category is broad, so the first step is deciding exactly what you want to get out of an SME hire. Project management, software development, software engineering, human resources, customer support, and even your marketing team could benefit from an SME serving in their specific areas. But you likely won’t be able to pursue them all at once.

SMEs also often serve as instructional designers or might create a specialized training program and training materials for a department, function, or tool. But not all SMEs will have the communication skills to excel in this capacity, so deciding on why you’re pursuing an SME before you start is vital.

So the first step is deciding on the top functions or capabilities you need an SME to deliver, which will narrow your search as you continue.

2) Craft a Clear Job Description

Once you decide what your SME needs to accomplish, it’s time to craft a clear and compelling job description. Does your project management SME need to be a Six Sigma expert? Have a mastery of a specific project management software platform? Know how to speak Spanish or Mandarin?

Remember, an SME is a cut above the rest. Your standard job description likely won’t cut it.

3) Look in the Right Places

Once you settle on a direction and create a job description, you need to get that job description in front of the right audience. The challenge here is that most SMEs are already employed: they aren’t necessarily trawling the job boards or paying close attention to suggested jobs on LinkedIn.

Of course, there’s no problem sending this job post out via your typical channels. But if you’re going after very specific candidates, ensure you’re looking in the right places.

Not sure where to look? Hunt Club's SME recruiting experts can help.

4) Work With Talent Acquisition Specializing in SMEs

Finding SMEs in very specific disciplines is just not that easy, but there are recruiting firms that specialize in doing so. A talent acquisition consultant may also be a helpful resource in your search.

At Hunt Club, we pride ourselves in our talent network, which contains over 12,000 SMEs — that’s over one-third of the SMEs currently employed in the U.S. by one measure.

5) Grow Your Own

Another viable strategy is growing your own. You may have an experienced, motivated leader already in your organization who could become a subject matter expert over time. This strategy may require some investment (in learning, credentials, time away from projects, etc.), but it’s worth considering. 

Providing growth and development opportunities like this for existing employees is a great way to boost morale and foster a positive work culture that values team members.

6) Compensate Accordingly

Subject matter experts are usually more valuable when working in their area of expertise than when leading cross-functional teams (or higher). But many SMEs face a problem here: At many firms, the only way to advance is to switch to a management or leadership track. One business coach notes the unfortunate tendency for high-performing SMEs to get swept into the management track based on their performance — negating the primary benefit of hiring an SME in the first place.

Savvy businesses recognize the value of experts doing what they’re experts in and structure compensation accordingly. They create a path for advancement with appropriate compensation scaling so that motivated individuals don’t see the management track (or leaving the company entirely for a better offer) as the only way to make more money.

7) Don’t Forget the Fundamentals

Lastly, recruiting an SME requires many of the same tactics you’d use to acquire other top talent, such as these:

  • Treat candidates well from the start of the application process.
  • Communicate frequently during the process, including by modern or nontraditional methods like texting or potentially social media.
  • Embrace video interviews, especially for first-round interviews.

Use Cases for Having an SME on Your Team

SMEs can be valuable as outside resources, but there are times when having one (or more) on your payroll as an employee provides outsized value. Here are a few use cases for hiring a full-time SME.

Project Teams

Project teams often benefit from at least one subject matter expert. For example, imagine you need to create a significant internal report or document — well over 100 pages — or you’re producing a book-length work for customer purposes. You’ll need to assemble a project team with a range of functions: design, layout, editorial, permissions, etc. Most of these team members will perform better if they are at least familiar with the subject matter, but none need to be true experts.

Your author or writers, on the other hand? You want subject matter experts, if at all possible, for complex works like these. At a minimum, your writers would need close access to an SME who they can speak with and create written work based on the SME's feedback.

This concept adapts to fit complex projects in nearly every field: Most team members can be generalists, but a few functions really need more.

Corporate Training

How do you train your new or junior employees? Do they rely on documentation alone, or do you conduct live training as well?

Whatever your process, the deeper question is: who possesses the knowledge to convey to new hires? At some point in the process, this person needs to be an SME. A generalist manager can oversee training once the materials exist, but that same generalist would struggle to create the material effectively.

So an SME can serve a crucial role in education, whether that looks like live training or creating and maintaining documentation.

Data Analytics

Today’s mid-sized and large businesses are drowning in data. It gets collected and stored in various ways, and everywhere we turn, we hear that this data is the key to unlocking growth, dominance, or transformation.

This is all true, but for many businesses, the problem isn’t collecting data — it’s doing something useful with that data.

The roles surrounding data are complex, highly technical, and relatively new, and every data-forward business needs numerous experts to capitalize on this data. Some of these experts can be trained and developed, but only if you have an SME to do it.

The Benefits of Having a Subject Matter Expert In-House

Finding, hiring, and retaining subject matter experts is more difficult than the average hire. Why go through the trouble? Because bringing one or more subject matter experts in-house unlocks a range of benefits you won’t get by simply hiring an expert contractor. Here are just a few of those benefits:

  • Positions your firm as an industry leader: SMEs can produce thought leadership and bolster your firm’s authority, but only when they’re actually a part of your team.
  • Alleviates talent bottlenecks: Every time you need an outside expert, you risk a bottleneck of not being able to find one (or your go-to being booked for months). By bringing a similar expert onto your team, you avoid these talent bottlenecks. Plus, even if that specialization doesn’t amount to a full-time job, SMEs tend to be versatile enough to handle other responsibilities to fill the gaps.
  • Expands your capabilities: You don’t know what you don’t know — but SMEs do. An internal SME can see blind spots or inefficient processes that occur due to a lack of knowledge. SMEs can also point out unused features or newer products that can enhance and expand capabilities on a level that generalists can’t.
  • Increases your reach: a marketing or SEO SME could propel your business forward, helping you overcome competitors, while an outside firm or freelancer might be providing the same level of service and insight to you as their other clients (who could be your competitors).
  • Improves your training quality: there’s no real debate on whether a live expert or a static third-party training video is a better way to learn. Produced materials become outdated the moment they go live, while your in-house expert continues to learn and can naturally keep training up to date.

These are just five of the potential benefits of hiring SMEs internally. You’re sure to find more, including industry- or discipline-specific benefits unique to your context.

Hire a Reputable SME With Hunt Club

Bringing the right SME or SMEs on board can greatly impact your business capability, training quality, resilience, reach, and more. There’s just one hurdle, and it’s a big one: finding and hiring those SMEs.

Acquiring top talent, including SMEs, is an ongoing challenge for businesses — and it’s a challenge Hunt Club solves every day. By combining our expert recruiting tactics, talent acquisition consulting services, and proprietary technology, Hunt Club leverages its reach and finds you right-fit candidates that others can’t access.

That includes SMEs. We currently boast a network of over 6 million candidates and over 12,000 SMEs. Whatever skill set you’re looking for, we can supply it or find it for you.

Ready to get started on your SME search? Hire with Hunt Club today.

Hire With Hunt Club

Kristin Bachman avatarKristin Bachman