Talent Management in the Public Sector: How to Explain Different Approaches?

education-1580143_1920 (1)[We’re pleased to welcome author Dr. Marian Thunnissen of Fontys University of Applied Sciences. Dr. Thunnissen recently published an article in Public Personnel Management entitled “Talent Management in Public Sector Organizations: A Study on the Impact of Contextual Factors on the TM Approach in Flemish and Dutch Public Sector Organizations,” which is currently free to read for a limited time. Below, Dr. Thunnissen recounts how her research began and developed.]

PPM_C1 template_rev.inddDorien and I were each working on a study on talent management (TM) in the public sector. While we met each other several time at academic conferences we were intrigued by the differences in the TM approached adopted by the public sector organizations under study. What could explain that the public sector organizations in the Dutch study all aimed for an exclusive and performance oriented talent approach, while the Flemish governmental entities opted for an inclusive approach? This interesting phenomenon was for us the starting point to compare our data and to explore what characteristics of the external and internal context could explain the differences.

While analyzing the data we realized that using theory on institutional mechanisms was insufficient to explain what happened and we decided to include institutional logics in our conceptual model. The data indeed shows that multiple factors in the organizational context affect the intended TM strategy. Market pressures resulting from the external labor market (and the position as an employer on that market) and budgetary constraints, as well as institutional pressures have an effect as well. Moreover, we found that ‘attributes’ of the organization filter the institutional mechanism. In our study the composition of the workforce combined with internal economy measures can be an explanation for choosing a specific TM approach. But most of all organizational culture seems to be crucial (e.g., Stahl et al., 2012; Kontoghiorghes, 2016). Yet, we have seen that the influence of organizational culture cannot be separated from the logics adopted by the actors in the dominant coalition. Moreover, the research also indicates that the origins of the key employees – being public service works or classic professionals such as the academics – has an significant impact on organizational culture and the logics dominant in the organization (Greenwood et al, 2011; Thornton et al., 2005). This is an important theoretical contribution of the paper. The impact of belief systems has been mentioned by Meyers and Van Woerkom (2014) and Nijs et al. (2013) but not yet studied in empirical TM research. Nonetheless, the data points out that the mechanisms, actors and logics are entangled and not easy to separate.

All in all, the data supports our statement that TM is not an instrumental, rational and independent process. Although key actors in the dominant coalition take notice of the contextual factors, TM also proves to be an intuitive and micro-political process. Therefore, our comparison highlights the importance of an institutional and organizational fit, but in particular the significance of a consistent ‘talent mindset’ embedded in organizational culture and leadership style (also see Stahl et al., 2012; Kontoghiorghes, 2016). We think that it is necessary for HR and managers in practice to show consideration for the potential impact of ‘tangible’ mechanisms such as labor market pressures and economy measures, but also to be more aware of the influence of personal beliefs and logics regarding talent and how to deal with those mechanisms and logics in the decision process.

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