Talent management in a Swedish public hospital

Date02 September 2019
Published date02 September 2019
AuthorDaniel Tyskbo
Subject MatterHr & organizational behaviour,Global hrm
Talent management in a
Swedish public hospital
Daniel Tyskbo
Department of Business Administration, School of Business, Economics and Law,
University of Gothenburg, Gothenburg, Sweden
Purpose The purpose of this paper is to contribute to the understanding of how talent management (TM)
unfolds in practice in a public organization.
Design/methodology/approach An exploratory single case study was conducted of a Swedish public
hospital, based on interviews, observations and documents.
Findings The findings illustrate that despite a highly egalitarian and collectivist context, the hospital
adopted an exclusive approach to TM, and a talent was not considered or identified through formal
performance appraisals, but through informal criteria. The rationale behind this approach is influenced by the
surrounding context, including the implementation of an innovative and strategically important practice, and
the highly professionalized context.
Research limitations/implications The study offered a rich view of how TM unfolds in practice, which
may not always be possible using large sample, survey studies; however, it limited the generalizability.
Practical implications The study points to important issues when designing TM.
Originality/value The paper addressestwo main shortcomings in the TM literature: the under-researched
context of public organizations and the lack of contextual awareness. The empirically driven analysis
constitutesan important step for further theory developmentregarding exclusive/inclusive approaches in TM.
Keywords Public sector, Qualitative, Talent, Talent management, Exclusive, Talent identification
Paper type Research paper
The notion of talent management (TM) has been both growing in significance and gaining
interest among practitioners and academicsalike (Gallardo-Gallardo et al., 2015). Using one of
most cited definitions(see Collings and Mellahi, 2009,p. 304), it can be understood as strategic
activities and processes involving the identification of key positions, and the filling of these
positions with competent, high-potential, and high-performing incumbents, to ensure their
continued commitment to the organization.TM thus involves employee differentiationand is
most often described as an exclusive approach during which some people are seen as more
talented than others (Gallardo-Gallardo et al., 2013).
Organizations often struggle with their TM efforts, sometimes explained by the existence
of a war for talent (Michaels et al., 2001), in which one important issue is the shortage of
qualified workers (Latukha, 2015). This issue is especially prevalent in public sector
organizations, where a chronic shortage of talented people has been observed (Clarke and
Scurry, 2017; Glenn, 2012). Furthermore, TM challenges aredistinctive inSweden, a country
which overtookthe USA in 2016 in terms of beingmost in need of skilled workers(Hay Group,
2016). Sweden is crying out for highly skilled workers, and is having difficulties finding the
right people for the job, due to a talent mismatch.It is the public sector, especially health
care, that is mostaffected. The health care sectornot only requires skilled workersin general,
it is also struggling to fill identified key positions (IVO, 2016).
With an explosion of TM scholarship over recent years (McDonnell et al., 2017;
Thunnissen et al., 2013), one would expect public organizations to be able to find some
guidance in their TM work. However, the literature seems to offer little help since the
majority of TM research has focused on private, major multinational corporations (MNCs)
(Gallardo-Gallardo et al., 2015; Gallardo-Gallardo and Thunnissen, 2016), with an almost
complete absence of studies in the public sector (McDonnell et al., 2017).
Personnel Review
Vol. 48 No. 6, 2019
pp. 1611-1633
© Emerald PublishingLimited
DOI 10.1108/PR-05-2018-0158
Received 3 May 2018
Revised 25 January 2019
Accepted 4 April 2019
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available on Emerald Insight at:
Swedish public
This research gap is a major limitation since we do not know how, and even whether, the
TM ideas prevalent in the literature on private, major MNCs also resonate in other contexts,
such as in public organizations (Thunnissen et al., 2013). Scholars have thus called for
research into TM in contexts beyond large, private sector firms, especially in public
organizations (e.g. Gallardo-Gallardo and Thunnissen, 2016; Krishnan and Scullion, 2017;
McDonnell et al., 2017; Tansley et al., 2013; Thunnissen et al., 2013). The few existing studies
that pay any explicit attention to TM in public sector organizations seldom consider the
rationales behind the adopted TM principles (Thunnissen and Buttiens, 2017).
Furthermore, even if TM research has originated from different geographical regions,
and to some extent considered the national context, the impact of organizational
configurations and institutional contexts on TM has not received much scholarly attention
(Al Ariss et al., 2014; Gallardo-Gallardo and Thunnissen, 2016; Van den Brink et al., 2013).
Scholars are thus calling for more empirical research that incorporates contextual and
cultural awareness/sensitivity (Gallardo-Gallardo et al., 2013; Swailes, 2013; Thunnissen and
Van Arensbergen, 2015; Van den Brink et al., 2013). It is especially important to consider the
organizational context (Thunnissen and Buttiens, 2017) when studying TM in the public
sector, because of the complexity and the significant impact of institutional mechanisms
(Christensen et al., 2007; Van den Broek et al., 2014). Public sector organizations are also
described as very different from private sector organizations (e.g. Boyne, 2002; Boselie and
Thunnissen, 2017; Christensen et al., 2007).
For example, public organizations are often impacted by the principle of equality, relying
more on collectivist and egalitarian values than private organizations (Christensen et al.,
2007; Özbilgin and Tatli, 2011). These traditional public sector values entail all employees
being treated equally and receiving the same opportunities to develop (Desmarais, 2008;
Harris and Foster, 2010; Boselie and Thunnissen, 2017). The societal values of collectivism
and egalitarianism are particularly strong in public sector organizations in the Nordic
countries (Ehrnrooth et al., 2018; Styhre et al., 2006), with Swedish culture even including a
feature known as the Law of Jante,a norm that encourages employees to be average and
to not stand out (Huberman et al., 2004). Employee differentiation, as adopted during
exclusive TM approaches, in many ways contradicts ideas regarding equal treatment in
public sector organizations; thus, it is likely that these organizations are both inclined to use
the talent label (see Valverde et al., 2013) and have a different rationale for implementing
TM. We would thus also expect tension and complexity whenever public sector
organizations decide to adopt more exclusive TM approaches (Boselie and Thunnissen,
2017; Harris and Foster, 2010; Thunnissen and Buttiens, 2017).
In addition, and given the strong collectivist and egalitarian norms and values of many
public sector organizations (Christensen et al., 2007; Harris and Foster, 2010), HRM has been
described as less advanced, softer and less formalized in the context of public sector
organizations (Boyne, 2002; Vanhala and Stavrou, 2013). There is often, for example, a
reliance on informal selection methods and rather unsystematic performance appraisals
(Aycan et al., 2007). Moreover, studies in public hospitals have shown how the HRM
department and staff are often distanced from the clinical workforce due to a high level of
strong professional autonomy (McDermott and Keating, 2011; McHugh et al., 2007).
Decisions related to employee selection, training, and development are often guarded and
managed by the healthcare professionals themselves; thus, they are also made on more of an
ad hoc basis and with a high degree of informality (McDermott et al., 2015).
Given the above-mentioned particularities of public sector organizations, it is thus
important to incorporate contextual and cultural awareness/sensitivity (Gallardo-Gallardo
et al., 2013; Swailes,2013; Thunnissen and Van Arensbergen, 2015; Van den Brinket al., 2013)
when studying TM in the public sector context. Thus, instead of merely taking for granted
some of the assumptionsmade in the TM literature on large private-sector organizations,we

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