June 1, 2017

Case study

A South Asian perspective on the challenges of hiring and retaining talent for think tanks

At the centre of a think tank’s value are its people. These organisations require visionary leadership along with competent and motivated staff to meet their objectives. Good people management can make a big difference on how well a think tank performs.

Think tanks require workers with a particular skill set, but many of these organisations struggle to recruit and retain staff and get good value from their investment.  Good managers put great effort in finding and holding on to the right people, and developing their skills and motivating them to work in the right direction within an organisation.

Hiring the right people is important and difficult for think tanks.  Two think tanks we spoke to, the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) in Bangladesh and Public Affairs Centre (PAC) in India, report this as their main challenge. While think tanks require very competent people, they are often not able to attract the right people and end up with hiring people who are available but not necessarily the strongest candidates.

We present a few specific issues to consider:

Competencies required: Supermen and Superwomen?

Domain expertise, but broad perspectives

Staffers should be knowledgeable and competent in their domains.  But since research in think tanks is directed towards improving public policy, these domains cannot be narrow. Research on urban infrastructure, for example, requires the researcher to view not only the technical aspects of the problem, but to consider stakeholder perspectives, resource availability and constraints, and perhaps even the politics of the situation. Research should encompass all possible dimensions of an issue. Middle and senior level staffers, especially, must be comfortable outside their domains, have a multi-disciplinary approach, and engage with stake-holders such as policy makers, funders, civil society and team members.

Think tanks often want researchers who have high degrees of education. This makes it even more difficult to fill positions. CPD, for example, usually requires a Doctorate degree for the position of Research Scholar, but waives this requirement in some situations.

 Social and communication skills

A degree of social and communication skills is essential for all think tank roles. The level of communications expertise depends on the role or function of each employee, but researchers must be able to communicate and gain support for their ideas, build networks, seek consensus and be able to absorb ideas from others.

Autonomy and accountability

Think tank staff should be capable of working fairly independently, while remaining aligned with the organisation’s and the project’s goals.

What all this means is that not only should think tank staff be very competent, they also require multiple, often paradoxical, competencies which aren’t easily found in the same person. The high level of talent that think tanks require makes the search for suitable candidates harder, especially those with skills in short supply in local employment markets.

CPD Bangladesh reports (and this could well be true of other countries in South Asia) that due to the system of education, people’s writing skills are not good.  Many think tanks are small organisations and may not have the resources to train people from square one, so they have to hire the right people from the start.

Competition for talent

Competent researchers and outreach and advocacy experts are not short of opportunities within and often outside their own countries. Think tanks compete with companies, government departments as well as teaching institutions in hiring qualified people with expertise. PAC reports young researchers prefer to take up better paying jobs or further their studies, while CPD finds that the information technology sector and international agencies like the UN are more attractive for prospective candidates.

Challenges in providing competitive pay

Think tanks that are dependent on short-term financing may not be able to match competitors for talent in pay and benefits, job security or career progression.  One of the think tanks we spoke with wants to remain independent, so it does not accept funds from the national government or international institutions like the World Bank. This makes it harder for the organisation to pay at or above market pay.

Organisational culture and practices

Organisational culture strongly influences whether people would like to stay in an organisation. It also helps build its brand, which determines how attractive the organisation is to potential hires.  A sample of employee reviews on Glassdoor (an Indian site that permits anonymous reviews of an organisation by employees), shows what employees have liked or not liked about working in a particular think tank.  While some complain of inadequate pay and others of being given ‘grunt’ work and not being allowed ‘authorship’ for the work they produce, others speak of bureaucratic work cultures.  Since some think tanks do not have a professional Human Resources Management function, evaluating employee performance objectively and fairly can be a problem.

Here are two examples of what think tanks have done to create an attractive and engaging culture:

Centre for Policy Dialogue, Bangladesh

  • Provides co-authorship for articles, including junior level employees who have contributed significantly
  • Sponsors outside training programmes to employees, including new hires
  • Allows flexibility in working hours and the possibility of working from home
  • Engages with university teachers as consultants

Public Affairs Centre, India

  • Provides staff welfare benefits including retirement benefits and non-monetary benefits
  • Nominates employees to training programmes/workshops and opportunities to represent PAC at national and international conferences and platforms
  • Has a flexible and non-hierarchical work flow, provides opportunities for open discussions and opinion sharing, and invites administrative teams to participate in some research discussions.
  • Develops ownership by giving responsibilities
  • Mentors and invests in capacity building
  • Leveraged the internship programme so interns are actually involved in research related to projects
  • Practices discussing work and relevant issues over tea every day. Celebrates birthdays across teams, organises retreats and a family day.
  • Has a well planned and executed Induction Programme for new hires +

We’d love to hear views of leaders, researchers and think tank employees to promote a dialogue to build and improve human capital in think tanks.

About the authors:

Annapoorna Ravichander:  On Think Tanks Editor at Large (South Asia)

Neeta Krishna:  Associate Professor – HR, Father C Rodrigues Institute of Management in India

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