Bringing That Employee Home? Don’t Waste Lessons Learned Abroad

What happens to all the knowledge and skills an expat brings home after an international assignment? Many companies have no strategy to place the employee effectively. Hence almost 50% leave the company within 24 months. Answer: right strategic approach (better before the assignment) plus repatriation training.  

Many companies send workers overseas on assignment, but few have structured knowledge transfer systems to systematically harvest experiences from those repatriated staffers.

Research conducted by an international group of scholars based on four continents shows that former expats can be an extremely valuable asset. They return with new operational knowledge, an understanding of cultural differences, a broader view of the “best” way to do things, and an international network of people to turn to for problem-solving.

But that global mindset can be squandered when firms have no system for actively harvesting or even acknowledging this experience. In fact, most repatriate knowledge, if transferred at all, is passed on at the impetus of the repatriates. The reasons they give are altruistic – wanting to see their work unit and company succeed. They view sharing their knowledge as “the right thing to do.” Yet, transferring knowledge is a skill that many repatriates never discover – much less master.

LEAVING IT UP TO THE EXPAT

When the employee initiates the downloading of new skills and knowledge, there are a few critical considerations.

To be successful, repatriates first have to ration comments about what they learned abroad so as not to overwhelm their colleagues. Secondly, they have to figure out what pieces of their global knowledge are relevant and critical in the eyes of their co-workers. Thirdly, repatriates have to wait for the right moment, when colleagues are open to receiving international knowledge. Finally, they have to understand that knowledge transfer is really an influence process that is much more complex than it may initially appear. Some of these transfer skills are less crucial in work units that are hungry for global knowledge and experience, but those work settings are few and far between, especially in developed countries. In most companies, these repatriate transfer skills are the difference between success and failure in capturing repatriate knowledge.

DOWNSIDES TO THE EMPLOYEE-DRIVEN DOWNLOAD

But when the job is left up to the returnee, much can go wrong.

Among the most common reasons for failure are repatriates coming across as “arrogant know-it-alls” or talking so much about their time overseas that co-workers stop listening. Other repatriates are focused on what they want to transfer, not on what their coworkers want to learn and when they could most readily learn it. Many repatriates give up too soon if the work unit does not immediately grasp their message and put their knowledge to use. They fail to realize that transfer efforts require patience and perseverance. Yet, even the most persistent and skilled repatriates can fail in the face of organizational disinterest and employees who have no context for understanding the importance and meaning of global knowledge.

EMPLOYERS CAN ENSURE SUCCESS

This is why the work unit’s manager and organizational openness to global knowledge are crucial for the transfer to take place. Because expatriates are often forgotten while abroad, returning employees have to rebuild their position and trust among co-workers before effective transfer can take place. This isn’t easy, especially if their re-entry job bears no relation to their international assignment, depriving them of a natural outlet for their international expertise and opportunities for spontaneous knowledge-sharing.

Regardless of job assignment, managers play a key role in setting repatriates up to succeed in transferring knowledge. They can serve as a role model by finding out what knowledge repatriates acquired abroad and bringing it to the work unit’s attention. Managers can call upon repatriates to share their knowledge in specific situations and incorporate it into their decision-making. Other employees are more likely to follow their example. Finally, managers who understand the unique challenges of repatriation, which can actually be much more challenging than expatriation, are more likely to facilitate their successful reentry.

Without institutional support, struggling repatriates are often left to their own devices and end up feeling unappreciated, alienated and misunderstood. An empathetic boss is key to easing the repatriate’s transition back to a domestic unit. Creating a mentorship program and coaching the repatriates back into their work function goes a long way toward building the mutual trust and sense of belonging needed for repatriate knowledge transfer.

Currently, few companies utilize structured knowledge transfer systems to systematically harvest repatriate expertise. Samsung and GE are notable exceptions with effective systems in place that merit emulating. The former demands that returning employees write down lessons learned abroad and best practices that could be shared globally. The latter enforces post-repatriation meetings where employees report their most important international learnings. Other companies, such as IBM, might not have heavily structured repatriate knowledge transfer programs in place, but their internal work climate supports informal transfer processes.

Developing an organizational culture that is both open to and appreciative of repatriate knowledge is a prerequisite to knowledge transfer. In turn, knowing that one’s expertise is valued in the workplace is a great motivator for repatriates to quickly learn the transfer skills they need to share knowledge successfully.

FOSTERING THE PROCESS

Repatriate knowledge transfer is not a one-time event, but a process that relies on openness, mutual trust, influence, transfer skills, good timing and persistence. Managers should foster the creation of formal and informal mechanisms for systematic harvesting of expertise. The former can include organizational databases or debriefing sessions, while the latter could be linked to mentoring or casual meetings where the lessons from international assignments are shared.

Those organizations that can align the efforts of both repatriate knowledge senders and receivers will come out ahead in the knowledge intensive context of global business and have a greater chance of retaining repatriates – a source of competitive advantage.

 

This article was based on following research: Repatriates as a Source of Competitive Advantage: How to manage knowledge transfer by Betina Szkudlarek, Joyce Osland, Gary Oddou, Jürgen Deller, and Roger Blakeney.

Tags: repatriation , intercultural training , transition, leadership

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