The bridging role of expatriates and inpatriates

Illustrates how expatriates and inpatriates differ in terms of their roles in knowledge transfer to and from MNC headquarters

There has been quite a lot of research on the role of expatriates in knowledge transfer, as well as some emerging research on the role of inpatriates. However, our 2016 study in Human Resource Management is the first to explicitly compare expatriates and former inpatriates in terms of their role in knowledge flows between headquarters and subsidiaries. We based our investigation on a large-scale survey, with data from more than 800 subsidiaries of MNCs in thirteen countries.

Thanks to Middlesex University, this article is available in Gold Open Access, so it can be freely downloaded and shared by everyone.

Early work on expatriates, inpatriates & knowledge transfer

In the mid nineties, my academic career started with research on expatriation, including a specific interest in the role that expatriates play in transferring knowledge within the multinational corporation. It is therefore no surprise that two of my research students in Melbourne focused on similar topics.

Barry Hocking’s work on expatriates in a Swedish MNC showed that learning by expatriates is an underestimated strategic assignment outcome. He also found that varying combinations of global and local knowledge access and communication are crucial in achieving the MNC's goals of global efficiency, national responsiveness and worldwide learning.

Sebastian Reiche (now at IESE, University of Navarra, Spain) worked with me on the role of social capital in knowledge sharing through inpatriate assignments. Inpatriates are subsidiary managers on a temporary assignment at headquarters. A conceptual model defines international assignees as informational boundary spanners between MNC units, with a role as both knowledge brokers and knowledge transmitters.

A subsequent empirical paper showed that inpatriates’ trusting ties with HQ staff and their fit with the HQ values has a positive impact on their firm-specific learning and their perceived career prospects. This paper was winner of the 2011 International HR Scholarly Research Award, Academy of Management.

Expatriates and inpatriates differ in knowledge transfer roles

We find that knowledge transfer from HQ to subsidiaries is significantly higher for subsidiaries employing expatriates and/or inpatriates compared to those that don’t. Regarding knowledge transfer in the reverse direction, i.e., from subsidiaries to HQ, we established that this is significantly higher for subsidiaries with former inpatriates, but not for subsidiaries with expatriates. Interestingly, the presence of former inpatriates appears to be more strongly related to knowledge transfer than that of expatriates, both for knowledge transfer from and to HQ. Therefore, research that only relies on expatriates as international assignees is at best incomplete and at worst misleading.

Expatriates and functional knowledge transfer

Our results indicated that knowledge transfer from HQ was significantly higher in all but one functional area in subsidiaries that employed an expatriate rather than a local manager as head of the respective functional area. The effects were particularly strong for R&D and Manufacturing, areas in which many MNCs are seen to possess core competencies that need to be transferred to foreign subsidiaries. Regarding knowledge transfer to HQ the same pattern was only found for the Logistics and the HRM functions. Consequently, our findings indicate that expatriates’ ability in passing on knowledge is in fact asymmetrical as they appear to be more effective in transferring knowledge from HQ than to HQ.

Other papers referred to in this blog

  • Hocking, J.B.; Brown, M.; Harzing, A.W. (2004) A knowledge transfer perspective of strategic assignment purposes and their path-dependent outcomes, The International Journal of Human Resource Management, 15(3): 565-586. Available online... - Publisher’s version
  • Hocking, J.B.; Brown, M.; Harzing, A.W. (2007) Balancing global and local strategic contexts: Expatriate knowledge transfer, applications and learning within a transnational organization, Human Resource Management, 46(4): 513-533. Available online... - Publisher’s version
  • Reiche, B.S.; Harzing, A.W.; Kraimer, M.L. (2009) The role of international assignees' social capital in creating inter-unit intellectual capital: A cross-level model, Journal of International Business Studies, 40(3): 509-526. Available online... - Publisher’s version
  • Reiche B.S.; Kraimer, M.L.; Harzing, A.W. (2011) Why do international assignees stay? An organizational embeddedness perspective, Journal of International Business Studies, 42(4): 521-544. Available online... - Publisher’s version

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Free pre-publication versions of these papers are hyperlinked. If you’d like to have an official reprint for these papers, just drop me an email.

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