Global Mobility and Knowledge Transfer - an AIB webinar

Reports on a JIBS/JIBP webinar in which Heejin Kim presented our co-authored paper on the role of inpatriation in subsidiary capability building and evolution

In that magical year of 2019, just before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, Heejin Kim visited me for a year at Middlesex University. She wrote up a lovely blogpost about the experience (see Sabbatical at Middlesex University London: a story of swans and unicorns). One of the many outcomes of this sabbatical was a paper - co-authored with Sebastian Reiche - on the role of inpatriates in knowledge transfer.

Kim, H.; Reiche, B.S.; Harzing, A.W. (2022) How does successive inpatriation contribute to subsidiary capability building and subsidiary evolution? An organizational knowledge creation perspective, Journal of International Business Studies,vol. 53, no. 7, pp. 1394-1419. Available online... - Publisher's version (free access) - Related blog post - Short video

AIB Journals webinar

Heejin wrote up two excellent blogposts about the paper, one about the content of the paper (Beyond expatriation: How inpatriation supports subsidiary growth and performance) and one about the paper's journey to publication (From little seed to fully-grown tree: a paper development journey). In April 2022 we were asked to present our paper in the excellent webinar series by the Academcy of International Business.

You can find the video of the whole event linked above. Many other interesting webinars can be found on AIB's YouTube channel. We were joined by two other papers dealing with global mobility and knowledge transfer. It must have been the only event ever in which each of the papers included a co-author named Sebastian, with one of the papers having no less than three Sebastians as co-authors :-).

Heejin did a brilliant job presenting our paper. She had practicised her English pronunciation very dilligently and it showed. The YouTube subtitles capture her perfect English successfully. She also managed to present what was quite a complicated paper in very simple terms. Well done Heejin! You can be really proud of your first webinar. The slides of Heejin presentation can be found here. Slides of the other presentations on expatriate cultural intelligence and repatriate knowledge transfer are also linked.

Discussion and the field of Global Mobility

After the three paper presentations, we had a really lively discussion with some very thought-provoking questions and comments (see screenshot below), ably facilitated by discussant Mila Lazarova and Chair Dana Minbaeva. The AIB seminar also led me to reflect a bit more on the state of the Global Mobility field afterwards. Having written some of the early articles on this topic I am really impressed at how significantly the field has developed over time. Articles are much more theoretically grounded and conceptually nuanced than in past. We have also improved significantly in terms of population and methodology.

In terms of population, we have broadened our scope from expatriation to inpatriation and repatriation. In terms of methodology, we have moved from one shot/single key respondent surveys to interviews combined with secondary data (as in the subsidiary capability study), impressive three-stage and multi-respondent surveys (as in the repatriation study) and very large-scale individual-level survey in two stages, strategically sampled by country, and combined with secondary data (as in the cultural intelligence study).

A call for qualitative research

However, I still think we have a lot more work to do more to discover the actual mechanisms underlying knowledge transfer. Why and how exactly do globally mobile employees share knowledge? We do tend to assume knowledge transfer has happened if respondents say it has (as in the cultural intelligence study) or if their managers say it has (as in the repatriate study). But we all know the limitations of Likert scales. In many cases, most respondents simply agree with anything we ask them (see also: What if fully agree doesn't mean the same thing across cultures?). This is also reflected in the very high mean scores in most studies, with means generally lying around 5 on a 7-point scale.

That’s why I think Heejin’s study is so interesting, because it clearly establishes exactly how knowledge was transferred between individuals, groups, and the organization through the short-term and long-term functions of inpatriation. A similar interview-based study that I was involved in with Florence Duvivier and Carine Peeters – published with free access in JWB in 2019 - looked at how using different types of international assignments (long-term expatriation, short-term expatriation, short-term inpatriation) allows a HQ-subsidiary dyad to transfer different types of knowledge (declarative, procedural, axiomatic, relational), both from and to HQ, both during and after the assignment. We showed how each type of assignment acted as a unique knowledge transfer channel.

Mila's comment about Heejin's amazing effort in collecting qualitative data over a period of five years also gave me a chance to ride my current hobby horse: academics need more time to do  high-quality research that has the ability to significantly change not just the field, but also managerial practice. And yet, International Business research is dominated by secondary data (see Research Methods in IB – Trends and Future Agenda). Oftentimes this means that research questions and constructs are determined simply by what data is available, rather than by studying what is conceptually and practically meaningful.

Multilevel research: micro, meso, macro

Global mobility is a phenomenon-based topic in International Business that has a number of strands that have developed quite separately:

  • Micro: individual-level. This stream of research is dealing with individual-level adjustment, cultural identity, and dyadic interaction between globally mobile and local employees. It is grounded in the cross-cultural psychology and the general migration literature.
  • Meso: company-level. This stream of research relates to the management of corporate global mobility, involving key HR functions such as selection, training, and compensation. It connects with the general HR literature and includes new developments such as global talent management.
  • Meso: company-level. Another company level stream of research deals with the strategic function of global mobility. This includes knowledge transfer, but also control and coordination. It connects with the Global Strategy literature.
  • Macro: country-level. Enveloping all of this is the country-level context. This may include cultural and institutional differences that might help or hinder (the effectiveness of) global mobility. However, it could also include (changes in) economic and political developments.

To progress our knowledge in this field, more connection between these various strands of research as well as different levels of analysis would be useful. Shea Fan's work on ethnic identity confirmation is one of the recent studies that effectively combines the various strands above. It incorporates country-level developments (wide availability of Chinese diaspora through generations of migration) and dyadic interactions between expatriates and local employees, but also the strategic consequences of shared ethnicity in terms of knowledge transfer, and the HR implications of selecting and training ethnically (dis)similar employees.

Moving away from HQ-centred research

There are many aspects of global mobility that may change significantly after the pandemic. In addition to these pandemic related changes, there are some general developments that I would like to see in this field. First, I would like us to move away yet further from HQ-centred research. Even though we are now looking at repatriates and inpatriates as well as expatriates, all these forms of global mobility are still very much HQ focused. Yet, we know that HQ can also learn a lot from subsidiaries. This doesn't just refer to “doing business in another country” or “cultural differences”, “working styles” or “traditions”, such as measured in the webinar article on repatriation.

In addition to knowledge about differences in culture and working styles, subsidiaries might well have access to specific competences and knowledge not available at HQ. This might include for instance working in highly volatile and uncertain contexts, or dealing with the political aspects of business. These are developments that are becoming more important world-wide, but they are generally areas in which subsidiaries in non-Western countries have more experience. So inpatriates don’t just come to HQ to learn, they come to share unique knowledge too.

The next step would be to study transpatriates who are moving from one subsidiary to another. This is the human equivalent to the transnational organization introduced by Bartlett and Ghoshal more than 30 years ago, in which subsidiaries and HQ were all part of an interconnected network. Accepting that global mobility might need to happen in all directions would also connect global mobility more clearly with the global talent management literature (see: Integrating global mobility and global talent management: Exploring the challenges and strategic opportunities).

Knowledge hierarchies

Lastly, let us also acknowledge that there are clear knowledge hierarchies. What knowledge is valued often depends on someone's hierarchical postion in the company, expatriate knowledge is often seen as more valuable than inpatriate knowledge. But it can also depend on country stereotypes (see: Nationality biases in peer evaluations: The country-of-origin effect in global virtual teams) and language hierarchies (see: Linguistic capital and status: The interaction between language skills, personal reputation, and perceived collaboration performance), thus providing us with avenues to link the global mobility literature with cross-cultural management and language-sensitive IB studies. Opportunities galore for ambituous PhD students!

In Sum: Why IHRM research needs to change

More broadly, I have also given a separate presentation on exactly this topic in the wonderful IHRM Webinar Series organized by a team of academics at the Centre for Global Workforce Strategy at Simon Fraser University (Canada), the Penn State Center for International Human Resource Studies (USA), and ESCP Business School (Europe).

My seminar was called “Dare to be Different. Why (IHRM) Research needs to change”. I gave an overview of research in global mobility from the 1970s till now, but then discussed the need to broaden our population, improve our theoretical grounding, and take interdisciplinarity seriously. I also suggested the use of novel research methods and research topics to address grand societal challenges, and more generally encouraged researchers to dare to be different and critical. Throughout the seminar, I used lots of examples of my own and other academics' research so viewers could follow up on all the debates.

I have linked this video as well as others in the series and other conference videos on International HRM on a separate video resources page on my website. There are about twenty videos on that page now which provide a wealth of information about important research topics in the field. They are also useful for snippets to use in teaching IHRM.

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