“You’re an expatriate. You’ve lost touch with the soil. You get precious. Fake European standards have ruined you. You drink yourself to death. You become obsessed with sex. You spend all your time talking, not working. You are an expatriate, see? You hang around cafes.” 

Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

Sounds like the international mobility manager’s worst nightmare, doesn’t it? The problems caused by international mobility might not be quite so romantic but global talent development is a real concern to Multi National Corporations (MNCs). These problems show up as ‘expatriation failures’ where the assignee returns to their home country before the expected end of the assignment, or as people leaving the company soon after they repatriate. There is also a third, less commonly discussed problem. Nevertheless, it’s a question that haunts senior executives in global companies: are we really getting return on investment from our approach to global talent development and international mobility? Companies are moving their employees around the world in ever increasing numbers and spending billions of dollars doing so. Yet, still, no coherent data exists quantifying how much companies are spending worldwide. Sometimes I think that no one dares look at how much the Emperor’s clothes actually cost. At the same time, researchers have pointed out that companies are also only just starting to think about quantifying the return they get on their international mobility policy investments and building a more strategic approach to managing their ‘global talents’. A Brief History of (Global Career) Time People and companies are investing an ever-increasing amount of effort and money into global careers on the shared and somewhat untested belief that this is a corporate Good Thing to Do. They are investing that effort and money into ‘best practices’ that have barely changed since the 1950’s. Meanwhile, the world has moved on and continues to do so. The daily life of the modern mobility manager is filled with making difficult decisions about where to spend money on some of the most expensive employees in the company, how to ensure they are compliant with local laws and how to prevent these employees leaving, either before the end of their assignment or once they return to their home country. Expat life used to be easier all round. In the days of Hemingway, expatriation meant the Old World exporting leaders and managers to the colonies. Expatriates were meant to take their ‘superior’ methods and spread their influence and effectiveness through the organization from the top down. More recently, companies have taken a more global view of developing their talents and, where appropriate, have slotted talents into roles in different parts of the company so that they can get ‘international experience’. Fitting square pegs into square holes, as above, is no longer cutting it as a mobility strategy for a VUCA world. MNCs are haemorrhaging value in different forms of human capital because they’re using outdated and outmoded approaches to global careers. Value that could have added to the bottom line but was instead squandered, overlooked, ignored or simply took itself to another company where it felt more valued or the work was more meaningful. MNCs have responded to this loss of expatriate employees by ramping up approaches to international mobility that used to bear fruit when the world economy was dominated by USA and European MNCs and the most of the people valued enough to export as ‘expat managers’ were white, male and middle-class. However, the world has altered radically in the last 5 years and that has impacted greatly on ‘global careers’. Each assignee no longer faces a ‘pigeon hole’ job move with symmetrical and stable relationships and requirements. People on international assignments face a far more complex, asymmetrical and shifting environment like the model to the right and since the seismic shifts caused by the financial crisis it’s clearer than ever that their assignment is about growing the business wherever they land. The new world of the international assignee is: 
  • Multi-dimensional
  • Asymmetric
  • Multi-faceted
  • Shifting
  • Non-hierarchical
  • Flexible
  • Organic
  • Cloud-based and virtual
We need more than a creeping shift in global talent management practices if MNCs are going to meet the world economic challenges. We need a revolution, and quick. The 4th Industrial Revolution is upon us and it is happening exponentially. The winners in this revolution will reshape the global economic landscape. Whoever manages to leverage the value created by global workforce flows is going to direct that value right into their coffers. Will this be you? Or one of your competitors?