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Australian firms squander vital expat insights

14 Feb 2013

The University of Sydney Business School


To succeed in the Asian century companies will need intercultural competencies, strategic overseas networks, and an understanding of best practice - and repatriates are a valuable source of this expertise argues Betina Szkudlarek.

Betina Szkudlarek

The recently published Australia in the Asian Century White Paper tells us that Australia needs to develop "a deeper understanding of the work practices and cultures of countries in Asia" in order to maximise the opportunities that will emerge during the Asian century.

At least one obvious source of this "deeper understanding" is the firsthand experience of those Australians who venture north in search of career advancement and professional development. Each year more than 80,000 Australians leave this country, with many of them heading for Asia.

Research undertaken by a Dutch recruitment agency Intelligence Group shows that 84% of departing Australians, a particularly high number by world standards, intend to return home.

These Australians return with valuable knowledge of the foreign company, overseas networks of strategic importance and with intercultural competencies, which are indispensible to organizations wanting to remain competitive and agile in today's fast-changing, interconnected world. Repatriates are better equipped to address the needs of foreign clients, and have wider and more sophisticated competencies when it comes to managing the increasingly diversified Australian workforce.

Indeed, given many Australian companies still struggle with cross-cultural diversity, it is surprising that they do not better leverage the intercultural skills gained by the returnees. Furthermore, repatriating individuals not only possess knowledge and experience of Asian nations, business operations and opportunities, they also understand the dynamics of the Australian workplace and can translate innovative, unique, and cutting edge solutions from their foreign context into the local market.

Unfortunately, Australian businesses with an eye to Asia do little to harvest the international knowledge, social capital, intercultural skills and experience of returning employees. In short, a source of inimitable, valuable and potentially strategically important insights that could be turned to Australia's advantage as it moves into the Asian century is being squandered. Numerous studies show the consistent underutilization of repatriates and their newly gained knowledge and competencies, which leads to frustration and higher turnover rates among this valuable group of employees.

Currently, fewer than 20% of multinational organisations have a formal repatriation strategy that aligns a focus on retention with the individuals' career aspirations and professional path. At the same time research indicates that proper organisational support and repatriation policies can lead to both increased learning by the repatriate while overseas and better knowledge transfer once the repatriate returns.
One of the greatest barriers to knowledge transfer is the cultural and professional arrogance of the domestic workforce that stays at home.

The xenophobic responses of the home-personnel to repatriate knowledge have been reported in the literature for almost 30 years. Moreover, traditionally, the West has assumed the role of knowledge-disseminator and rarely taken on that of the knowledge-recipient. Consequently, while almost all repatriates report little interest in their foreign expertise and experience, those returning from developing countries are even more disadvantaged.

With the shift in global economic equilibrium and the expansion and growth of developing economies, particularly in Asia, it is time we understand that there is a lot we can learn from countries that not only survived the global financial crisis, but came out of it stronger and more resilient than ever before.

With the Asian Century White Paper, the Australian government officially affirmed the strategic importance of the Asian region to Australia's economic future. Logically, the knowledge of the Asian business environment, working solutions and technological advances brought home by the repatriates should be regarded as an asset of the highest importance to both private sector organizations, as well as public institutions. Post-repatriation knowledge transfer should be an integral part of international assignments and organisations should actively and formally inquire about this expertise and use it to their competitive advantage. 

However, few companies in Australia or globally have repatriation policies or structured processes that facilitate knowledge transfer. One exception is Samsung, which consistently takes advantage of the international expertise of their employees. Samsung returnees spend the first weeks of their post-repatriation phase writing up best practices gathered abroad and disseminating this knowledge through staff training programs. 

While many organizations preach the importance of knowledge for the success and survival of their businesses, few actually garner this knowledge resourcefully. To succeed in the Asian century companies will need intercultural competencies, strategic overseas networks, and an understanding of best practice. Repatriates are a valuable source of this expertise. To enable the necessary knowledge transfer processes the local workforce needs to abandon its "know-it-all" attitude and with modesty and humility assume the role of the learner.

Dr Betina Szkudlarek is a lecturer in International Business at the University of Sydney Business School and has undertaken extensive research into the way companies manage their repatriating workforce.

First published in The University of Sydney Business School

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