Why do I spend much of my time at the bottom looking up?
This is a question I pose at the beginning of a white paper that Santa Fe Relocation Services commissioned me to write. I find the question to be quite relevant and illustrative of the shift that HR and global mobility professionals are called upon, namely to move from being an administrative function to a strategic partnership. Indeed, Santa Fe’s most recent Global Mobility Report shows a majority (60%) of business leaders emphasizing that the Global Mobility function needs to become more strategically aligned with and contributing to an organization’s broader business needs.
Although global mobility functions are tasked to bring more strategic value, and many probably do, the majority seem to struggle with demonstrating it. In the aforementioned white paper, I describe three main steps global mobility teams need to take in order to develop their strategic proficiency.
- First of all, global mobility teams should identify the most relevant metrics.
Some data on KPIs is quite easy to collect, for example data on number of assignments per year (a typical input-based KPI), or the number of career moves upon repatriation (a typical process-based KPI). Although such data is easily accessible, I would argue that it has limited value for assessing the strategic impact of global mobility.
There is a need for more meaningful measures, which can answer relevant strategic questions. To that end, demonstrating impact on broader business-level outcomes is intricately linked to measuring the success of global mobility, or its return on investment (ROI). Hereof, two main questions: Who is the beneficiary and what is the time frame?
In terms of the beneficiary, assignment success can be operationalized and measured in two ways: from an individual and a company perspective. Let’s say if we measure skill acquisition by the assignee, that would be an individual benefit; whereas measuring the accomplishment of organizational activities would constitute a company benefit. A central problem in operationalizing measures of ROI is that success from the perspective of the individual assignee is not always a success from the corporate perspective, for instance in cases where a repatriate with a new skill set leaves the organization. Therefore, a meaningful assessment of ROI must link both the individual and organizational perspectives.
As to the time frame, given that from both perspectives many benefits of international assignments will occur in the years following the completion of an assignment, there is a need for long-term tracking of outcomes, in addition to short-term measures during the assignment.
- Secondly, global mobility teams should develop their analytical literacy.
The advanced data requirements outlined above entail a need to develop analytical literacy within global mobility teams. Global mobility professionals need to develop these skills in order to conduct sophisticated analysis and work with relevant statistical tools – there is unfortunately no shortcut to making evidence-based, strategic decisions. In essence, professionals need to act like scientists, who set hypotheses, test them, and look for meaningful correlations and causal relationships. I would highlight the latter, because organizations benefit from understanding how relevant variables trigger changes in meaningful outcomes, which implies a strategic understanding of “what causes what” in the organization.
How to develop such analytical literacy? Here are a few suggestions from my side: hire professional analysts to the team, collaborate with IT and HRIS to make (better) use of latest technological advances for data tracking, develop causal thinking by experimentation, and make sure you have or lobby for necessary resources (e.g. time, technology, people) for doing this job – or think carefully about your current priorities.
- Finally, global mobility teams should elevate this data to senior management.
When you have the right data, it is all about appropriate communication. When providing relevant data, such as intermediate outcomes that ultimately affect strategic success in the organization, it is important to speak the right language for senior management. From a business leader’s perspective, this language often has a financial logic. For example, if leaders consider global mobility primarily as a tool to deliver international projects – the top driver for international assignments mentioned by business leaders in Santa Fe’s 2016 Global Mobility Survey Report – then a pure discussion of competency levels misses the point. Instead the challenge is to track how, and under which conditions, global mobility is able to contribute to international project success.
However, do not misunderstand me here: a financial logic doesn’t mean that we should speak only about costs. Instead, Global Mobility should be framed as an investment that generates a return: Note that speaking in financial terms can be about increasing gains (e.g. project quality) as well as optimizing expenses (e.g. decreasing staffing expenses).
Last but not least, you can always create more impact by backing up your data with personal and tangible examples. If there is a real-life experience, for example a successful market expansion directed by a veteran international assignee, do not hold back this story.