As my previous blog entry focused on the role of social media in expatriates’ personal life, now it is time to take a look at this from the professional side. Not only do communication technologies ease expat blues while living away from family and friends, they enable a new way, a virtual way, of organizing an international assignment.
In their Global Mobility 2020 Survey, PricewaterhouseCoopers envision that by the year 2020 only a minority of assignments will be traditional home-to-host country international assignments.
Global mobility may not refer strictly to the physical movement of people from one location to another. We’re already seeing an emergence of career challenges predicated on demonstrating leadership ability and organisational agility in managing global teams on specific projects from home base, aided by an ever-expanding bag of technological tools (PwC International Limited).
What this statement refers to is a new form of international assignments: virtual assignments. A virtual assignment does not require the individual to physically relocate to a foreign organizational unit but rather distributes international responsibilities as managed from the individual’s home base, with the help of information technology (Welch, Worm, & Fenwick, 2003).
The 2010 Brookfield Global Relocation Trends survey data state that currently virtual team policies are in place in only 7% of their pool of 120 responding companies. However globalization, decentralization and interrelation of work processes are likely to significantly increase the use of virtual assignments in the future. Today, with constant improvements in information technologies companies aim to bridge the distance between their company units by creating global virtual teams that collaborate effectively across organizational boundaries, different countries, cultures and time zones. So, is it time for a world without borders?
One of the Financial Times Business Education MBA bloggers linked virtual teams to the “global village” phenomenon and described his experience as follows:
After all, although we are scattered around the globe, we are all inhabitants of the same global village. Accepting the meaning of this concept through regular project tele-conferences is a truly inspiring experience.
However, despite the many advantages of virtual assignments over traditional expatriation, such as flexibility and cost savings, there are undisputable challenges. Virtual assignments will never entirely substitute traditional expatriation because face-to-face communication remains crucial in many circumstances. First of all, with only virtual communication there is an increased risk of misunderstandings and underlying conflicts as the richness of the information transmitted is reduced. George Bernard Shaw hinted at the many problems of communication when stating that “The problem with communication…is the illusion that it has been accomplished.” In a cross-cultural and virtual context, the risk of communication problems increases substantially. The lack of nonverbal and paraverbal cues (e.g. body language, tone of voice) make virtual communication possess less socio-emotional components and be more task-oriented (Warkentin, Sayeed & Hightower, 1997). There are simply less relational and affective links between the communication parties, which makes it more difficult to maintain close relationships and develop trust. Finally, certain types of tasks and knowledge can only be shared or explained in person (e.g. showing how to operate a machine or how to conduct a meeting in a different cultural context).
Just as expatriates long to see their families and friends on a regular basis, they will also need to personally interact with their colleagues. Social media cannot entirely take care of that.
Warkentin, M., Sayeed, L., & Hightower, R. (1997). Virtual teams versus face-to-face teams: An exploratory study of a web-based conference system. Decision Sciences, 28(4), 975-996.
Welch, D. E., Worm, M., & Fenwick, M. (2003). Are Virtual International Assignments Feasible? Management International Review 43: Special Issue 1, pp. 95-114.