Benefits of Social Capital upon Repatriation: Managerial Implications

There is increasing evidence that a person’s “social capital” plays a crucial role for benefits from an international assignment to materialize – and my recent study entitled ‘Knowledge Benefits of Social Capital upon Repatriation: A Longitudinal Study of International Assignees’ (2012) shows that this not only applies during the assignment but also upon repatriation. Focused on inpatriates, my study suggests that the social capital that assignees develop during their posting at the host unit relates to their access to and transfer of host-unit knowledge upon return.

Contrary to its common underestimation, repatriation is an integral part of an international assignment: It completes the international assignment and therefore also contributes to its success. This argument makes great sense, as a lot of international assignments are regarded as strategic transfers that are meant to add long-term value to the organization. My previous research (2011) suggested that inpatriates act as boundary spanners, fulfilling the roles of connectors and conduits of resource exchanges. Inpatriate assignments are indeed meant to provide value not only to the headquarters but also to the subsidiary, and this value can be defined in terms of the knowledge that is transferred. Because people share knowledge through their social interactions with others, knowledge transfer requires the existence of a social structure in which the inpatriate is embedded.

Based on these notions, my latest study proposed that assignees’ host-unit social capital, defined as the range and strength of their network ties at the headquarters, entails benefits upon repatriation. The benefits involve the knowledge embedded in the social ties at headquarters, and assignees can be seen as knowledge agents that continue to access and transfer it. My study is based on two arguments related to this idea.

First, it becomes evident that international assignees need to develop social relationships at the host unit to succeed. Second, however, the mere existence of social ties does not automatically benefit the organization. Hence, there are certain conditions under which the social ties developed at the host unit lead to knowledge benefits upon repatriation. I find the ability-motivation framework a useful lens to examine the factors that influence the access to and transfer of host-unit knowledge. Specifically, I show that international assignees need to have the ability (far-ranging and trusting social relationships) and the motivation (organizational career and repatriation support) to access and transfer knowledge upon repatriation. The following are several managerial implications that result from my findings.

It is important for the organization to support and facilitate the building of relationships between assignees and host-unit employees. Different socialization tactics, such as induction programs and introduction days, can be used to help assignees with faster adjustment and integration. In the case of inpatriates, given that they often come from smaller subsidiaries and/or less developed countries, headquarter staff may not perceive assignees as very credible and may not be so willing to develop trustful relationships with them. This can be managed by involving senior HQ managers, who can act as mentors for inpatriates, thereby demonstrating the importance of these assignees and increasing the motivation of HQ employees for building social ties with them. Apart from ‘adding weight’ to inpatriate assignments, mentors are also a source of new social capital, as they should already have extensive relationships within the organization and can easily introduce inpatriates to their own contacts.

Similar to socialization tactics, organizations also need to facilitate extra-role and helping behaviors among host-unit employees. For example, such extra-role behavior includes the involvement in social activities, and may enhance the integration of the ‘newcomer’ into the social structure and foster social relationships.

For social capital benefits to materialize upon return home, employers need to support and sustain their employees’ abilities and motivations for knowledge transfer. Upon repatriation the host-unit social capital may require continuous updating, because if social ties are not renewed they may lose their value. This can be avoided by, for example, repeated staff transfers, regular business travels, or sustained communication in a cross-border project, which would involve former inpatriates from the local subsidiaries and key HQ staff members. My study also showed that a company’s career and repatriation programs can serve as an important motivational tool as these indicate that the organization values the assignee’s future contributions. A clear future career path and an identification of subsequent positions that enable repatriates to utilize their newly developed skills will motivate inpatriates to keep and renew their social capital and continuously act as boundary spanners.

Further reading:

Reiche, B.S. (2011). Knowledge transfer in multinationals: The role of inpatriates’ boundary spanning. Human Resource Management, 50, 3, 365-389.

Reiche, B.S. (2012). Knowledge benefits of social capital upon repatriation: A longitudinal study of international assignees. Journal of Management Studies, 49, 6, 1052-1077.



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