International Experience: Value with Limited Practicality?

p019xswsIf I would be asked for advice on writing an attractive resume of a young professional, I would suggest highlighting teamwork and international experience. Indeed, I believe that these are two current buzzwords in the global talent market given that potential employees are required to be able to cooperate with others, and increasingly do so across borders.

Looking more specifically at the value of international experience, a recent survey (2014) by Dan Wang, an assistant professor of management at Columbia University, shows some interesting results. Professor Wang’s data supports the notion of a perceived value and advantage of international experience, as so-called returnees bring back new ideas, skills, best practices and relationships from abroad. Indeed, which company would not want to benefit from such ‘souvenirs’ from abroad? Yet, the data also shows that although companies do prefer to hire employees, who have international experience in their resumes, only about half of all the companies make use of these advantages. In other words, many companies fail to get the expected gains from these newly hired returnees.

Why so? The results of Wang’s survey confirm that the value of international experience remains untapped due to two main challenges: knowledge sharing on one hand, and implementation of the shared knowledge on the other hand.

Naturally, in order for any knowledge to be implemented, it needs to be shared first. Echoing my own research findings on knowledge sharing during corporate expatriation and the role of social capital upon repatriation, knowledge sharing by returnees seems to be highly influenced by the social structure in which repatriates are embedded. For example, it is important that, while abroad, an international employee manages to build lasting and trusting relationships with host-country nationals in order to receive relevant knowledge. At the same time, as Wang highlights, returnees’ experiences back home matter as much as the ones abroad. Employees with strong cultural and professional connections in their home country organization have better chances of smooth reintegration and further knowledge sharing. As such, successful knowledge sharing requires engaging work experiences both at home and abroad.

Apart from returnees’ role in building and bridging relationships, there is also a significant role to be played by home country colleagues. As Wang’s results indicate, knowledge sharing may fail due to resistance by colleagues to accept anything that is culturally unfamiliar. Drawing more parallels with expatriation, we can argue that the motivation for knowledge sharing on the receiving part is as important as motivation on the sending part. For example, research on expatriate relationships with host-country nationals shows that the latter play a significant role in both expatriate adjustment and success of knowledge sharing. Therefore, getting the other part ‘on board’ seems to be a good advice also in the case of returnees.

Finally, even if all the requirements for knowledge sharing are fulfilled, and we get to the phase of knowledge implementation, it does not become much easier. Wang’s survey shows that the main value of international experience lies in nontechnical knowledge about managing relationships and coordinating work, which is largely influenced by human factors, and thus, needs to be location-specific. In other words, returnees bring home such knowledge, which needs to be adapted to the local environment, and the process of adaptation in turn requires specific knowledge and skills. For example, the process of giving performance feedback can be very helpful in any organization, yet the way it is implemented may be culturally quite different.

All in all, it seems fair to declare international experience as an untapped resource. So far, the global business world has seen and understood the potential benefits of international experience. Now it is about time to figure out how to put this potential into use.


One thought on “International Experience: Value with Limited Practicality?

  1. most of the new ideas from the returnees become dead wood when the companies back home although they tout the returnees as opportunities to try new ideas, the new ideas dont get accepted, they wait for the braver companies to adopt them first then they pick them up which makes them lose the competitive advantage they could have gained from implementing them sooner

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