What Makes Repatriates More Likely to Transfer Knowledge upon Their Return?

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In a recent post I wrote about the research my colleagues and I conducted on inpatriation and knowledge transfer. Based on the research data we concluded that inpatriates contribute considerably to knowledge transfer and subsidiary development, leading us to recommend multinational corporations (MNCs) to view inpatriation from a more strategic perspective. 

As a follow-up on the topic of global mobility and the value of knowledge transfer within MNCs, let me introduce another recent research – this time focused on repatriates, i.e. expatriates who have returned from an international assignment abroad. Expatriation involves an employee from the headquarters (HQ) of an MNE undertaking an international assignment in a foreign subsidiary, usually with the aim to develop subsidiary employees’ knowledge, processes and/or practices based on the HQ’s vision and experiences. Previous research on the matter indicates that such international assignments are particularly effective ways to transfer knowledge in MNCs. For example, this applies to so-called forward knowledge transfer, i.e. knowledge transfer from expatriates to subsidiary employees, which is so-to-speak organizationally mandated and, under the right circumstances, expected and accepted by subsidiary employees. Of course, there is also value in the knowledge to be brought back home. Yet, knowledge transfer upon repatriation of the expatriate to the HQ tends to be less mandated and is often challenging. Despite the possible benefits of such reverse knowledge transfer, the process has received little research attention so far.

To address this gap and advance our understanding of how and when repatriate knowledge transfer occurs, my colleagues Vesa Peltokorpi, Fabian Jintae Froese, Sebastian Klar, and I conducted a study.

We approached the research question through the lens of social exchange theory (SET), which postulates that social behaviour is the result of an exchange process that is equitable and reciprocal. As such, we started off by proposing that well-integrated repatriates will reciprocate the received exchange benefits in the form of successful reintegration at HQ by transferring knowledge after re-entry. However, social exchanges are not only limited to direct, reciprocal exchanges between two individuals. We build on the generalized exchange perspective in SET, which shifts the attention from dyadic exchanges to a wider range of social exchange relations within an organization. This means reciprocity in social exchanges can be indirect. This idea allows us to consider that repatriates can receive support during their reintegration from one particular HQ colleague but transfer knowledge to another. In terms of the perceived benefits that repatriates obtain (and later reciprocate), we distinguish between nurturing interpersonal relationships (more specifically, frequency of communication with, and trust in HQ colleagues), and fostering career development (more specifically, perceived career and repatriate support, and career satisfaction). Finally, in our study we focus on the preparation for and the reintegration in HQ, and examine how these two stages are related with repatriate knowledge transfer.

Our findings suggest that both the preparatory stage of repatriation and the actual reintegration stage at HQ are important for successful repatriate knowledge transfer. More specifically, we identified that frequent communication with HQ colleagues and perceived career and repatriate support during the preparation stage positively related to reintegration in HQ, which in turn was positively related to subsequent repatriate knowledge transfer. Additionally, our data indicates a moderating variable of trust in HQ colleagues, such that a positive relationship between reintegration and repatriate knowledge transfer is strong when trust levels are high. By contrast, at low levels of trust, the relationship between reintegration and knowledge transfer is not significant.

Our study has several practical implications. First, our results emphasize the importance of the preparatory stage and smooth reintegration for reverse knowledge transfer. Reintegration can be supported by repatriation training programmes, for example. Second, because our study highlights the facilitative roles of communication with HQ and perceived support, formalized and clearly communicated career paths, and career support programs are relevant. Such initiatives would also imply more frequent communication between HQ colleagues and expatriates already during their international assignment. Naturally, assignees themselves need to invest into frequent communication with HQ, taking a proactive stance towards maintaining open lines of communication with their HQ counterparts. To that end, recurring business trips and home leaves during international assignments are recommended. Finally, to tackle the problem of often ‘under mandated’ reverse knowledge transfer, we recommend organizations to nurture the development of trust between repatriates and HQ staff. Repatriates are more likely to trust HQ colleagues and, hence, transfer their knowledge, when they feel recognized, appreciated, and provided with opportunities to share their valuable knowledge.

Further Reading

Peltokorpi*, V.M., Froese*, F.J., Reiche*, B.S., & Klar, S. (2022). Reverse knowledge flows: How and when do preparation and reintegration facilitate repatriate knowledge transfer? Journal of Management Studies. doi.org/10.1111/joms.12802 *Authors contributed equally

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