Study: Cultural Training Key Element for Global Assignments

Multinational corporations agree on the importance of international assignments. Why, then, is training and preparation left to chance?

By Douglas Vaira Jun 30, 2009
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If you don’t know where you’ve been, it’s hard to know where you’re going.

This is the general gist of a recently released survey from Cartus, a provider of global employee relocation and workforce development solutions, which focuses on how companies prepare their employees for international assignments, including leadership development and repatriation efforts.

The survey, Emerging Trends in Global Mobility: Talent Management, reveals that there is some work to be done in the international arena. In fact, says Carolyn Ryffel, director of Cartus’ Global Performance Solutions division, many employers face challenges in preparing assignees for international work, even while many realize that more than technical skills are required for an assignment to be deemed successful.

According to the survey, while 56 percent of the companies interviewed admitted that their international assignees were not “sufficiently knowledgeable about their host country’s business environment, only 20 percent said they offer training in international business management.”

This comes as no surprise to Dr. Neal Goodman, president of Florida-based Global Dynamics Inc., which provides cross-cultural management solutions for multinational corporations such as Sun Microsystems and Johnson & Johnson.

The biggest challenge as Goodman sees it? Human resources realizing expatriate assignments as an opportunity to grow global leadership.

“Expatriates are the most underutilized resource when it comes to global knowledge management of any resource in the organization,” says Goodman, a SHRM member for more than 20 years. “Their knowledge is not utilized by the company when they are on assignment or when they come back.”

This leads to a majority of assignees leaving their companies two years after returning home from an international assignment, says Goodman, because they feel underutilized.

“They are not given adequate repatriation training,” says Goodman, “and, in turn, companies are losing this tremendous investment.”

For human resources and talent-management professionals, Goodman says the most critical piece of information to take away from the Cartus survey is the appreciation and understanding that expatriate assignments are among the best ways to develop key personnel for the future.

“The challenges of an international assignment are still monumental,” says Goodman. “Every assignment is unique, and training has to be highly tailored to specific needs in each situation. The challenges are still there.”

Goodman’s sentiments are mirrored by Michael S. Schell, CEO of the global and cultural development firm RW3 and co-author of “Managing Across Cultures.”

“We find that corporations—and assignees—tend to underappreciate the importance of culture in the preparation stage,” says Schell. “Assignees are selected primarily for technical competence, not cultural adaptability.”

Goodman cites the appearance of a homogenous global culture as misleading and part of the problem.

“The challenge for human resources managers is to avoid falling into the trap of thinking things that look similar are, in fact, the same,” he says. “Just because we can get on the plane and go somewhere, doesn’t mean the daily life is the same.”

Douglas Vaira is a freelance writer based in Charles Town, W.Va. E-mail:

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