I was speaking with a colleague recently who is developing an organisational framework to support the transition of their business from that of domestic to regional with a longer-term eye on going truly global. They are aiming to develop the idea of a global mindset within their people and systems of work, and the framework they described was robust, catering for all the classical elements of going global. Leadership and capability development integrating with mobility policies and seeking to involve as many of their people as possible in a clearly understood and shared definition of what a global mindset means for their business.
It all sounded so positive, and yet I had this strong nagging feeling as I left the conversation that there was something missing, something important. And it hit me; it was this whole idea of ‘frame of reference’ and how to expand the perspective of their employees who may never have even travelled outside of their own state or country. This is always one of the greatest challenges when developing a global outlook for an organisation and something that needs to be conveyed in the most practical way possible. My experience over the past 15 years has been very consistent with the research that suggests that the development of our beliefs and values is mostly driven through experiences and exposure to life. Even the most experienced of expatriates can sometimes find themselves unprepared for their next assignment despite having a number of assignments under their belt, and of course there is reverse culture shock which also reminds us that no matter how well travelled we are, our return is often bumpier than the departure.
So what does this all mean? As robust a model you are aiming to create, the reality is that the way we see ourselves in the context of the world is never a complete known and an imperfect process. So a robust model is great, but try not to seek perfection. If you were to ask me, a perfect model is one that is continually evolving to suit and support the changing needs of an organisation. It may be grounded in strong theoretical frameworks and policy, but it has an interface which is practical, intuitive and responsive. Practical in a way that provides experiential learning and preparation, and that challenges underlying assumptions around culture and ways of working. Not just for the expat and their family, but for their new manager and colleagues as well. Expatriation is a multi-dimensional process, yet we so often only focus on what is immediately in front of us. Intuitive from the perspective that no matter how well prepared we think may be; we are human. Intuitive systems that provide nurture and support resilience throughout the lifecycle of the assignment are critical. Intuitive also from the perspective that the framework is designed in the knowledge that there are peaks and troughs of energy and motivation as the expatriate and their family deal with transition throughout the length of the assignment. And finally, responsive, by ensuring that a key part of the HR business partner tool kit is knowing how to anticipate the peaks and troughs and work with this for the good of the expatriate, their family and their team.
But what about those people left behind, who may not actually live and work abroad, but are expected to work with colleagues from around the world?
The same principles apply; create an experiential, intuitive and responsive process. Experiential learning that allows them to learn more about working virtually whilst they also reflect on and expand their own belief system when it comes to working with different cultures. Given they aren’t working abroad, the ability to reinforce this on a daily basis isn’t so strong and this is where the intuitive element of support needs to be stronger. Anticipate for these people, unless they have worked and lived abroad, that for them it isn’t quite real. That their colleagues are voices at the end of a phone line, keystrokes at the other end of an email or a two dimensional figure on a video conference. Create opportunities to connect frequently through technology, and to share more of who they are rather than what they do. Virtual teaming is a necessity for these people, and yet it is so often overlooked. Equip the team manager with skills to anticipate and spot when the virtual team is flagging in energy, but also give them the tools and techniques (along with their HR partners) to revive flagging energy in the remote team. This is about understanding and reducing the psychological distance despite the physical distance – and it is possible.
What it all boils down to is this.
Our frameworks need to be grounded in good research and theory; there is no doubt about this. But theory and frameworks don’t help anyone if they can’t be translated into a meaningful process of practice that actually helps someone do their job. In the world of mobility this takes on an extra layer of importance, because the way we see ourselves reflects on the way we see the world. So the ability to create experiences and practices that impact on beliefs and behaviours are critical both to virtual team collaboration and the general performance of expatriate and mobility programs.