Repatriates are a source of competitive advantage

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Few companies debrief their repatriates, much less make it a priority to formally seek and use their knowledge

Repatriates return with highly-relevant global knowledge, new networks that significantly enhance their ability to get things done and connect domestic to foreign workers, a more global mindset, and new perspectives and competencies that should make the home company more competitive.

However, the lack of set procedures in managing the readjustment process or structuring an appropriate career path for repatriates, leads to high attrition rates, often to the benefit of direct competitors who have a clearer view of what that employee can offer.

Experiences common to returning employees include being viewed as an outsider – even if the employee is returning to their old team they feel out of the company network – finding themselves in a re-entry job that doesn’t use their new skills, and working for a manager with a parochial view and closed mind who is uninterested in what the employee’s new experiences can bring to the organisation.

This closed mindset to repatriate experience and expertise is often symptomatic of a much broader organisational problem of xenophobic attitudes towards foreign knowledge, especially knowledge coming from developing rather than developed economies. To stay ahead of the competition organisations need to be receptive to insights coming from all places and contexts, and repatriates are best positioned to bring that invaluable international expertise and translate it in a relevant way into the local context.

As with the majority of employee engagement issues, managers are key to the success of the smooth integration of the returning employee. They need to understand the knowledge that the repatriate brings home and how it might be useful to the work unit. Their interest and support determine to a large degree whether others see repatriate knowledge as a strategic asset.

Equally important is ensuring that the repatriate’s re-entry position is relevant to the skills they have acquired on their international assignment. This gives repatriates greater legitimacy and scope for utilising their knowledge.

There are many steps that organisations can take to harvest and deploy repatriates' new skills and knowledge, but perhaps the first step is to conduct a knowledge transfer audit in your organisation. Invite your repatriates to a focus group and ask them the following questions: Could the global knowledge you gained on your international assignment be more fully utilised in the company? If so, how?

You should also:

  • Keep in mind the high cost of international assignments and ensure that your organisation, rather than a competitor, benefits from the knowledge repatriates bring back.
  • Establish a knowledge management system that harvests expatriates' knowledge both during and after an assignment. Make it easy to identify and consult employees with global knowledge.
  • Create a strategy with organisational expectations for global knowledge transfer among all employees. Make it clear that requesting and transferring global knowledge is everyone’s responsibility.
  • Ensure that repatriates are placed in jobs related to their international assignment so they can leverage global knowledge and networks before they are out of date.
  • Consider using repatriates as mentors for prospective international assignees. This will both utilise their repatriate knowledge and expertise and set up new expatriates for success.
  • Create an organisational culture that emphasises learning, a global mindset and employee commitment.
  • Introduce career planning as a strategic aspect of an international assignment. Discussions regarding post-repatriation placement should take place prior to expatriation and be an integral part of the cycle.
  • Establish succession and talent management programmes. The professional growth of individuals with international experience should be systematically assessed and appraised for career advancement.

Betina Szkudlarek is head of the CEMS Masters in International Management programme at the University of Sydney Business School

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