Are you about to be replaced by a robot? According to the BBC, by 2030 800 million workers will give way to automated systems and processes – that’s about 16% of the global workforce. But can we also replace international assignees with AI-enhanced robots? It’s a question that, while fanciful, may help you identify why you have a mobility program and what value you, as global mobility professionals add to your organization.
A quick trip through history
There is a strong argument to suggest that the Romans invented the global mobility industry, appointing civil servants and governors to distant lands to spread Roman culture, enforce Roman laws and collect Roman taxes. The Roman international assignee was almost certainly a privileged person, marked for high office in the future, and received a large salary to soften the blow of being cut off from Rome.
This model changed little – the expansion of European empires in the 17th and 18th centuries owed its success (from a European perspective) to that same approach.
Even as late as the 20th Century not much had changed. An assignee expected a very generous package; children were sent to expensive boarding schools; the wife (and it was always a wife, certainly not a husband!) could entertain herself with bridge, gin and tonic and embassy functions. The assignee himself was all-powerful and had large independence to hire domestic staff and find appropriately large accommodation.
In return, he had the power and the stress of being the big boss – the one who gave orders, took responsibility for success and failure and has the last word in all major decisions.
For 2000 years, the purpose of an international assignment was to export the “home” culture, impose a strong leadership pattern and represent the “home office” in foreign locations. The expat was a governor – a figurehead who gave instructions to locals.
At the beginning of the 21st Century, the scenery changed. The 2008 financial crisis hit at a time when travel policies were already under scrutiny. Organizations dramatically and suddenly cut back spending on mobility programs, which had seen a steady increase in long-term assignments at the end of the 20th Century. The nature of assignments changed forever.
Assignments how had to have a defined specific purpose, a specific duration and a measurable return. The immediate impact is that the duration of assignments has come down. The number of long-term (3+ year) assignments is a fraction of what it was 10 years ago; but three-month assignments are more common.
The assignee as a cross-fertilizer
This is not just a result of the cheaper cost of international travel and globalization. There is a common recognition that the assignment brings a better return to an organization if the assignee brings the skills and talents developed back to the organization.
An assignee is a carrier of good practice, international business skills and leadership traits; they can cross-fertilize different locations much more cost-effectively than a transformation project or culture change initiative.
Both the home and host offices benefit from new perspectives, new approaches and leadership styles, all within a common corporate culture.
However, the biggest gain comes from the value added to the assignees themselves. Not only do they infect both sides, but they themselves also evolve. They develop new behaviors and habits that create a virtuous circle of development.
The era of the Modern International Assignee
This is the era of the Modern International Assignee. Research tells us, and talent professionals confirm, that international experience is quickly becoming a pre-requisite for executive leadership roles. If your organization doesn’t offer this opportunity, your competitors will and you will lose your best talent.
Wakefield Research for Graebel found that 82% of millennials believe they will have to move abroad to progress their careers. 83% say they would give preference to a prospective employee who has worked abroad, if they were in charge of hiring.
Similarly, organizations believe that they can develop their future leaders by sending them abroad. According to ‘Modern Mobility’ Survey by PwC, 60% of leading global mobility practitioners said that their organizations move employees specifically to develop a succession pipeline of future leaders.
On-demand solutions to global challenges
Can AI replace a live person in reproducing this collaborative knowledge and skill sharing? A realistic answer is that the current technology can’t yet replace humans; and it is hard to imagine it being developed in this generation. Siri, Cortana and Alexa are not yet ready to lead culture evolution in organizations!
There is no doubt that technology does have a role to play in developing leaders who will be fit for the future. According to PwC’s 15th Annual CEO Survey, only 30% of CEOs say that they have the talent they need to fulfill their future growth ambitions. To fill that gap through traditional means requires a huge investment in classroom learning that will bring inconsistent results and patchy coverage.
Technology that works alongside humans to build a skill pool is the way forward.
Learning must be on-demand. An assignee in Bucharest cannot wait until next Monday when they have their next Romanian lesson to find out how to ask IT Support to fix their laptop. They will immediately turn to Google. Similarly, an assignee who is confused by a British colleague’s over-use of irony cannot wait until HR manages to organize a cultural training workshop to find out what’s going on.
Technology empowering humans will develop a cadre of global leaders who are resourced and skilled to manage the challenges of increasingly complex global organizations. On-demand learning on an international scale builds your leadership pool, giving your organization resilient, agile and global leaders, ready to face the demands of a technological future.