Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Are International Assignments overhyped?

The other day, a colleague and I were having a water cooler conversation about the “Global Operations Centre” being established in England.  The colleague happens to be a North Carolina native, someone who hadn’t relocated or moved more than a couple of hundred miles in his entire life, and who only occasionally travels out of the US for business or leisure. He was musing on whether it would be cool to consider an International Assignment.


This topic also gets regular media coverage; for example, just this NPR’s weekend marketplace radio program had a feature on migration that began with a question “what is your migration story?” which got me musing on International Assignments.


International Assignment” has a certain cachet, especially among managers and executives aspiring to climb the corporate ladder.  Management consultants, MBA courses and business journals have long glorified IA stints as a “must have” on an executive’s resume; especially for those looking for top level positions. And rightly so. For some, an IA may be an opportunity to enhance skills, work in a new line of business or gain deeper understanding of different markets and cultures. Managers working in a branch or satellite offices of multinationals might also seek IA as a necessary tool for networking that can enable them to spend some quality face time at the corporate HQ. These are just a few reasons companies encourage up-and-coming managers to consider stints overseas.


In some businesses, especially in technology outsourcing/offshoring and IT consulting – in which I have spent much of my working life - international assignments are commonplace.  In this business, foreign assignments, deputations and frequent travel are almost routine, and expected cost of doing business. As the world gets more connected, or flat - apologies Tom Friedman – and remote working technologies advance, one wonders if the allure of International Assignments is eroding.  A few factors playing out:
  • Technology: Thanks to ubiquitous access to high-speed networks around the globe, advances in commercial and consumer video conferencing technologies and use of remote collaboration tools there is a lesser need for teams to frequently travel across oceans. For instance, last week I was in a three day workshop with colleagues from across three continents, five locations connected by high-speed “Telepresence” conference technologies, orchestrated to manage time zone constraints. The planning workshop was perhaps as close in terms of productivity as having the twenty or so attendees flying across the globe. The only minus, perhaps, was the lack of a lively team building in the evenings at dinner over beer or wine. Such meetings or workshops, aided by advanced VC technologies, if managed well, can minimize the need for short term travel for meetings. But I wonder if they will substitute for true “international assignments.”
  • Immigration and visa constraints: Immigration and visa restrictions have long played out when it comes to international assignments. Those from ‘developing nations’ have long known of this constraint and learn to ‘plan’ their way around it. Most western born executives, especially IT executives have learnt at least a few basics of the restrictions, especially while dealing with colleagues with Indian, Chinese and other Asian passports who may not be globally mobile. The situation in the tech world is accentuated when the lines between short term business travel, work permits and immigration get blurred. There are times when an IA may just lead to immigration. This is especially true for those coming from developing countries like India and China to western nations. If it is hard to get a work visa, why not go a step further and seek an immigrant visa, is one school of thought. And speaking of intricacies: those with American or European passports may also have to seek a ‘work permit’ if they are planning to live overseas on an international assignment.
In some cases, an individual might spend an entire career in a series of international assignments. An example I continually reflect on is that of Bob, a senior manager I once worked with. He was an expert in ERP technologies who had honed his skills in several technologies. He would proudly introduce himself as “the guy who had implemented SAP in 30 countries in five continents” during his 32 year career with a multinational.  He was technically astute and was comfortable working with people of all backgrounds, cultures and at different levels in the organization. He continued to love relocating and moving till he finally opted to ‘retire,’ in his sixties; perhaps living by the old adage “a rolling stone gathers no moss”. Bob, is not alone in this, but was perhaps one of the few who could live this dream, balancing work, travel and life!


International Assignments have taken the form of a series of gigs for me too. It has been a conscious decision for my wife and me to uproot and relocate and move. I have lived and worked in five countries across three continents in the past decade and half, and have traveled to a dozen more on business.  I wouldn’t trade these experiences for any other. (Some of my experiences are chronicled in the novelized eBook ‘The Bounce!’)


Cross-posted from my LinkedinPulse blog