Expatriates A Source of Learning?

Term Paper 2002 12 Pages

Business economics - Personnel and Organisation


Table of Contents:

1. Introduction:

2. Organisational learning

3. Why expatriates?

4. Expatriates’ knowledge

5. Discussion

6. Conclusion


1. Introduction:

It often seems as if the world is shrinking. Satellite, internet and cable technologies make it easier to communicate with friends, colleagues, and strangers in other countries on a real-time basis. Increasingly open borders give access to more countries, and citizens of previously ‘closed’ countries in turn to have access to the rest of the world. Due to these innovations it became possible to learn more about cultural differences as well as similarities. This new situation is especially valuable for companies that operate on an international or global scale. These companies can penetrate new markets to enhance profits but on the other hand these companies face also a complex and rapidly changing global environment. Companies have to deal with global and local competitors plus with multiple cultural settings that might be unfamiliar and difficult to comprehend. To survive in this global environment, companies have to be able to understand and to deal with this complexity. According to Antal (2000) a company has three keys to manage this challenge: a powerful strategic vision, a responsive structure, and internationally skilled people. The author further argues that people create and implement powerful strategic visions and responsive structure and hence the ability to develop employees and to utilize what employees have learned is the core competence organisations require to become and to remain competitive today.

This argument suggests that organisational learning and International Strategic Human Resource Management are interconnected. The knowledge and learning of employees build the foundation for organisational knowledge, and thus organisations are only able to learn when the individual knowledge is transferred to the organisation. Recognizing the importance of internationally skilled people for the organisation is especially important for international operating companies because learning about cultural differences and similarities may determine future success in unfamiliar markets. Barkema and Vermeulen (1998) view expatriates as a crucial resource for international organisations, since the authors stress the fact that learning is fostered by diversity in experience. The implication than for international organisation is that it should absorb as much knowledge from returning expatriates as possible in order to increase competitive competence. But since not all acquired knowledge of expatriates is useful and transformable into organisational knowledge the following core question of this paper arises: How valuable are expatriates to organisational learning?

In order to provide an answer to this core question, a set of related questions will be formulated and investigated. After a thorough discussion of the different organisational theories, a brief description about the usefulness of expatriates will follow. This forms the basis for identifying the different knowledge an expatriate might acquire and leads to a discussion about how expatriates can contribute to organisational learning and about expatriate failure. Lastly, the final conclusion summarises the main insights of this study and answers the problem statement.

2. Organisational learning

In order to asses the value of knowledge returned expatriates can offer to the organisation, it is inevitable to reflect on the different forms of organisational learning and the types of knowledge that are valuable and transferable for organisations.

The organisational learning process is described by Downes et al. (2000) as the process where individual learning is shared and transferred to other individuals, whether across boundaries of space, time, or hierarchy. This is only the basic process of how an organisation gains new ideas and knowledge, but it does not describe the different kinds of learning. According to Argyris and Schon (1978), organisational learning can be characterized in either single-loop learning or double-loop learning. Single-loop learning corresponds to the improvement of already existing processes within an organisation and double-loop learning refers to the development of completely new approaches that might replace the existing ones. Scholars argue that both types of learning are crucial for an organisation, because a company should be able to improve existing processes and hence maximize its efficiency and/ or effectiveness. On the other hand companies must also be able to recognize when ways of doing things is outdated and needs a complete renewal, in order to stay competitive.

After having identified how organisations learn, it is important to discuss at what level an organisation is able to learn. In this sense Miller’s integrative framework (1996) is very useful. The framework distinguishes between lower and higher levels of learning as well as between learning at the individual and organisational level. It further characterises learning as methodological and emergent. Methodological can be split of in analytic- experimental- and structural learning. Analytic learning is defined as a careful scanning of the environment, experimental learning is actually similar to analytic learning but is preceded by action. It can also be called “learning by doing”. Structural learning however is learning via routines. Here, the organisation applies prior knowledge and tries to codify this knowledge in order to carry out tasks and roles efficiently. Alternatively, the emergent dimension of Miller’s (1996) integrative framework highlights more the spontaneous and intuitive part of learning. The Emergent rationality can be divided into synthetic-, interactive- and institutional learning. Synthetic learning is learning where the total learning is greater than the sum of the individual learning. Interactive learning is basically learning by doing too, but it focuses more on impulsive factors like face to face communications. Lastly, institutional learning is learning in a very large group. The learning is widely diffused within the organisation and is influenced by values of the leader and corporate culture.



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Institution / College
Maastricht University – Faculty of Economics and Business Administration
2,0 (B)
Expatriates Organisational learning




Title: Expatriates A Source of Learning?