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8 building blocks of a sound Global Mobility Strategy

It is worrying to observe the inflationary use of the word strategy in our business world. A lot of things get labelled strategic while the true understanding of strategy is often lacking. And while we hear it so often, we ourselves get accustomed to use it in places where it does not belong or get confused about it. And this is unfortunately not restricted to HR, but finds itself nowadays on all levels of organisations, where values and objectives are often get mixed up with a true strategy.

I once came across a company that claimed it cannot differentiate developmental and strategic assignments, because everyone in their company believed to be strategic. You may think now, lucky them…but not everyone would be able to explain how he or she contributes to the strategy, or what the key challenges are that the strategy is trying to address.

To ease the confusion I want to start with providing a useful quote on the term strategy in general that I like and then look in more detail at the 8 building blocks and their factors that need to be considered when developing a sound Global Mobility Strategy.

“A good strategy does more than urge us forward towards a goal or vision. A good strategy honestly acknowledges the challenges being faced and provides an approach to overcoming them”
Richard Rumelt in Good Strategy/Bad Strategy

In mobility, strategy finds its expression in the assignment policies and the structure and processes of a mobility department. In other words, policy follows strategy and processes follows policy, while considering the alignment of the three to either the current or a future structure to manage global mobility.

So when considering a global mobility transformation think strategy first. But please also do consider strategy and its factors when it is only e.g. a policy revision. And in case you are confident in having a sound strategy in place, use the factors to see if they were observed and if the biggest challenges at the time you defined them are still the currently biggest ones for your mobility programme.

Experience shows that no two companies have the same Global Mobility Strategy or let alone policies. In this instance, I would like to ignore the two unsuccessful cases that I experienced in my almost 20 years of mobility advisory, where the policy of the former employer of the mobility manager was used with the new employer. It becomes unnecessary to mention that these mobility programs struggled to address most of their challenges.

It should be no surprise that a Global Mobility Strategy definitely needs to be bespoke and tailor-made for each company, when you take a closer look at the number of building blocks and their factors that need to be observed and aligned with each other.

  1. Business objectives

    Business objectives, values, visions, missions, HR strategy, compensation philosophy, workforce planning…whatever it might be called in your company, which defines objectives and accompanying strategies to achieve them in the future. This is the data that allows to draw conclusions for priorities and objectives of a mobility programme. You should be able to obtain an understanding for cost and risk appetite among other things, understand expansion plans into new markets and get other useful pointers. Do not be disappointed when you do not find the word international assignment or global mobility in any of the business or HR objectives, since they are often missing. But once you have and live a sound Global Mobility Strategy, the chances for a mention are increasing.

  2. Stakeholders

    Think business representatives, HR business partners, talent management, workforce planning and other relevant functions (Tax, legal etc.). And do not forget your assignees and other employees. Consider when selecting stakeholders – that shall be part of the strategy definition – them not only being your customers, but also the future ambassadors of your strategy and programme.A stakeholder analysis (survey, focus groups or just a facilitated day with all in one room) will help you to gain an understanding of what has worked well and not so well in the past. But you should also use the stakeholder discussions to look for future requirements towards your programme and if you wish, you can even test your new ideas with them at this stage. This is often already an opportunity to spot some of your key challenges, which a strategy needs to address.

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  3. Assignment types

    For what reasons and duration are your assignees being send around the world? You need to understand what differentiates the various groups and what is similar between them. This will help you to define the policy types that you will need to create. The split of policies along other lines than simply duration has become the standard way to resolve the contradiction between flexibility and having an equitable treatment of employees.It is key that you are able to define objective criteria to differentiate assignment types very clearly between each other, since without that a split of policies only leads to confusion among business and inequity among assignees. And please note that size does not matter in this case. You may have 50 assignees and 6 policies, 2’000 assignees and 3 policies or 5’000 while realizing that 15 policies are too much. As initially stated, companies differ.

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  4. Talent management

    Much has been written about global talent management. I remember that a couple of years back it used to make mobility departments nervous, because they were misguided by the word global and thought they need to do something about it when it came up initially.Numerous discussions have lead me to conclude that international assignments are a way to deploy and develop talent, under the umbrella of the much wider talent management. Some companies have already adjusted their reporting lines and have the mobility department reporting into their talent management function, which confirms the latter.Assignee selection, performance & career management during the assignment, post repatriation support, KPIs and RoIs are the key topics for which talent management and mobility should sit together around a table.

    These are the major touch points between the functions, some companies might have more. There is a clear need to align the Global Mobility Strategy with the objectives and strategies of talent management. If for example an assignment is perceived as a way to develop your career in one business unit but not in another, your strategy has to observe that and formulate a useful solution to the challenge.
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  5. Competence and capacity

    If you look at the current resources, roles and structure of your programme, you will identify the level of complexity that you are able to deal with. You might decide to align your strategy with your existing competencies and capacity, but you may also want to consider if you want to change your structure and capacity when formulating a strategy.Just consider your degree of outsourcing of tasks. You likely work with a host of providers already that support you in relocation, tax, immigration, assignment services, cultural and language training, travel security, insurance etc. Is this aligned with your existing competencies and capacity or would a change be beneficial according to your objectives? You should also consider your structure. Is it centralized, regional or de-centralized and what roles and responsibilities are held where? Do you have the right competencies and capacity in the right places for supporting your strategy?

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  6. Competitiveness

    There are two perspectives towards competitiveness that need to be observed. Companies tend to be profit-oriented and therefore have to be competitive and cost-sensitive. While this is the corporate perspective, assignees themselves also have a vested interest in competitiveness. The assurance that the policies are competitive plays a role in their attraction to an assignment. And while being on assignment, you might face what is referred to as the “Irish pub syndrome”. Since these pubs are almost everywhere in world where assignees are, they meet there on Friday afternoon and come Monday morning, the phone rings in the mobility department back home. They had learned that someone received more than them and you end up having an unhappy assignee if you are not taking care of your competitiveness. Unless you grant a costly exception that might trigger a call from his fellow assignee the following Monday.

    There can be more dire consequences. A company in the mining sector once disregarded competitiveness and lowered several benefits when under cost pressure.A whole team of assignees in a remote location left them and joined the competition across the road, which lead to a massive business disruption that was significantly more costly than the benefits which were cut.Benchmarks are the usual way to establish a guideline for competitiveness when defining policies as an expression of the strategy. You need to decide who you want to benchmark against, if it is for example your competitor in your industry or the labour market, or if you want to follow an alternate route and benchmark against companies with state of the art assignment programmes. Benchmarks have to be considered ineffective unless they are utilized in connection with trends, since they only give a snapshot of what is in the market at a given moment and do not show developments over time. When seen in connection with trends, you need to consider if it is workable in your company, according to your objectives and priorities and if you want to follow the trend.
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  7. Market trends and challenges

    Much has been published on trends and challenges in mobility. Emerging markets, rising compliance requirements, demographic change (dual careers and Gen Y), inclusion in talent management, host-based policies just to name a few key ones. Trends and challenges as external factors to your strategy have to be taken in consideration.You may not face every challenge depending on your programme and you may not follow every trend that is out there and reported about. It is necessary to decide what is relevant for your programme and its objectives and then place the answer to a challenge in your strategy.

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  8. Culture

    Peter Drucker once stated that: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”. All the decisions you take and also the ones that you don’t take on your road to a new Global Mobility Strategy have to fit your company culture. HR and mobility, with their intimate knowledge and understanding of their company culture need to influence all decisions made by aligning them with company culture.For example a creative idea to reduce policy exceptions by defining hierarchical sign-off levels based on cost and policy deviation might work effectively in one company, while due to the differing company culture it would create an increase of exceptions in another. I always ask the question, how international assignments are seen within a company. The answers I heard over the years ranged from “a great way to make money” to “a wonderful career opportunity”. Companies differ, and so does their culture.

All of the above 8 building blocks and their factors are constituted by challenges, objectives and environmental factors that have to be observed and aligned during development of a sound Global Mobility Strategy. During the exercise you should try to pick out the biggest challenges that you face and then focus on these during the development of policies, processes and structure. Since there are many levers and alternative approaches available in the development of policy, processes and structure you will be able to consider most of the other challenges as well or have to find workable compromises for them.

Naturally every strategy is only as good as you manage to implement it, so that it is being lived throughout your company globally. Without elaborating on implementation too much, just consider the following key aspects: A suitable implementation approach (e.g. big bang, grandfathering), stakeholder communication and training. In addition, ideally every project aiming to define a new or review an existing Global Mobility Strategy is embedded in a change management approach, which includes key stakeholders from the beginning and throughout the project.

Experience shows, that while the amount of data that you need to collect and assess during the development seems enormous, it does not need to be in all cases that such a project binds significant resources over several months. The majority of the knowledge about relevant factors exists already among the relevant stakeholders of your company and does not need to be sourced elsewhere. If you combine that with the right expertise on the two external factors, competitiveness and market trends and challenges, you are able to develop a new or revised Global Mobility Strategy in an efficient and effective way that suits your needs.

A sound Global Mobility Strategy is clearly the best way to create mobility functions that are valued by top management for their contribution to business success. Let’s give mobility the attention it deserves – think strategic!

Written by Chris Debner


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