Research: Management and International Assignments Essay

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ON INTERNATIONAL ASSIGNMENT: IS EXPATRIATION THE ONLY WAY TO GO?
Marilyn Fenwick Working Paper 30/04 May 2004

DEPARTMENT OF MANAGEMENT WORKING PAPER SERIES ISSN 1327–5216

Abstract This research explored variations to traditional international assignment. Interviews with expert informants and a survey of 43 human resource managers investigated whether or not four categories of international assignment identified in a recent European survey are occurring in Australian-based multinational enterprises (MNEs). The findings presented are illuminating, but not generalisable. It seems that within this group, a portfolio of international assignment options, in addition to expatriation, is increasingly being offered and undertaken in the Australian respondents to this study. Implications these variations present for international assignment management are presented as an agenda for future research.

This paper is a work in progress. Material in the paper cannot be used without permission of the author.

ON INTERNATIONAL ASSIGNMENT: IS EXPATRIATION THE ONLY WAY TO GO? INTRODUCTION1 Expatriation has played a key role in filling staffing vacancies, and management and organisational development within MNEs. Despite periodic calls by academics and practitioners for reduced expatriation levels, recent evidence suggests expatriation levels in Asian, European and North American MNEs are increasing (Brewster and Harris, 1999; Dowling, Welch and Schuler, 1999). Further evidence suggests that human resource managers in MNEs may be seeking alternatives to traditional patterns of expatriation, including varying the nature and duration of international assignments, in preference to abandoning it (Roberts, Kossek and Ozeki, 1998). A study conducted by the Centre for Research into the Management of Expatriation (CReME) at Cranfield University, identified four types of international assignments in British MNEs operating in Europe. These types are: ‘long-term’ or ‘expatriate assignment’, ‘short-term assignment’, ‘international-commuter’, and ‘frequent-flyer’ assignments. For the study, long-term assignments were defined as when the employee and family move to the host country for a specified period of time, usually over one year, also known as an expatriate assignment. Short-term assignments were defined as those with a specified duration, usually less than one year, and on which the family may accompany employee. International-commuter assignments were defined as ones where the employee commutes from home country to a place of work in another country, usually on a weekly or bi-weekly basis, while the family remains at home. Frequent-flyer assignments were defined as those when the employee undertakes frequent international business trips but does not relocate. Some differences between the European research and the Australian context are evident. The small geographic distances between locations and regionalisation within Europe facilitate innovations such as commuter and frequent-flyer assignments. Such innovations are more challenging for Australian firms, given that the distances between Australia and other countries are considerable. However, some similarities exist between the European and the Australian contexts. Australianbased MNEs are also involved in regionalisation. Also, imperatives such as a shortage of willing candidates for expatriation are being reported by relocation consultants and international human resource management (IHRM) staff in MNEs to be influencing the international assignment type. Although a recent survey of non-standard international assignments, those that do not fit the dominant definition of expatriate assignments, conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers included both Australia and New Zealand in the “Australasia” category, country-specific information for Australia was not provided (PricewaterhouseCoopers, 2000: 37). IHRM issues such as the extent to which non-standard assignments are formalised by written…