knowledge capture & retention: don’t forget the returnees from overseas assignments

I am again indebted to Strategy & Business magazine. In a thought provoking article The Untapped Value of Overeas Experience‘, Dan Wang of Columbia University draws on extensive research carried out with over 4k people representing 81 countries who had spent between 3 months and 2 years working in the US.

It found that:

Only 48% of employees returning from overseas assignments reported having shared knowledge and then having seen it implemented.

And itf you think this issue will be dissapear as a result of technological advances such as improved Video Conferencing, think again, PWC’s Talent Mobility 2020 Report notes that international assignments will increase by 50%.

This phrase stood out

Not all knowledge is created equal.
The traditional model of sending workers abroad or of hiring
workers with international work experience has focused on technical
skills. The idea is that people will acquire technical knowledge about
the procedures needed to perform a specialized task, whether it’s testing
a new pharmaceutical drug or developing components for an aircraft,
that might otherwise be unattainable in their home country. My survey, however, showed that the currency of international talent mobility lies not in these types of skills but rather in realizable practices. Returnees were more likely to transfer nontechnical knowledge about managing relationships and coordinating work among employees than asset or industry-specific technical knowledge and they placed a much
higher value on the former, as well.
Workflow knowledge tends to be tacit, difficult to demonstrate or
describe. This is why the returnee is valuable. Respondents who were effective at transferring such workflow practices were also skilled at adapting them to local environments.

If Dan’s premise is correct (and I believe, from work previously undertaken on the value of missions and knowledge tours, it is) then organisations are going to have to think more about how such temporary relocations or secondments are managed and Knowledge Managers (together with HR profesionals) need to plan ‘before, during and after’.

So thanks again Dan, I have updated the slide I use to illustrate the need for a continuous knowledge capture and retention cycle throughout the employment life of an employee.