The JGM BitBlog: You want me to learn something from you? You’d better show me you mean it and the value of that knowledge - Understanding the knowledge exchange between expatriates and host country nationals

Journal of Global Mobility

Yu-Shan Hsu, Concordia University, Montreal, Canada

Yu-Ping Chen, Concordia University, Montreal, Canada

Margaret Shaffer, University of Oklahoma, Norman, USA

Flora F. T. Chiang, CEIBS, Shanghai, China

Several years ago, a British expatriate was assigned to be the managing director of the company’s subsidiary in Taiwan to turn around its poor performance. To improve sales, he held multiple training sessions with the sales force to share his selling techniques and philosophies. He even joined field calls with local sales employees to demonstrate what he thought were proper selling techniques based on his experience with and knowledge of the British parent company’s best practices. Despite his good intentions and efforts to share his knowledge with his host country colleagues, they did not seem to be very interested in adopting these new techniques. In a conversation with the host country sales manager, she explained that the local sales people preferred to use their old sales techniques because they were more down to earth and a better fit to the local business culture. She explained her rationale: “While my boss (the British expatriate) is eager to dump all he knows to us, we do not feel that the British way can work well here in Taiwan. I’ve tried to explain to him how our sales approach is better for dealing with Taiwanese customers, but he still wants us to adopt the British way”.

Imagine that you are sent on an overseas assignment to transfer knowledge to host country colleagues in a subsidiary – or that you are a host country national (HCN) working with an expatriate who transfers knowledge to you. Would you expect to encounter any unique challenges associated with interacting with your expatriate/HCN colleagues?  Previous research on cross-cultural knowledge transfer tends to focus on knowledge transfer from an expatriate to a HCN; but it actually should be the exchange of knowledge between the two. This is an important distinction because while expatriates can be the primary knowledge sender, HCNs can also be the senders who provide expatriates with information about the local business environment and insights into the operations of the subsidiary. In short, the on-the-ground reality in MNC subsidiaries is that both expatriates and HCNs are senders and receivers of knowledge.

However, what contributes to the knowledge exchange between expatriates and HCNs? Based on our surveys completed by 107 matched expatriate-HCN dyads, we found that whether senders are expatriates or HCNs, only when receivers perceive that 1) the transferred knowledge is valuable and, 2) senders are motivated to transfer, receivers are likely to be motivated to receive knowledge transferred from senders and, in turn, acquire and share knowledge with senders.

So, how does this result translate to multinational corporations (MNCs) that aim to have successful knowledge exchange between expatriates and HCNs? We suggest that MNCs may ensure that candidates chosen are highly motivated to transfer knowledge to their culturally diverse colleagues. To assess such motivation, the cross-cultural motivation inventory, a scale that evaluates individuals’ motivation pertaining to cross-cultural contexts, may be used. Moreover, knowledge senders may need opportunities, such as informal events like cross-cultural potlucks, to explicitly communicate to receivers that they are willing to transfer their tacit knowledge. Moreover, MNCs may train expatriates and HCNs regarding how to build compelling arguments by applying evidence related to personal experiences and by using personal stories. Persuasion techniques such as these are critical to demonstrate the importance of the knowledge to be transferred. Furthermore, an incentive system that rewards senders for shared knowledge used by receivers, and receivers for the utilization of knowledge acquired would motivate both parties. MNCs may need to measure both what knowledge is being used and what contribution the acquired knowledge has made to the business. The former can be measured by evaluating the number of applications of knowledge transferred by knowledge senders, which can be rated by knowledge receivers. The latter can be measured by evaluating greater revenue, which can be rated by knowledge senders. Once the measurements or criteria are set, performance-based incentives can follow suit. Last but not least, MNCs may develop work teams composed of expatriates and HCNs and set up common performance goals to be achieved as a team so that a culture of knowledge dissemination and learning is emphasized.

To read the full article, please see the Journal of Global Mobility publication:

Hsu, Y.-S., Chen, Y.-P., Shaffer, M.A. and Chiang, F.F.T. (2021), "Knowledge exchange between expatriates and host country nationals: an expectancy value perspective", Journal of Global Mobility, Vol. 9 No. 4, pp. 499-518.