Impact of Modern Technologies on the Role of Expatriates
An expatriate is an individual who resides out of his/her citizenship country either permanently or temporarily. This person is referred thus in the context that he/she has a professional role to play in that country. The term is therefore commonly used to refer to professionals on missions in other countries as authorised by the organizations they work for or invited by organizations in other countries to offer expat services usually under contract arrangements (Kontrimas & Samsa, 2006). The use of expatriates by companies has been a trend since the late 20th century where companies would send professionals to their foreign subsidiaries. This trend was boosted further by globalization that facilitated the growth of a global market for skilled personnel (Black, Morrison & Gregersen, 2000). The declining cost of international travel encouraged many employers who could not access some professional services locally to start global based recruitment drives. Of late however, the need for expatriates has been rapidly declining owing to the emergence of modern technology platforms that allow conveyance of information from any part of the world to another (PricewaterhouseCoopers, 2005). The impact of modern technology and in particular in the communication sector on the role of expatriates is two way. The proposition that the growth in modern communication technologies such as email and video conferencing and the decline in cost of international travelling will make expatriates an extinct species can therefore be analysed in a multidimensional perspective. It is a known fact that modern technology has transformed the world into a global village where people do not have to necessarily travel over long distances to participate in an activity as they can comfortably do so at the comfort of their homes. This does in no way mean that an expat in a certain field will not effectively perform his role by simply being physically absent. On the contrary, with the use of the technology, it will be easier to access the services of such an expat with more ease. What really changes is the element of the individual relocating to the location where his/her services are required. The use of technology is therefore a facilitator of the role of the expat and not necessarily a replacement of his functionality (Brewster, Harris & Petrovic, 2001). Furthermore, no matter how much technology advances, some fields and scenarios still require the physical presence of the expatriate such as in the medical field and in such situations, the use of the modern communication technology may hinder the performance of such individuals. This paper will critically discuss and analyse the statement ‘with the growth in modern communication technologies, such as email and video conferencing, and the declining cost of international travel, expatriates will become an extinct species’
Impact of Technology on Expatriates
Over the last years, many organizations in different parts of the world have been creating networks in the world to gain from varied expertise from different parts of the world. With the continued use of technology, such organizations have embraced virtual realms of communicating and networking with such expats (Cascio, 2006). The need for face-to-face communication has been replaced by modern platforms such as email, teleconferencing and videoconferencing among others to link up these organizations with the expats who may be located in far off parts of the world. As is the norm with every technological application, there are associated advantages and disadvantages. It is feared that the growth and inception of these platforms could have a negative impact on the role of expatriates. In the absence of the face-to-face interaction, the expatriates have to learn how to work effectively to achieve the same impact as would be expected of a round table meeting. A team of expatriates may not successfully achieve their mandate since the platform does not allow them to meet in person. It is argued by psychology expats that to build trust and understanding in teams, physical contact is integral. For newly formed expatriate teams to work effectively, it is vital that they meet physically irrespective of language or cultural barriers. An expatriate may for instance want to have a relationship with an organization’s management or other expatriates. This is important especially in matters where the expatriate may be advising on sensitive issues such as national or international security. Such an individual may wish to build trust first before engaging in any form of contract with such an organization (Scullion & Brewster, 2001). Many expats may be unwilling to enter into contact with other expats or organizations whose only contacts have been established virtually or online. Teams of expats are for instance known to prefer meeting first and then plan on the technological platforms to use in subsequent discussions. Upon first knowing the other stakeholders involved, a rapport is created that greatly facilitates integration and trust building among all involved. The use of these platforms could therefore have an impact on the role of such an expatriate and force him/her to withdraw his/her services. This is so because such an individual attaches more value to relationship building as opposed to only succeeding in the task assigned. The use of technology platforms may also not be a preference for some particular expatriates who may experience some difficulties using it and as such, these expats may be unwilling to offer their know-how if this is the only route they have to use (Anita & Janna, 2005).
The use of the modern communication technology may have a negative impact on expatriate role mainly due to the cultural differences expressed by different individuals. Owing to the cultural background, an expatriate may wish to interact with the team he/she will be working with. For instance, an American expatriate may show interest in knowing the names, positions and characters of the people he/she will be working with while an expatriate from another country may be interested in the age and number of members of his/her expatriate team. The use of platforms such as email for communication may discourage such an expat from readily willing to participate in such projects. An expat such as this may perceive the channel they are using as not availing the necessary environment he/she works under. Offering of such information as demanded by this expat may be necessary to convince him/her to agree to work with the virtual team (Bjorkman & Xiucheng, 2002).
The use of videoconferencing offers the closest technological platform that can allow for personalized interaction. The method allows an individual to communicate with another or others while seeing them. This therefore helps in watching of the body language of different participants who are miles away from each other. This would allow one to make judgements based on the body expressions of the other participant. This is also beneficial particularly in a multi-lingual communication setting as some universal bodily expressions may make the participants to understand one another more clearly (Michailova & Worm, 2003). This method eliminates the need for an expatriate to travel over long distances to carry out a demonstration. If a meeting is organized, an agenda can be communicated beforehand to allow other participants to be ready for the meeting. The rapid globalization trends that are sweeping the business arena have made videoconferencing and other such platforms a necessity. Due to the high cost involved in expatriate assignments, the use of the facilities such as emails, tele and videoconferencing have become the alternative method of choice. The era of expatriates appearing in person in business meetings or other assignments is slowly being replaced by this new technological advancement (Bhattacharya, 2011). Most expatriates are not readily willing to disrupt their daily life styles or environmental settings they are used to such as family and would therefore prefer the use of the virtual platforms. In most instances, firms with an international presence may have expatriates in particular fields who are supposed to coordinate the operations in several countries. These expatriates are today adopting the use of short trips to the various locations for familiarisation purposes with the locally based managers and employees and then conduct the follow ups and supervisory roles through the virtual platforms such as email. This means that gradually the need to have expatriates perform duties in specific locations is becoming a thing of the past. This is beneficial to protect these senior executives from being exposed to myriad of culture shocks through extensive travelling. Studies have revealed that many expats have turned down lucrative offers owing the dual nature of their lives where they serve as both career personnel and family members. An executive may also be unwilling to travel to an overseas assignment due to the risks involved with being away from headquarters where crucial decisions are made (James, et al, 2003).
The use of the technology has encouraged the formation of virtual global teams within multinational enterprises. This allows for continued interaction and other working arrangements being made possible either relying fully on the communication technology platforms or using the platforms as an enhancer in their operations (Potter, et al., 2002). The teams may successfully formulate and implement decisions on behalf of the multinational organizations without necessarily having to meet in a specified location. However, the technological application of this nature may only be successful in some areas and not others. Knowledge based teams of expatriates can readily use the platform to develop mechanisms to improve the organizational structure and operational standards within a firm, improve or develop new products or processes and come up with workable solutions to complex problems facing the organization at the international level such the global economic crises (Hertel , Geister & Konradt , 2005). The use of the communication platforms in these organizations by the expatriates enhances performance asynchronously based on the different time zones that can allow an urgent problem be solved without interruptions across the different time zones by the variously spread out expatriates. The presence of the different expatriates in the different locations also enhances solving of problems affecting the different geographical locations more readily without the need to keep shipping expatriates from other far off parts of the world who may not comprehensively understand the conditions surrounding a local problem (Welch, Worm & Fenwick, 2003). The networking of expatriates in different parts of the world may facilitate sharing of such important information as market practices in different countries, innovations and /or challenges experienced in different parts thereby giving the expatriates the chance to find solutions in a unified front for the well being of an organization (Vance & Paik, 2011).
The networking of expatriates in different parts of the world or country using the communication technology is not a magic bullet. The model faces a myriad of challenges such as conflict management and resolution problems. When people work in teams, it is inevitable that conflicts will arise. The expatriates who may exhibit different cultural backgrounds may not successfully solve such challenges through the virtual communication channels available to them (David, Hugh & Michael, 2007). Technical challenges may also hinder effective communication among the expats rendering the communication among the expats difficult. Social challenges such as misunderstandings arising from language and cultural differences may break down the synergy of such a team. The flow of information may be affected by interruptions in networking resulting in unachievable targets and deadlines. This makes agreements on such issues as duration of tasks difficult to determine (Vance & Paik, 2011). This could be the reason the inception of these technological platforms could be signifying the end of expatriates’ role in many organizations.
A school of thought argues that technology could help boost the prospects of international businesses and thus eliminating any need for expatriates. The extent to which the role of expatriates can be replaced by technology is of course limited as there are some skills that only the expatriates can provide while physically present (Cullen & Parboteeah, 2005). The impact of such communication facilities such as e-mail and videoconferencing in enabling global businesses enterprises run successfully can not be over emphasized. A profound impact of these technological advancements has been on the mobility of various categories of expatriates. The communication technology has enabled expatriates benefit from up-to-date information through an efficient platform that guarantees speedy and reliable information transfer. The opportunity availed by technology has removed an obstacle associated with time problems especially when coordinating different locations. It appears almost impossible to work without this technological marvel. Business transactions require quick responses and a readily accessible on-line platform comes in handy. With the enhanced interconnectivity, a problem affecting the business in one location can be automatically handled by an expatriate in any other part of the world, who can irrespective of time variations, evaluate the problem and give the response in real time. The use of the email or the video conference facility is therefore not the end but the means. At the end of the day, it is an individual wherever the location who will solve the particular problem and not the technology. As such therefore, the use f technology can not replace the role played by the expatriate. The two are not options but rather complimentary in function (Sakho, n.d.).
Looked at from another perspective, communication technology can be said to have helped in knowledge or expertise transfer but it only does this by eliminating the need for two parties to enjoy physical contact. In effect, the platform helps to solve challenges associated with loss of time and other resources. The fact that expats can converse virtually through these platforms does therefore not necessarily mean that their role has been substituted by the technology. On the contrary, the communication technology platform such as videoconferencing only serves as a booster for increased interaction as well as shortening the duration of time consumed in completing assignment by these expatriates (Schultz, 2006). The new technology much as it is beneficial is still faced by shortcomings. For instance, the aura surrounding a face-to-face conversation can not really be equated by technologically supported platform such as videoconferencing however much it is modified. The atmosphere of convincing colleagues, arguing, agreeing, laughing, sharing, all these elements enjoyed by live interactions can not be put on the same level as technology-based creativity (Nadeem, Ebtisam & Muhammad, 2008).
The use of technology saves on the cost incurred in moving the expats around the world. However, the value of technology is only in increasing efficiency. The expatriates on the other hand carry both the technical know-how as well as the current information concerning the performance of an organization and other factors surrounding it. This information may be beneficial in an eye to eye discussion as an additional to the conversation at hand. The use of a facility such as email may not have room for such additions since the only information conveyed through it is that which is directly related to the issue under discussion at the particular moment. As such therefore, technology is still limited in solving the problems of face-to face interactions. Furthermore, explaining a concept or a mechanism via email or video facility may not achieve the same results attainable if the expat is physically present to solve the challenge at hand in the specific locality (Sparrow , Brewster & Harris, 2004).
The functions of expatriates can not be classified into a group and said to be either substituted or otherwise. The functions of an expat no matter what level of advancement in technology can not be equated. The expatriates carry out several functions in the economy globally and therefore their position in organizations’ arena remains unchallenged (Vance & Paik , 2011). Realistically still, there are many other things that can not be replaced by technology. It goes without asking that some forms of expertise are not transferable either through technology or otherwise. For instance, if the skills in demand are wholly manual, research based or aspects of production process upgrading, design development and trouble shooting, then the expat offering them may be required in his/her physical manifestation. But in cases where the skills are knowledge based, then it is possible to readily transfer through such platforms as technologically driven methods (GMAC Global Relocations Services, 2005).
The declining cost of international travel will assure of continued expat movement across the globe. Many international organizations are willing to spend even more to send their expats where necessary despite the benefits associated with application of technology. Most management can go to any lengths to ensure that they continue utilizing the people they are conversant with as opposed to recruiting and training new ones. This is aimed at reducing the problems associated with new employees who may not easily adapt to established organizational cultures (Minbaeva & Michailova, 2004). Despite the rapid integration of technology platforms, firms will continue to use expatriates due to many factors. These include the roles of expatriates as position fillers, as a means of developing the management through improving the competence of the target individual as well as an organization’s framework to develop so that there is a widespread transfer of knowledge particularly in multinational enterprises to enhance continued and uninterrupted decision making processes. These firms will continue to use expatriates in an effort to replace the traditional centralization of the operations of the organization as well as help a firm in its efforts to increase its capability to have direct surveillance ability over its branches or operations in different parts of the world (Fenwick, 2004). With a direct ‘eye’ over such operations, the company will be in a position to advance its ideologies as deliberated from the headquarters without necessarily concerning itself with the different forces experienced in different locations in parts of the world. This differs from a situation in which the management of such subsidiaries is under the watch of locally recruited managers from the countries of operation who may be under the influence of local political forces, a factor that could compromise the performance of the organization. The use of expatriates by these firms is also aimed at creating a social thread between the parent organization and its subsidiaries through establishing local networks for the benefit of the multinational (Harzing, 2001).
The debate on the proposition that with the growth in modern communication technologies, such as email and video conferencing, and the declining cost of international travel, expatriates will become an extinct species remains controversial. Pointers indicate that this statement has weight but still considering other factors, the statement can still be challenged. What comes out clearly is that the use of technology is a facilitator of the role of the expat and not necessarily a replacement of his functionality. Despite the technology advancements, it also evident that some fields will still require the physical presence of the expatriate such as in the medical field. Use of technology in organizations has facilitated communicating and networking with expats from different parts of the world. Today, the need for face-to-face communication has been replaced by modern platforms such as email, teleconferencing and videoconferencing among others to link up these organizations with the expats. Multinationals do not require sending expats to where their subsidiaries are located as the professional can control the operations from a central location such as the headquarters and coordinate roles with locally based professionals in far off countries through a virtual networking platform. However, despite the availability of these technologically based platforms, many other organizations are still reluctant to embrace them for reasons such as the need to maintain an organization’s management structure and culture without necessarily having to recruit or train new entrants but rather use the professionals they have in those countries. This ensures uninterrupted continuity of the organizational structure and/or culture. The impact of modern communication technologies on the role of the expatriates may be therefore perceived as either negative or positive. It is however possible that with continued advancement in communication technologies, the need for and number of expatriates in different parts of the world as it is currently could be greatly reduced.
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