Technology is Changing Expatriate Training

Finally, it's possible to efficiently provide and share real-time data across an enterprise.

December 1, 1999
Sending employees abroad is a risky proposition, even under the best ofcircumstances. It’s difficult enough for the average person to cope with acompletely different way of life -- let alone face the reality that kidnapping,terrorism, street crime, murder, carjacking and home-invasion robbery representa constant danger in many corners of the world. Heap on top of all this the riskof cultural faux pas, miscommunication and general insensitivity in businessdealings, and it’s easy to see why many major companies take expatriatetraining and protection so seriously.

For years, the typical global company has provided classroom instruction,binders brimming with facts about a country, and bulletins as thick as a JamesA. Michener novel -- all providing tips on how to behave and avoid potentialproblems. Unfortunately, even under the best of circumstances, the informationisn’t up to date. And when the system fails, the results can be disastrous forboth employee and company. These days, newspaper headlines chronicle a seeminglyendless series of events in places like Indonesia, Liberia, Algeria, Pakistan,Mexico, Columbia, Brazil and Russia. But crime and upheaval can happen anywhere,and the fallout can be devastating.

According to Michael Schell, president of Windham International, a New YorkCity-based global relocation management and information service, it’s notunusual for an organization to dole out three to five times an employee’sannual income for training, housing, cost-of-living differentials, schools,taxes and more. He says that a typical manager sent abroad pulls down somewherein the neighborhood of $100,000, making the total direct cost of a failedassignment $300,000 to $500,000. In some cases, hardship and risk allowances canpush the figure up another $100,000 or more.

Yet that doesn’t come close to representing the total expense of anassignment gone awry, he adds. "There are lost opportunity costs associatedwith a failed assignment." These include lost sales and damagedrelationships with governments, customers, suppliers, staff and local employees.In the final analysis, Schell warns, it’s not unusual for the figure to topout at $1 million.

There’s a cheaper way.

If that makes your head spin faster than a slot machine in Las Vegas, then itmight be time to toss aside paper and venture online. Today’s technology ischanging the way organizations educate and train expatriates. It’s finallymaking it possible to provide real-time access to data, and share it efficientlyacross an enterprise. Among other things, the software can tap into an intranetto track internal policies across geography, provide up-to-date countryinformation, offer crosscultural distance learning and provide safety briefs. Inaddition, computer-based training (CBT) lets employees learn effectively and attheir own pace.

It’s changing the way more than a few companies do business. "In today’sera of downsized human resources departments and bottom-line financial results,companies are looking for ways to streamline content delivery," says ScottCraighead, president of Craighead Global Knowledge, a Darien, Connecticut,publisher of online materials for managing expatriate assignments. "Onlinetools for country-specific relocation and business travel can boost efficiencyand cut costs."

Indeed, it’s possible to automate an array of processes. Today, one of themost popular electronic tools is country-specific information. Services such asCraighead Global Knowledge can provide worldwide instant access to key data --via desktop, laptop or even hand-held PC. That might range from safety concernsfor business travelers to detailed tips on business culture and customs. And itcan extend the benefits beyond the enterprise. An employee using the Web canfind the specific information that’s needed rather than wade through hundredsof pages of text.

Comprehensive information is available from the Internet

That’s the case at Guidant Corp., an Indianapolis-based company thatdesigns and develops cardiovascular products, including pacemakers. With officesin Germany, Ireland, Belgium, Japan, Singapore, Argentina, Canada and Hong Kong,there’s an ongoing need to keep employees informed and educated. And the6,000-employee firm, which tallied nearly $1.9 billion in 1998 sales, takes thecommitment seriously. It offers current country and travel information throughits intranet as well as a password-protected page on Craighead’s Internetsite. "In many cases, we’re able to provide information that travelersand expatriates never received in the past," says Connie Elliano, arelocation administrator for Guidant.

That can include information on everything from appropriate dress at businessmeetings to weather conditions to what to eat in restaurants. "Employeescan view information that’s focused to the specific needs of their job,"Elliano notes. Indeed, the service is organized by relevant categories such asbusiness traveler, virtual traveler, long-term assignment, short-term assignmentand other categories. Since the travel and relocation information went onlineabout six months ago, Elliano says that employees and spouses have clicked to itregularly. In the past, the company has suffered as the result of a couple ofemployees committing serious blunders while engaged in business overseas.

Some companies have turned to computer-based training

However, online country information is merely one strategy. Another tool thatcan produce enormous gains is computer-based training. It lets employees useinteractive, multimedia content to learn -- often while being entertained. Forexample, AcrossFrontiers International Inc., a New York City-based contentprovider, offers video, narration, quizzes and Web-based links to delivercultural training for more than 14 countries. By the end of 2000, the numberwill swell to 45 countries. The series offers information about traveling tocountries, relocating, people, lifestyles, values, daily life, work environment,business style and etiquette, and other topics.

Andrew West, director of Vastera Japan, has turned to AcrossFrontiers toratchet up the capabilities and sensibility of workers at his firm -- whichprovides integrated solutions for the management of international trade,including regulatory compliance, management and documentation for export andimport logistics. "Our main objective is to provide employees with a solidbackground on the culture, customs and attitudes of a country before they getthere," he explains. In Japan, that can include everything fromunderstanding the importance of karaoke to facial and hand gestures.

One of the program’s strengths, West says, is that it offers employees aconsistent message. "The fact that it’s computer based and the contentdoesn’t vary means that we can ensure that the message doesn’t wind upfiltered through a person’s own experiences or biases." Equallyimportant: He finds the software is cost effective since it reduces the need forhuman instruction. The alternative, in some cases, would be to send employees toa cultural training institute -- which would be more expensive and requireadditional time away from the workplace. Ultimately, "It’s better tospend a couple thousand dollars on training materials rather than lose amillion-dollar deal," he points out.

Global news isn’t always bad news

Risk assessment is yet another online resource. Keeping appraised ofincidents worldwide can prove extremely valuable for organizations withexpatriates. Companies like Kroll Associates and Pinkerton track incidents on adaily basis and offer Web sites that provide the latest news and information,including reports on terrorist activity, kidnappings, assaults and overall risk.Kroll Travel Watch, a service that details crime, problems and concerns for over250 cities in over 100 countries worldwide -- is monitored on a daily basis.Pinkerton Global Intelligence Services provides free daily updates about globalhotspots from the company’s Web site.

To be sure, a bit of preparation goes a long way toward ensuring that abusiness traveler or expatriate succeeds on an assignment abroad. And whilepaper and conventional classrooms aren’t dead, online instruction, educationand information clearly represent the wave of the future. Not only is it lessexpensive, it’s often better. And that’s at the heart of making HR morestrategic and valuable to the entire organization.

Workforce, December1999, Vol. 78, No. 12, pp. 106-108 -- Subscribenow!