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A knowledge transfer perspective of strategic assignment purposes and their path-dependent outcomes

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A knowledge transfer perspective of strategic assignment purposes and their path-dependent outcomes
  A KNOWLEDGE TRANSFER PERSPECTIVE OFSTRATEGIC ASSIGNMENT PURPOSES AND THEIRPATH-DEPENDENT OUTCOMES J. Barry HockingMichelle BrownAnne-Wil Harzing Version January 2004A revised version appeared in International Journal of Human Resource Management  , vol. 15 (2004), no. 3, pp. 565-586 Copyright © 2004 J. Barry Hocking, Michelle Brown, Anne-Wil Harzing.All rights reserved.Do not quote or cite without permission from the authors. Dr. Anne-Wil HarzingEmail:anne-wil@harzing.comUniversity of MelbourneWeb:www.harzing.comDepartment of ManagementFaculty of Economics & CommerceParkville CampusMelbourne, VIC 3010Australia  A KNOWLEDGE TRANSFER PERSPECTIVE OF STRATEGICASSIGNMENT PURPOSES AND THEIR PATH-DEPENDENTOUTCOMES Abstract Our research not only addresses the strategic purposes of expatriate assignments within multinationalcorporations but, unlike most earlier studies, extends the investigation to include their path-dependentoutcomes. Adopting a knowledge transfer perspective we first re-define the principal assignmentpurpose categories of Edström and Galbraith (1977a) as business applications, organizationapplications and expatriate learning. These purpose categories are then conceptually related in termsof a four-part typological matrix based on individual-level knowledge flow direction and role focus.Following a review of prior assignment purpose studies we posit that strategic expatriate assignmentpurposes should be considered not in isolation but relative to their potential outcomes. Adopting asingle case research design with multi-method data collection we demonstrate the emergent nature of strategic assignment outcomes. It is shown for our transnational case organization that knowledgeacquisition or learning by expatriates is an underestimated strategic assignment outcome, more so thaneither business or organization-related knowledge applications. - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - Key words : expatriates, knowledge, learning, multinational corporations, strategic IHRM  2 Introduction Consistent with the resource-based view of the firm (Barney, 1991), the sustained competitiveadvantage of multinational corporations (MNCs) is their ability to move capital, products,technology, knowledge and people across international borders. People-embodiedknowledge, more so than physical assets and other tangible resources, is critical to thiscompetitive advantage. In this research study our focus is on the people element, and morespecifically on expatriates. Expatriates are defined as individuals who, irrespective of theirnational srcin, are transferred outside their native country to another country specifically foremployment purposes (Edström & Galbraith, 1977a). Although typically comprising onlyone to two percent of the total workforce of MNCs (Peterson, Napier & Shim, 1996),expatriates are considered as key strategic agents in the international transfer of knowledgewithin these firms (Kamoche, 1997). In this study we adopt a strategic perspective (Torbiörn,1994), one that contrasts to most expatriate management studies where the emphasis is moretypically on operational issues (refer Thomas, 1998, for an overview).   We specifically focuson longer-term assignments of one year or more where it is considered strategic value can bestbe attained (Westney, 2001).The paper is guided by two primary research objectives. The first is a clearer understandingof the principal strategic purposes of expatriate assignments and their underlyingrelationships.   For this   we review and re-define the well-established strategic assignmentpurposes classification of Edström and Galbraith (1977a). We also extend the srcinal scopeof Edström and Galbraith’s research by developing an assignment purposes relationshipmatrix based on two knowledge transfer dimensions. A central tenet of both our assignmentpurposes re-classification and the relationship matrix is the universality of individual-level  3knowledge creation and transfer within firms (Nonaka, 1994). We contend that know-howtransfer by expatriates is not an isolated assignment purpose that is differentiated from otherpurposes such as control and coordination (Torbiörn, 1994), but is instead a generic intent of  all strategic expatriate assignments. Only the type of knowledge involved, and its means of transfer, varies from one assignment purpose to another. Our second study objective is aninvestigation of the path-dependent relativities (that is, relative differences) between our re-defined principal assignment purposes and their resultant outcomes. Adapting Mintzberg’s(1987) strategy research, we seek in part to differentiate between assignment outcomes thatare generally deliberate with respect to their srcinal intent and those that are more typicallyemergent. For this we introduce the relativity measure ‘strategic assignment purpose-outcome differential’ as a basis for empirical testing. - Insert Figure 1 about here - As a conceptual foundation for the study we invoke the strategic assignment framework model shown in Figure 1. The framework consists of a linear sequence ranging from strategicassignment purposes to strategic assignment outcomes via an intervening time-basedexpatriate role process stage. We equate the strategic assignment purposes stage toMintzberg’s (1987) ‘strategy as plan’, representing a consciously intended course of action.The expatriate role process stage embraces a complex series of events and activities that arehistorically unique to each individual, and characteristically path-dependent (Barney, 1991).A documented example is the expatriate communication role process for various cross-cultural settings presented by Torbiörn (1985). The realization of these role activities,equivalent to Mintzberg’s (1987) ‘strategy as pattern’, represents the third stage of the  4framework model which we designate as strategic assignment outcomes . According toMintzberg’s strategy theory the outcomes may be either deliberate in terms of their srcinalintent or else emergent and therefore unintended. We do not elaborate in this paper upon theexpatriate role process stage, but instead define the linkage between strategic assignmentpurposes and outcomes by a common set of role objectives that are introduced in the nextsection. Strategic Assignment Purposes The most widely-recognized and longstanding typology of expatriate assignment purposes isthat of Edström and Galbraith (1977a). These researchers studied four Europeanmultinational firms and posited a distinctive three-fold subdivision of ‘fill positions’, ‘developorganization’ and ‘develop managers’. This general typology has since been adopted by otherauthors (eg. Borg, 1988; Ondrack, 1985), or else adapted using variations on the same theme(eg. Adler & Ghadar, 1990; Hocking, 1999; Torbiörn, 1982). Edström and Galbraith’s(1977a) three principal assignment purposes have not only been robust over time but are stillgenerally applicable as distinctive categories. What has been lacking, however, is a strongconceptual framework to explain the underlying strategic significance of the categories andtheir relationships. Based on a major review of the expatriate management and associatedliterature, our initial step in resolving this deficiency is the development of the strategicassignment purposes classification shown in Figure 2. - Insert Figure 2 about here -
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