Organizational Development Abroad: How To Transfer Knowledge, Culture

By Jon Hardesty

For health care organizations doing business internationally, effectively engaging with foreign national organizations and workforces on organizational development is a critical success factor. Foreign partners are eager for the transfer of knowledge and skills to their leadership and staff, but transfer of organizational culture is likewise important.

Unfortunately, the knowledge/culture transfer approach taken by many organizations falls short. I will concentrate on a few of the systemic learning and development strategies needed to engage foreign national organizations and workforces to meet their expectations and, thus, result in the successful support of an international business venture.

A popular, but most often unsuccessful, approach many organizations take is to simply assign expatriates to these duties, making the assumption that knowledge and skill will transfer over time. At worst, on paper it appears that the the company is meeting its partner’s request, frequently meeting the Key Performance Indicators (KPIs).

How does one address this?

  • Clarify the partner’s expectations upfront by managing those expectations prior to the engagement.
  • If expatriate employees are expected to mentor local nationals, clarify it beforehand. For example, the expatriates need to understand that the goal is to to work themselves out of their job, and commit to that responsibility. Should they not, they are not the right people for the assignment.
  • Conversely, the local nationals need to understand and accept the fact that they will be taking the back seat for an extended length of time and are expected to play the role of student. This can be particularly challenging for those host country nationals who are accustomed to being in charge.

When organizations are asked by a host country or organization to transfer their business knowledge, they may not realize that what they actually seek is also a transfer of the company’s culture.

As before, organizations fall into the basic trap of wanting to quickly meet their KPIs and send visitors or speakers from the company to visit for a business week, and perhaps make a presentation. They may even go so far as to deliver a written assessment of their visit. These exercises, at best, are wonderful professional and personal experiences for the company representatives making the visit. But, what is not happening is the transfer of the company’s culture. It takes decades for that to happen. At worst, these representatives develop a misinformed opinion of the foreign engagement and, almost always, provide an inaccurate report of their experience.

Another popular, but rarely successful, approach is to send the partner’s foreign national employees to visit their corporate headquarters. At best, this is a nice symbolic gesture, but does not address the transfer of the company’s business and company culture.

This can be addressed by increasing the length of time the company’s representatives visit, develop detailed daily schedules during the work week and have the weekends include cultural activities. If schedules allow, a company representative’s visit to the host country should be at least 30 days and a foreign national’s visit to the company’s headquarters should be at least 90 days. Only then will the program begin to make a difference.

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