'Remnants of an Army' by Elizabeth Butler, 1877. Portraying William Brydon, the only survivor the evacuation from Kabul in January 1842. Ferens Art Gallery, Hull
Ideas for Leaders #493

Learning from Expatriate Experience After the Return Home

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Key Concept

Expatriates who return home bring with them the knowledge benefits of the relationships that they made during their international assignments. New research shows that these knowledge benefits continue even after the assignment because the expatriate still has the connections with his or her former colleagues in the international host office. 

Idea Summary

Expatriate assignments are great opportunities for employees and managers assigned overseas to not only increase their personal knowledge, but also share knowledge across units.

In a study on the knowledge benefits from expatriate experiences, Sebastian Reiche, a professor at IESE Business School, showed that there are two types of such knowledge benefits. The first is a straightforward professional knowledge transfer, in which managers take the learning from their time on international assignments and apply it to their new locations — whether it’s a return home or to another outpost of the company.

The second type of knowledge benefit is more personal and concerns newly acquired access to knowledge. In other words, if an issue or problem arises, former expatriates can connect with their former colleagues in the host unit and ask for advice or suggestions. In this way, the knowledge benefits of expatriation continue after the assignee has returned home.

Both types of knowledge benefits are acquired thanks to social capital — that is, the relationships that the expatriate was able to develop during the assignment. Reiche points specifically to two types of social capital from which these knowledge benefits are drawn: structural and relational. Structural social capital is concerned with the number of different contacts in different departments that the expatriate was able to forge. Relationship social capital focuses more on the proportion of trusted ties within the expatriates network in the host unit. Structural social capital, through exposure to a wide variety of influences, can enhance creativity. Relational social capital, built on trust, facilitates the sharing of knowledge.

One of the added benefits to Reiche’s study is that it not only explored the connection between repatriation and knowledge sharing, but was focused exclusively on expatriates who had come from subsidiaries and were assigned to the MNC’s headquarters. These types of expatriate are called ‘inpatriates’, and little research on expatriates has been focused on them. For his study, Reiche surveyed 85 inpatriates, from 10 German multinationals, who had been repatriated to their subsidiaries and divisions.

Business Application

One of the core lessons of Reiche’s study is that the learning benefits from expatriate assignments can last long after the manager has returned to his or her home office. To ensure such long-lasting learnings, MNC’s should:

  • Ensure that expatriates have opportunities to develop structural and relational social ties throughout the host unit. A mentorship program can be especially useful, as mentors can take assignees in hand and introduce them into their networks.
  • Create work environments that enable and encourage ‘organizational citizenship behaviour’, including open exchange and knowledge sharing among employees. Organizational citizenship behaviour is not only the responsibility of the host unit employees and managers, but also the assignees themselves.
  • Corporate support throughout the assignment and repatriation process, especially in long-distance assignments when maintaining social ties after repatriation is more challenging, is key. The MNC must have in place the structural capabilities to continuously promote cross-unit exchange of knowledge.
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Idea conceived

  • September 2012

Idea posted

  • March 2015

DOI number



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