Q&A: David Enser: “Organisations must accept differing cultural norms”

Author: PM editorial | Date: 29 Jun 2016

The RES Forum co-founder on managing the diversity and compliance requirements of global assignments

David EnserEmployee diversity and talent management are two of the key challenges facing global mobility professionals, as highlighted in the RES Forum’s recently published 2016 Annual Report.
David Enser, co-founder of the independent network of HR and mobility professionals, speaks to People Management about these challenges in more depth.

What were the key take-outs of the 2016 Annual Report?
A few things jumped out at me. Regarding diversity, I see a conscious focus from multinationals on ensuring that their workforce and, by default, their expat employee demographic, reflects their consumer base – particularly for FMCG companies. For Western multinational corporations (MNCs) this means selecting and nurturing a broader range of talent from across their organisations. I’ve also observed this trend with German manufacturing and tech firms who wish to reduce their overall volume of expats in Asia. To do this, they have to first build middle-management capability among local staff by sending them to the headquarters, or other locations, to grow, learn and return to fill the roles that expats would have previously held.
However, to enable this, organisations must also accept differing cultural norms, such as the broader family construct within Asian families; I’ve been told a few times that an Asian national can’t move unless they can bring their mum as they care for aging parents at home.
Talent management is another key issue. I believe that many organisations feel there is a shortfall in available talent to go overseas – yet perhaps these opportunities are not always visible to organisation-wide talent pools. Are they really looking throughout their whole organisation for those willing and able to go overseas?
It may also come down to how they compare and contrast relative skills and attributes. When measuring factors such as extroversion, dominance and analytical thinking, for example, are they trying to compare apples with pears? People with different cultural heritages convey themselves differently in the workplace. Just because a brash Westerner speaks more and in a louder voice, is what they have to say of any more worth than the local employee who may say less but their opinion may carry greater weight? Are we measuring what individuals bring to an organisation in the most effective manner?
What are the main mobility challenges facing organisations in Asia?
Reward package design remains a challenge. I see companies still struggling to attract western expats to Chinese cities due to pollution concerns. Also, more and more companies are beginning to use Asian (and, increasingly, African) cost of living indices for calculating pay of outbound Asian staff to reflect their differing buying patterns and habits for goods and services.
The VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) nature of the working world should also be considered. Business models are being turned on their head, and the types of roles filled by expat staff are changing and evolving as organisations digitalise and rely more on technology. Bringing mass manufacturing out of Asia through the introduction of automated manufacturing – such as 3D printing – means that (speculatively) instead of production oversight roles, there may be more supply chain/marketing/design roles in the Asia-Pacific region, but fewer production management roles in enormous manufacturing facilities.
How important is it that boards reflect companies’ customer bases, in terms of diversity?
It’s not about whether that’s a good or bad thing, in my view: the simple fact is, legislation exists and we have to deal with it, plan for it and build a pipeline of talent. If gender parity at board level is a requirement, then organisations have to react to this and start growing more female leadership talent. One way to do this is via expat assignment, and that in itself presents a challenge because, for many organisations, policies are not sufficiently encouraging for female candidates. Adidas Group, for example, launched a talent programme called the Talent Carousel a year ago, and its founding principles included greater cultural diversity and also a 50:50 gender balance of accepted candidates.
Are we currently seeing the rise of the 'digital nomad'?
I think so. The IT industry often talks about remote workers but, as mentioned before, power lies more in the hands of employees to dictate terms. In an increasingly competitive labour market, reward, recognition and the fundamentals of the employment relationship are already evolving.
What makes a popular location for digital nomads?
There’s the corny example that all you need is good wireless internet and an abundance of coffee shops – I disagree. Of course, there are those that want to work from places like Thailand, but for many it’s not about living on the beach – it’s about being torn between an organisation that wants you to work for them, which offers a great opportunity, but also having strong personal reasons for not being able to move to where you’re being asked to go. That might be the expat who doesn’t want to leave their family, or the family that will move but not to the city or location where you want them to go. Organisations have to be flexible and find answers to complicated questions that also add additional compliance/legislative challenges to the mix, including corporate tax issues.