Mobile Workforce A Competitive Advantage

What Do Companies Mean When They Say They Want A Mobile Workforce?
In today’s global competition for market share and margin, many companies realize at some point that people are their greatest asset.  Some even go to the extent of saying they need a mobile workforce for competitive advantage.  However, do companies know what they mean by ‘mobile workforce’ and do companies understand how the mobile workforce contributes to their business strategies and their key business success?

I suggest that the CEOs, their Chief Learning Officers and/or Head of Human Resources do the following during their strategic business planning sessions.

  1. List out the top 3 Business Challenges that keep the CEO up at night
  2. Define Mobile Workforce and what the organization is trying to solve with the Mobile Workforce
  3. Find a direct link between # 1 and #2

If your organization has a working definition of Mobile Workforce and is able to link the objectives of Mobile Workforce to any of the top 3 Business Challenges and Key Business Indicators you probably have an alignment of Strategy to Business Goals/Indicators. 
On the other hand, if your organization cannot find a link between #1 and #2 and do not have a clear mobile workforce definition and objectives, I suggest you stop for a moment to get that completed first.

A Working Definition of Mobile Workforce
Here are a few suggestions on how to get to the working definition.
Scope:  I suspect that you do not need 100% of your workforce to be mobile.  It also depends how many offices you have outside of your home country headquarter.  The more offices you have outside of your home country then there is likelihood you may need to understand how to do business in those countries.  That may call for a certain percent of your senior management to have some out-of-home country experience in doing business and running the organization.   Let’s say 10 to 20% of your senior management team.  And you keep going down the level to understand the percentage of mobility needed in your organization.
Objectives:  Here are a few objectives which could be linked to business indicators.
Start up of offices in matured countries linked to expansion of current business or start up of offices in developing countries linked to growth via new markets & business.  The transfer and maintenance of company culture including governance role operating in developing countries linked to Corporate Culture and Governance rules respectively.

Gather a few folks in your organization to have this discussion and see if you can figure out what business challenges or goals you are trying to solve with ‘Mobile Workforce’ or ‘Mobility’?  It will be more impactful if this discussion was done in light of a strategic business planning discussion. 

How Do We Build A Mobile Workforce? – ‘Out-Of-Box’ Suggestions

1) Develop a strong linkage between Mobile Workforce and Strategic Business Plans
Mobile Workforce is a means to an end and not the end itself.  It is of course easier said than done. However if Mobile Workforce is listed as key business strategy in a Strategic Business Plan with clear actionable plans then the results and sustainability of this strategy is guaranteed.
2) Balance demographics with the scope and objectives of Mobile Workforce
A global citizen is not easy to find in this world but if done right, we probably have some hope with the next two generations.  J  You cannot teach someone to enjoy living in a new environment, learning a new culture and trying new culinary experience in a classroom as these things has to be experienced. This is an accumulation of experience one gets during one’s formative years of growing up.  You might be able to find a small percent in the ‘Baby Boomers’ population.  You might find more in the population of either Expat children who has grown up in two to three countries when they were growing up or children who are fortunate to grow up with parents who can afford to travel to different places other than their own country.  I know from experience that trying to move a 20-something year old single person or a 30-something year old married couple with no children is a lot easier than moving a mid 40- something to 50-something year old senior manager who has school going children, a nice home, 3 cars and a club membership to a tier 2 or 3 city in China or India or Russia.
Invest in the younger demographic (Gen X and Gen Y) who is willing to move and love the adventure with the training/development/coaching required to grow in the job. There is hope with the coming generation if we invest wisely in their life education now.  J
Use the senior management in very strategic expat positions or focused short term goals.

3) Be clear of roles of expatriates
In the developing countries and in some developed countries, companies cannot completely do away with expatriates.  Capable expatriates can do an incredible job of transferring company culture, values and management practices which is often overlooked for quick business results or start-ups.  Governance is a growing concern amongst companies doing business around the world and thus has a need for strong senior management expatriate.   At the same time, there are many instances where companies can invest in grooming local talents as well as use short term assignments and business trips to get certain problems solved.  Expatriates are costly but if targeted well with clear objectives, return on investment will be clearly realized.  

4) Make Infrastructure Work for the Mobile Workforce
We need to look into the organization’s policies and procedures to enable the ‘Mobile Workforce.’  The key paradigm shift here is that we are working with a small percentage of the population who needs to be mobile. Thus I believe an organization can have a separate set of policies and procedures governing this set of ‘Mobile Workforce.’  Take the hotel industry for example.  They rotate their General Managers and Chefs around the world and these people are your ideal Mobile Workforce.  The organization’s infrastructure supports this targeted Mobile Workforce to work in different countries.  They are on one salary range and paid in one currency with a portable pension plan.  Today for someone to pull the plug on their roots and be ever ready to get on a plane for the organization, they have to struggle with a lot of rules that do not incentivise them to be a wandering trouble shooter or wandering evangelist for the organization’s culture or wandering global coach of talent for the organization.  Again, this is not for everyone and you don’t need everyone in the organization to do this.  But if and when you find the ideal employee who can fit the bill, why wouldn’t you nurture that mobile talent who can help your organization with its competitive advantage?  Go shift your organization’s paradigm and do something that makes sense within your organization and the mobile talent that you need.  Question is does your organization require mobile talent – when and where?
5) Continuous Sourcing of Talent against Clear Expectations
As I always say to people managers and staffing folks in an organization, don’t stop sourcing for talent even with the economic down cycle.  The problem with most industries is that whenever they are hit by the economic down cycle, they move to spending freeze, travel freeze and of course hiring freeze.  Of all three, the latter hurts all organizations the most.  When staffing department is given the order to freeze hiring, they literally stop everything.  The wheel in the machinery goes into complete stop.  If the hiring freeze lasts 6 months, the organization literally stops all external work with Universities and the employment population.  They literally lose 6 months and then when the freeze is lifted, they take another 2 to 3 months to get started which then totals to 9 months or more.  And usually when the freeze is lifted, everyone is scurrying to hire talents again.  By the time the organization goes back to hiring mode, they are left with not enough talent to hire.  So guess what happens then?  Hiring managers and staffing departments compromise on the standards of hiring. 
My suggestion is you can stop the hiring but don’t stop the sourcing for talents.  The world today is short of talents and so you have to continuously work harder to source for talent. Wherever you are, keep a look out for talents you need.  You have to start with the expectations you are looking for and then use that to talk to potential talents.  Use what I call the ‘talent wooing’ process.  Find a potential talent and then take the time to learn about the talent and for the talent to learn about you and your organization.  Some people call the time you take a colleague or an external business associate for lunch or drinks as networking.  I call it focused networking or simply the talent wooing process.  This is more effective than the one hour so-called job interview where most of the time both parties are just trying to sell to each other. 

6) Management Support Process
As we all know in any organization change the senior leaders are required to lead the change and not just play the role of side-line cheerleader.  All the above 5 steps will not work without the most important one – the lead role of the senior manager and senior management team.  They are the ones who can help shift paradigm, change policies and reinforce the desired behavior required for success.  

Challenges To Be Aware Of

1) Top Leader Support:
If you do not secure the top leader support, you cannot make the items above happen. 
2) Timely selection and de-selection of Expatriates:
If you do not pick the right person to play the expatriate role, a few things can potentially happen.  The expatriate could play a role of self preservation where he/she could sabotage the grooming of local talent for fear of no job post-repatriation or he/she could simply love the life of an expatriate. Therefore you will require clear expectations of the expat role, the duration and an infrastructure to help with repatriation of the expatriate to home office or to another assignment which builds on success. 

3) The duration of expatriate’s term:
The typical policy is 3 years and with an option to renew.  However from personal experience, observation of practice and in discussing with expats, there is another opinion of moving the timeline to 4 or 5 years.  The reasoning is as follows:  It will take someone who has never lived outside of one country at least 9 to 12 months to acclimatize into a host country; then another 12 months to get the lay of the land and the culture (at novice level of understanding); then another 6 to 12 months to find his/her replacement; then another 12 to 18 months of coaching/shadowing for the replacement to be at acceptable performance.  That is a total of roughly 4 to 5 years.  I have yet to personally see any expatriate who can do all those things described in 3 years.

See if there is a strong link between the mobile workforce strategy and the business results. If there is not, then re-think why you are leading the charge on mobile workforce.  If there is, then see if some of the ‘out-of-box’ suggestions could work for you.  At the same time, list out the barriers that could block you and build that upfront as part of your approach to success.   Every organization’s most important asset is People (talent).  The question is how many of the organizations’ talents need to be mobile.

Good Luck!

About The Author:
Cheah Chin Teik is founder and President of Chin Teik Consulting Ltd., based in Hong Kong.  Chin Teik is an experienced coach in organizational and leadership effectiveness for business results, scale-ability and sustainability via alignment and engagement of entire workforce. Chin Teik facilitates senior executive and/or executive teams to a clearer understanding of their leadership behavior while embedding a system of management practices to deliver business results.

Renowned worldwide for his dynamic and intuitive consulting process, Chin Teik’s specialization areas are executive coaching and/or executive team coaching on strategic planning system and process, organization effectiveness, leadership and management development and system of management implementation. Chin Teik also specializes in enabling ‘HR and Training strategies for organizational impact’ and implementing ‘Continuous Improvement Process’. Chin Teik’s coaching and consulting efforts cut across a wide range of industries from Advertising, Brand Management, Elevator, Electric Utility, Finance Services, Legal Services, Life Style, Oil & Gas, Packaging, Precision Engineering, Semiconductor, Travel and Water Utility. 

A charismatic global leader, Chin Teik has amassed invaluable experience in manufacturing, training & development, total quality management and over 28 years of experience playing critical human resource roles in Intel on a regional and global scale.  Chin Teik has to his credit the prestige of setting up the first-ever 10, 000 sq. ft. Intel University Training Center to deliver ‘Transformation of Workforce’ program to entire factory.  Chin Teik also played an instrumental role in the founding of the Penang Skills Development Center. 

Copyright© 2008 Chin Teik Consulting Ltd