By Olivier Meier, Mercer
The adoption of analytics is accelerating, and its use is growing in the field of global workforce management and talent mobility. While talent mobility analytics has not reached full maturity yet, it is an increasingly important trend that should not be ignored.
Getting started can be a tricky exercise. A good first step to a talent mobility analytics project would be to pick a relevant topic with a limited scope that could lead to actionable results, rather than a complex issue that the company cannot totally control or will yield little to no results.
Experience shows that many people within the organization tend to have strong and subjective views about analytics: some view it as the panacea to avoid irrational decisions while others dismiss it as a passing trend. In any case, the risk is that if the first talent mobility analytics project is not delivering added value, this could negatively impact the perception of all future projects.
What really matters for management?
When asked about the most valuable talent analytics, executives list five fundamental issues. These talent management issues have implications for talent mobility or are influenced by it.
Top 5 Most Valuable Talent Analytics, According to Executives
|Which training programs are the most effective?
|When based on performance outcomes, is better to build, buy, or borrow talent?
|What are the key drivers of engagement in our organization?
|Which profile of candidates tends to stay longer?
|Which employees are at risk of burn-out?
Source Mercer’s 2019 Global Talent Trends Study.
Which training programs are the most effective?
Training and development are among the main reasons why employees are sent on assignments: 49% of companies send assignees to transfer skills and train the local workforce, while 43% use assignments primarily for leadership development (source: Mercer’s 2018 Worldwide International Assignment Policy and Practices Survey).
Is there evidence that a developmental assignment provides tangible benefits? And what types of developmental moves are the most beneficial (e.g. short-term or long-term assignments)? Does a reduction in the duration of the assignment have an impact on learning? There are contradicting subjective views on what duration should be, and while some argue for long-term assignments lasting two or three years, others would insist that short and focused developmental assignments lasting a few months are sometimes more effective.
A second dimension to measure is the transmission of knowledge and skills to local staff. While this has always been one of the main goals of international mobility, the realities of the knowledge transfer are seldom rigorously evaluated. The ideal scenario – “expatriates will be replaced by locals” – doesn’t always materialize and assignees are sometimes asked to stay longer (leading to the difficult question of assignee localization) or replaced by other assignees.
International assignments were once dominated by moves from the HQ to affiliate organizations but are now being gradually replaced by moves between the affiliates themselves and by programs designed to bring talent from affiliates to the HQ or the main hubs of the companies. Is it better to send an expatriate from the HQ or bring the local staff to the HQ? Rather than relying on assumptions or perceptions, this can be rigorously assessed.
Training is not just for assignees. Upskilling the mobility function is an increasingly important topic. Assessing what type trainings benefit the team the most and allow them become effective in their daily tasks or allow them to become more strategic is important.
When based on performance outcomes, is it better to build, buy, or borrow talent?
This question becomes more central as companies increasingly rely not just on building talent (sending in-house employee on assignment) and buying talent (hiring talent to go on assignments) but increasingly on borrowing talent (i.e. using freelancers or gig workers).
From a mobility perspective, several distinctions can be made – for example between new hires in the host locations compared to relocated employees as well as between in-house employees and gig workers. Are new international hires and locally hired foreigners performing better than current employees sent on assignments? Gig workers can bring new skills and alleviate staffing issues but are they performing as well as current employees? The answer to these questions will depend on a number of factors is specific to each organization, industry and geography. Generalizations about the perceived characteristics of each talent group are not always relevant.
Regardless of the results, there is an opportunity to dig deeper to identify performance drivers – e.g. locally hired foreigners might perform better than relocated expatriates because they already have a professional network in the host locations or, conversely, gig workers might not be performing as well as expected because they don’t understand the corporate culture and don’t have the right connections to get things done within the organization
What are the key drivers of engagement in our organization?
Is mobility increasing employee engagement? In many organization, global mobility is being presented as an opportunity, but in reality what management imagines and the assignees perceive can be altogether different. In some organizations, mobility amplifies the engagement of employees: assignees are even more engaged as the result of their experience compared to employees without international experience. In others, assignees tend to have a significantly lower engagement which could indicate there are issues about the way mobility is managed and supported.
It is also interesting to monitor the engagement of former expatriates. Is their engagement decreasing after repatriation (which could be a sign that their newly acquired skills are not used and that they face a more difficult career evolution)? Or, on the contrary, is engagement staying strong or even increasing compared to employees without international experience (a hint that mobility might have had a lasting positive effect on their career)?
The expectations of millennials and generation Z is another frequent subject of debate. Do generations matter when assessing engagement of international assignees, and do companies need to adapt their policies? Analytics can help dispel some of the myths about millennials.
Which profile of candidates tends to stay longer?
Linked to the question of engagement is the retention issue. The retention of expatriates is a perpetual problem for companies. The perception is that turnover rate is particularity high, especially upon repatriation, due to the lack of available jobs or opportunities to use newly acquired international skills.
The realities of assignee retention can and should be measured at different points in time: during the assignment, upon reparation, and a couple of years after repatriation for example. Is there a variation by employee group – i.e. family status (family versus singles), job profiles, but also experience or type of assignments (long-term assignments, short-term assignments)?
Digging into the demographics of failed retention can also be useful from a diversity perspective. Are all groups of employees effectively supported? Are there issues not addressed by policies and local HR teams that might trigger problems for some groups like single parents, older assignees, or specific nationalities?
Retention, like engagement, is influenced by multiple factors so a single narrow analysis might not give straightforward answers, but combining multiple analyses can give clues about the real problems or value for the company of the different types of mobility.
Which employees are at risk of burnout?
Many employees go on an emotional rollercoaster as result of assignments. The stress of an international experience, family challenges, and unforeseen circumstances in the host locations increase the risk of burnout for assignees. Is there a way to anticipate who is most at risk and prevent it?
There is a limit to what company can ask without intruding in the private life of employees. But organizations should encourage assignees to open up about potential challenges and create a culture of exchange. Knowing that certain employee groups are more at risks could allow the company to proactive communicate about issues and implement possible solutions.
Specific geographies can present unique challenges for assignees (e.g. relocation to hardship locations) and increase the risk of burnout. However, experience shows that the answers are not always obvious. For example, a few companies have found that assignees in hardship locations actually performed better, while assignment locations deemed easier (e.g. USA) lead to more resignations and cases of burn out.
However, detailed analyses need to be done to explore different aspects of the question and avoid interpretation errors such as reverse causation – e.g. assignees selected to move to hardship locations are more experienced and prepared for the challenges. They are not resilient because they are in hardship locations; they are in hardship locations because they have been selected for their resilience.
Taking it step by step
No matter the topic selected, it’s better to take it step by step and break down your objectives into small steps to generate quick wins. Too many organizations start out with high expectations but stop after just analyzing basic assignment metrics due to lack of resources and visible short-term results, or they try to launch over-engineered projects that yield little value and are not sustainable.
The difficulties of using analytics is linked to the complexity of the factors involved in talent mobility. The danger is to jump to conclusion and infer causations and correlations. Rather to find the one magic explanation to problems, the first goal of analytics is to dispel myths and to provide hints at issues that could potentially be problematic. By crossing multiple variables and data (including quantitative as well as qualitative), the company can progressively start to have a better picture of what needs to be done.
Not all five questions listed in this article can immediately be analyzed and lead to actionable results by all organizations. The objective is to select one or two that matter the most for your organization and progressively expand the scope of the research and dig deeper into the drivers and barriers of talent mobility.