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How technology is changing expatriate training


The cost of a failed assignment will make your head spin faster than a slot machine in Vegas. Find out how the digital world can help.

By Samuel Greengard

Sending employees abroad is a risky proposition, even under the best of circumstances. It’s difficult enough for the average person to cope with a completely different way of life—let alone face the reality that kidnapping, terrorism, street crime, murder, carjacking and home-invasion robbery represent a constant danger in many corners of the world. Heap on top of all this the risk of cultural faux pas, miscommunication and general insensitivity in business dealings, and it s easy to see why many major companies take expatriate training and protection so seriously.

For years, the typical global company has provided classroom instruction, binders brimming with facts about a country, and bulletins as thick as a James A. Michener novel—all providing tips on how to behave and avoid potential problems. Unfortunately, even under the best of circumstances, the information isn't up to date. And when the system fails, the results can be disastrous for both employee and company. These days, newspaper headlines chronicle a seemingly endless series of events in places like Indonesia, Liberia, Algeria, Pakistan, Mexico, Columbia, Brazil and Russia. But crime and upheaval can happen anywhere, and the fallout can be devastating.

According to Michael Schell, president of Windham International, a New York City-based global relocation management and information service, it s not unusual for an organization to dole out three to five times an employee s annual income for training, housing, cost-of-living differentials, schools, taxes and more. He says that a typical manager sent abroad pulls down somewhere in the neighbourhood of $100,000, making the total direct cost of a failed assignment $300,000 to $500,000. In some cases, hardship and risk allowances can push the figure up another $100,000 or more.

Yet that doesn’t come close to representing the total expense of an assignment gone awry, he adds. "There are lost opportunity costs associated with a failed assignment." These include lost sales and damaged relationships with governments, customers, suppliers, staff and local employees. In the final analysis, Schell warns, it’s not unusual for the figure to top out at $1 million.

There s a cheaper way.
If that makes your head spin faster than a slot machine in Las Vegas, then it might be time to toss aside paper and venture online. Today s technology is changing the way organizations educate and train expatriates. It s finally making it possible to provide real-time access to data, and share it efficiently across an enterprise. Among other things, the software can tap into an intranet to track internal policies across geography, provide up-to-date country information, offer cross-cultural distance learning and provide safety briefs. In addition, computer-based training (CBT) lets employees learn effectively and at their own pace.

It s changing the way more than a few companies do business. "In today s era of downsized human resources departments and bottom-line financial results, companies are looking for ways to streamline content delivery," says Scott Craighead, president of Craighead Global Knowledge, a Darien, Connecticut, publisher of online materials for managing expatriate assignments. "Online tools for country-specific relocation and business travel can boost efficiency and cut costs."

Indeed, it’s possible to automate an array of processes. Today, one of the most popular electronic tools is country-specific information. Services such as Craighead Global Knowledge can provide worldwide instant access to key data—via desktop, laptop or even hand-held PC. That might range from safety concerns for business travellers to detailed tips on business culture and customs. And it can extend the benefits beyond the enterprise. An employee using the Web can find the specific information that s needed rather than wade through hundreds of pages of text.
Comprehensive information is available from the Internet.

That s the case at Guidant Corp., an Indianapolis-based company that designs and develops cardiovascular products, including pacemakers. With offices in Germany, Ireland, Belgium, Japan, Singapore, Argentina, Canada and Hong Kong, there s an ongoing need to keep employees informed and educated. And the 6,000-employee firm, which tallied nearly $1.9 billion in 1998 sales, takes the commitment seriously. It offers current country and travel information through its intranet as well as a password-protected page on Craighead s Internet site. "In many cases, we re able to provide information that travellers and expatriates never received in the past," says Connie Elliano, a relocation administrator for Guidant.

That can include information on everything from appropriate dress at business meetings to weather conditions to what to eat in restaurants. "Employees can view information that s focused to the specific needs of their job," Elliano notes. Indeed, the service is organized by relevant categories such as business traveler, virtual traveler, long-term assignment, short-term assignment and other categories. Since the travel and relocation information went online about six months ago, Elliano says that employees and spouses have clicked to it regularly. In the past, the company has suffered as the result of a couple of employees committing serious blunders while engaged in business overseas.

Some companies have turned to computer-based training.
However, online country information is merely one strategy. Another tool that can produce enormous gains is computer-based training. It lets employees use interactive, multimedia content to learn—often while being entertained. For example, AcrossFrontiers International Inc., a New York City-based content provider, offers video, narration, quizzes and Web-based links to deliver cultural training for more than 14 countries. By the end of 2000, the number will swell to 45 countries. The series offers information about travelling to countries, relocating, people, lifestyles, values, daily life, work environment, business style and etiquette, and other topics.

Andrew West, director of Vastera Japan, has turned to AcrossFrontiers to ratchet up the capabilities and sensibility of workers at his firm—which provides integrated solutions for the management of international trade, including regulatory compliance, management and documentation for export and import logistics. "Our main objective is to provide employees with a solid background on the culture, customs and attitudes of a country before they get there," he explains. In Japan, that can include everything from understanding the importance of karaoke to facial and hand gestures.

One of the program s strengths, West says, is that it offers employees a consistent message. "The fact that it’s computer based and the content doesn’t vary means that we can ensure that the message doesn't wind up filtered through a person s own experiences or biases." Equally important: He finds the software is cost effective since it reduces the need for human instruction. The alternative, in some cases, would be to send employees to a cultural training institute—which would be more expensive and require additional time away from the workplace. Ultimately, "It s better to spend a couple thousand dollars on training materials rather than lose a million-dollar deal," he points out.

Global news isn’t always bad news.
Risk assessment is yet another online resource. Keeping appraised of incidents worldwide can prove extremely valuable for organizations with expatriates. Companies like Kroll Associates and Pinkerton track incidents on a daily basis and offer Web sites that provide the latest news and information, including reports on terrorist activity, kidnappings, assaults and overall risk. Kroll Travel Watch, a service that details crime, problems and concerns for over 250 cities in over 100 countries worldwide—is monitored on a daily basis. Pinkerton Global Intelligence Services provides free daily updates about global hotspots from the company s Web site.

To be sure, a bit of preparation goes a long way toward ensuring that a business traveller or expatriate succeeds on an assignment abroad. And while paper and conventional classrooms aren’t dead, online instruction, education and information clearly represent the wave of the future. Not only is it less expensive, it s often better. And that’s at the heart of making HR more strategic and valuable to the entire organization.
Workforce, December 1999, Vol. 78, No. 12, pp. 106-108.

Samuel Greengard is a contributing editor for Workforce.


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