Global mobility and talent: The missing link

Are organisations reducing the mobility function to compliance and logistics, and missing the connection between mobility and talent management?

Global mobility assignments have increased by 25% in the past decade – and PwC predicts a further 50% increase in the number of mobile employees by 2020. Given stats like that, the world really should be the global mobility professional’s oyster. And yet, it’s not. Some are concerned the function is being sidelined and streamlined into a purely administrative one, with few links to more strategic talent management activity. “Mobility teams are getting more and more stretched,” says James Holder, director of global mobility networking and training organisation Expat Academy, and former head of international mobility at BP and Diageo. “If anything it’s becoming more operational.”

David Collings, professor of HR management at Dublin University, agrees there’s a strategic piece lacking in how organisations approach global mobility, due to the “missing link between mobility and talent”. “It goes back to the organisational position of the global mobility function,” he says. “For most organisations the focus is on tax and compliance, and mobility becomes a downstream function that’s not involved in the decision around who goes.”

Recent surveys back this up. The annual Global Mobility Trends Survey from Brookfield Global Relocation Services found nine out of 10 companies were not aligning their employee mobility functions with their broader talent management goals. A separate survey by Move Guides and RES Forum found only 18% of global mobility professionals believed their talent mobility programme met all of their expectations.

So what we have is a gap between organisations expecting their top talent to have overseas experience, and the ability of global mobility professionals to deliver (not always down to any fault of their own). “More people have realised that global mobility is a strategic function, but not enough companies are doing something about it,” sums up Michael Rooney, director of KPMG Ireland’s global mobility practice. “The global mobility function is bogged down in operational discussions – negotiations about how much someone’s accommodation should be, for example.”

As Rooney suggests, much of the issue comes from the wider business’ perception that mobility is all about tax and compliance. “People think of global mobility as logistics, but it’s a lot more than that,” says KC Sin, global head of rewards operations and talent mobility at investors Blackrock.

“As the world becomes more complex moving people becomes more complex, and what worked in the past doesn’t work now,” adds Danone’s international mobility director Dorothy Ewing. She cites the example that while moving people to Europe from Asia used to be a low-cost solution it is now the opposite because Asian salaries are rising much faster than European ones.

Collings advocates the alignment of global mobility and talent as “critical” for both functions and the organisation at large. He argues mobility needs to be involved earlier in the process, to help inform the decision of who should be sent overseas in the first place. “Selection is about capability, but we know that doesn’t necessarily mean it will work as the skillset required is different in an international context.”

“Mobility is usually brought in way after the decision is made; to do tax, accommodation and so on,” agrees Rooney. “It should be involved in the planning. The business is often not looking at whether the person going overseas is the right talent, or if they have a family.”

There are a multitude of reasons mobility’s role remains narrow, compliance-focused and separate from talent management, despite the fact international assignments should be about developing people. The operational aspects of the job mean global mobility professionals often don’t have the time to build relationships with global talent teams, says Holder. “They are too busy trying to keep on top of risk issues to step back and see the bigger picture,” he says. Rooney cites a telling anecdote where he asked a room of mobility professionals how many of them had networked with their company’s talent teams in the last year, and “it was only about 2%”.

However, Sin also holds talent and HR accountable. “Talent management programmes have not incorporated mobility fast enough,” he says. “People focus on the talent agenda, on succession planning, and having the right mix of talent, but they forget to focus on mobility. Talent management programmes should explicitly call out the mobility aspect.” Holder agrees mobility is sometimes not given the opportunity to get involved in talent development, as “talent teams like to wrap their arms around it”.

At Danone, Ewing has focused on bridging this divide, and has dual informal reporting lines into compensation and benefits and talent. She attends all the global talent committees and spends a lot of time with her team “discussing how we can move away from the operational”. “We need to be clear on why we move people or need internationals,” she says. “Start with the whole talent process. Where do we need an international? Why? For how long? What’s the role of the assignee now and in the future? Then look at your people – what do they need and where should they go?” She predicts that in the future the relationship between talent and mobility will be “more seamless”, with more organisations bringing the two areas together.

Sin changed the name of Blackrock’s mobility function from ‘global mobility’ to ‘talent mobility’ to bring to the fore that “it’s about talent, not logistics”. He advocates including mobility information in talent reviews. “How do you create the need for mobility to be on the same footing as talent? Through data,” he explains. “If you have information [about your talent], it can tie into your short-term solutions and long-term discussions about giving people the right experience.”

But it’s a lack of decent data keeping many mobility functions from achieving their strategic potential, believes Move Guides CEO Brynne Herbert. EY’s 2016 Global Mobility Effectiveness Survey confirms her view: it found 52% of companies don’t have the necessary data to enhance insight into mobility plans. “The mobility function hasn’t benefited from the adoption of HR technology,” Herbert says. “It’s still laden with mundane tasks. Much has been outsourced, but that’s just shifted the costs. Not having access to data to inform decisions means global mobility professionals can’t talk intelligently about ROI or link [their work] to talent management. Once they have the data global mobility will be freed up to have strategic conversations and merge it with talent data.”

When it comes to the data that counts, and measuring the effectiveness of interventions, Holder advises mobility teams to sit down with the business to ask what it wants to measure – “it could be cost. It could be retention on repatriation.”

However, Collings believes the mobility function “has been poor at developing value-based metrics”. He would like to see it develop more metrics around how it adds value, rather than just how it cuts costs. “You could frame it around the ‘cost of doing nothing on repatriation’ [as attrition rates are so high] as a useful starting point,” he suggests.

Many of the metrics that demonstrate the value of mobility demand a longer-term view of business success in general. “Being driven by cost creates problems,” says Sin. “We are trying to achieve clarity and one logical point is retention and rate of deployment. But the true measure of success is: when that person comes back, are they part of our succession plan?”

Rooney agrees, saying success shouldn’t even be measured until three to five years after someone returns. He adds that the companies who have cracked strategic mobility tend to have a “global employment model”, whereby executives are measured on the success of the global rather than home business, and talent moves more freely. This model is most common in the oil and gas sector, he adds, although a wider range of companies are taking this approach as it leads to better workforce planning.

Ewing says organisations are increasingly reviewing their global mobility functions and that the subject is “higher in the sight of HRDs and CEOs”. But as businesses and HR functions try to figure out what to do with their mobility functions, Holder warns against going down the pure transactional route such as moving it into shared services. “That would be dangerous,” he says. “Mobility is complex and involves employment law, tax, immigration, compensation… but it’s also about talking to people and families. If you make it too transactional you’ll miss issues you should be flagging.” In many ways mobility is on a similar journey to the HR function more widely, if a few steps behind. Integrating it more closely with HR and talent can only help drive the wider strategic objectives of a global business.

“In the future I would like to see mobility integrated into HR,” says Ewing. “That way we are building jobs for the future. It’s all about people, after all.”