The digitalisation of global mobility

Most companies are only moderately ‘digitalised’ in terms of global mobility. However, they have a clear agenda for what to implement next

Will robotics, artificial intelligence and automation extinguish the global mobility workforce of the future? Are fixed office spaces still necessary or does remote work offer an attractive alternative for globally mobility professionals?

These are just a few of the questions that are related to digitalisation in the field of global mobility. In a recent study we carried out on behalf of the RES Forum, we were interested in finding out more about these and other questions. We asked experienced global mobility professionals from more than 50 companies about the status quo of digitalisation in their organisation, the biggest future trends, and the competencies needed to master the digital transformation ahead.

Findings indicate that most companies are only moderately ‘digitalised’ in terms of global mobility. However, they have a clear agenda for what to implement next and are 'on their way'. The vast majority had a very positive attitude towards new technologies and digitalisation. When asked if the benefits of digitalisation outweighed the downsides, almost all respondents agreed. Consequently, considering a moderate level of digitalisation right now and a generally positive mindset regarding new technologies, they report that there is room for increased digitalisation in virtually every field around the international assignment process.

This increased digitalisation in the global mobility process is mainly expected to happen in terms of a further transition to less paperwork and manual processing. At the same time most companies are awaiting the arrival of new systems and solutions to improve all areas of their work. For instance, more cloud-based storage that is accessible 24/7 from any location, or systems becoming more integrated and seamlessly aligned and connected, are all on the global mobility manager’s wish list.

They expect an improved user experience for both the global mobility manager and, much more crucially, for the assignee. This sounds very promising and a big step considering that 15 years ago the age of smartphones and ubiquitous mobile high-speed internet was an 'optimistic future scenario' at best.

When looking at the actual impact, automation of processes is expected to lead to a simplification of the mobility manager’s workload. This increasing efficiency will save time and money and enable mobility managers to focus on more important tasks. Interestingly, the level of 'digital preparedness' in global mobility departments is about the same as in other functions. Only about 14% perceive that their department lags behind other functional departments – while 10% believe the global mobility department in their company is leading the way regarding digitalisation.

However, besides looking at the benefits we were also interested in finding out what is hindering the implementation of further and faster digitalisation. When asked about what stands in the way of more digitalisation, about a third mentioned corporate culture. Twenty-five per cent mentioned that lack of senior management support and budget/finance restrictions are hindering implementation. A little more than 23% pointed out that they do not have enough time, while less than 20% cited a lack of competencies and information.

This emphasises the point that digitalisation in the mobility department comes with a tremendous change process that is not always welcome in organisations. When thinking about the strong openness for new technologies expressed by mobility managers, it is reasonable to conclude that those departments would be digital forerunners if they were not held back by organisational constraints.

Finally, when asked about the biggest trends with highest innovation potential for global mobility in the future, AI, big data and electronic currencies were top of the list. Furthermore, although already implemented to a certain extent, mobility managers believe that employee self-service will play an even more crucial role in the next few years. Global mobility managers will experience a direct impact on their work practice and, consequently, new skillsets might be required. How this change might affect social skills in the global mobility department is a good question and an important subject for future research.

Benjamin Bader is an academic partner and strategic adviser to The RES Forum, and professor of strategic management and organization at the Leuphana University of Lüneburg, Germany