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From Administrator to Strategic Advisor: The Changing Face of Global Mobility in Asia


Over the last 20 years, the world economy has undergone a rapid process of globalisation. Today, an increasing number of organisations are expanding operations outside their home territory to access new markets and reduce labour or production costs. Asia, with its fast-developing emerging markets, is a highly attractive target.


Despite the fact that Asia has an extremely large workforce, there are not enough qualified workers to accommodate the influx of foreign investment. Those available often lack the necessary skills to compete on a global stage. Consequently, a fierce war for talent has emerged — driving the cost of head count up and increasing the need for international assignees with global experience.

However, depending on the destination, the cost of global assignments can be high and the process complicated. As a result, the world’s leading multinational corporations (MNCs) often establish global mobility functions with the intention of reducing the cost of relocating employees around the world, improving the assignee experience and achieving business objectives. While these teams are common in companies headquartered in the U.S. or Europe, they are less prevalent in Asia.

The regional head of global mobility at a leading HR consulting firm explains, “Mobility remains a relatively new concept in Asia, and companies here are less likely to have a global mobility function. Organisations based in more mature regions, such as the U.S. and Europe, tend to have been managing international assignments for some time and therefore have more experience. In Asia, the human resources teams still typically manage the process. That said, we are starting to see an increasing number of dedicated functions in the regional hubs such as Singapore and Hong Kong. While this is a step in the right direction, these departments often face the same challenge as their counterparts in the U.S. and Europe: a lack of understanding regarding their role.”

The Changing Face of Mobility

In well-established companies with a dedicated function, the global mobility team provides two critical services:

  • Assisting in the development of the company’s strategic workforce approach
  • Facilitating the relocation of critical talent around the world while maintaining legal and regulatory compliance

However, regardless of geography, internal perceptions of the global mobility function vary widely.

According to one group director of mobility with a leading global resources and energy group, “We are just setting up our mobility function, and as a result there is not a full understanding of what we do, but there is definitely an appreciation for the function. Given we are so new, our aim is to demonstrate basic capability and competence. We can then trade on the reputation we earn, and elevate ourselves as a strategic advisor, at which point the business will better understand what we can do.”

He is not alone in this experience. In many organisations in Asia, the in-house mobility team is viewed as a support function, heavily focused on administration issues, instead of a strategic partner to the business. Consequently, there is a significant disconnect between their service capabilities and the internal perception.

An HR consulting firm’s regional mobility head explains, “In the past, global mobility teams acted as more of a support function, usually working reactively on one-off assignments. The business would say, ‘We are sending someone to open an office in China. You need to help us get them there.’ This approach doesn’t demonstrate the true value the team can add.”

In addition to misperceptions of value, there is a lack of clarification on the role each mobility team plays in the relocation process.

The regional business leader of one global MNC explains, “While I understand the rationale for a global mobility function and see the value they can contribute, the reality is unless the roles, protocols and processes are clearly defined and communicated, they will never be an effective partner to the business.” She continues, “I’ve tried to move employees around the region several times, however, I have yet to do this successfully. My role is to engage HR, who in turn engages the mobility team. They should work together to develop an offer, however, this takes an extraordinarily long time and is a cumbersome process. I typically end up doing a majority of the research. To this day, I am still unclear on who is accountable for what roles in this process.”

The Shift is Beginning

In the more progressive organisations in Asia, a shift is beginning. Within these companies, global mobility is more focused on strategic planning and coordination, partnering with the line function and HR. Many organisations are now recognising the need to link mobility with talent management and be strategic in policy design and implementation.

One of the world’s leading oil field services companies provides an example of an organisation with a robust mobility function. Split into three key areas, the company has separate teams for operations, policy and service delivery. The global mobility operations director explains, “We have very strong relationships with HR and the entire business in terms of communication and planning; we are trying to be more strategic in our approach. We also work closely with the business on critical moves. If we know there is a move somewhere, we ensure the right policies and processes are in place to make it happen.”

He continues, “HR keeps us informed of upcoming moves, particularly the more senior roles, and ultimately takes the offer to the employee on behalf of the organisation.”

He explains that they do encounter obstacles. “The system runs smoothly when we are working with internal clients familiar with our role. However, those new to the organisation do not fully understand the service we provide. It’s all about communication.”

Measuring Mobility Success

Despite the confusion, some mobility teams do have specific key performance indicators (KPIs) in their scorecard. Where the mobility function is highly developed and strategic, KPIs tend to be centered on cost saving and revenue generation. Conversely, where mobility is seen as an administrative function, KPIs focus on softer measures.

According to the oil field services company’s global mobility operations director, “We have significant targets for cost saving. I’ve been working on a project that could potentially deliver massive savings of over US$ 40 million, simply by streamlining our packages, properly assessing the talent we move and better managing the relocation process.”

A resources and energy company’s group director of mobility explains his experience, “Because we are so decentralised, the cost element cannot be measured right now, but we do intend to significantly improve the employee experience. We also want to shorten the time between the assessment phase and the actual move to increase efficiency and effectiveness. In our case, currently the return-on-investment is less about the quantum and more about simple answers to simple questions, but we do want to report on cost at some point.”

In many companies the success of a move lies in soft metrics, including the number of transfers completed, how smoothly the move went, the experience of the assignee and whether the company will be able to retain them upon their return.

The Mobility Function of the Future

The good news is many companies in Asia are developing a stronger understanding of how the mobility function can impact the bottom line and drive organisational growth.

The resources and energy company’s group mobility director states, “We are a relatively new department so in many ways we are starting with a clean slate. Our long-term goal is to be an advisor to the business, capable of helping them make decisions about who to move, what terms, workforce management, etc. We will get there, but it will take time.”

Regardless of the maturity of the global mobility function today, it will be elevated to a more strategic role in years to come. At this level, mobility professionals will be expected to advise on everything from strategic workforce planning to talent management, organisational design, attraction and retention. In order to achieve this, it is essential that global mobility functions focus less on the administrative tasks and explore ways to demonstrate the true value they can provide.

Steps mobility teams can implement to improve effectiveness and raise awareness of their organisational value:

  1. Evaluate existing processes and protocols:
    Ensure policies are clear, concise and workable, and redevelop policies where necessary. Engineer communication and internal hand-offs to be as efficient as possible, with accountabilities clearly defined at every stage of the assignment process.
  2. Be involved during the early stages of candidate assessment:
    Selecting the right people for assignment is critical, and possessing the right skills for the job in the host location is not the only criterion. Work closely with line management to highlight other important considerations such as immigration formalities, family circumstance, propensity to relocate, overseas experience, education options in the host location, etc.
  3. Deliver expertise in specific areas of compliance such as taxation or immigration:
    Improved compliance in these areas can create significant savings. Consider providing this expertise through in-house specialists, developing shared services centres or outsourcing.
  4. Improve internal communication:
    Internal communication is critical to the perception of the mobility function. Clearly define roles and communicate how the function works, its objectives, success stories and delivered savings to the company’s bottom line.
  5. Host regular forums with assignees and the business:
    Hosting forums raises the mobility program’s visibility within the company and ensures that the team stays in touch with everyday challenges and opportunities for improvement.
  6. Hire the right people with the right skills for global mobility:
    Hire those capable of delivering strategic solutions to the company. Some companies are looking for specific HR-related experience, such as compensation and benefits, talent management and organisational development. Others prioritise strong local knowledge and communication skills. The oil field services company’s global mobility operations director believes more soft skills will be required. “For me it’s about behaviour and character. We will look for people who are responsive, professional and can communicate. Stakeholder management is absolutely key. I need my people to have a deep understanding of their
    local region.”

Conclusion

Companies vary significantly in the maturity of their mobility management and the role of the mobility function. However, when smart mobility teams implement ways to eliminate their administrative workload and focus on talent management strategy, they can significantly impact an organisation’s growth and profitability. And when they learn to effectively measure and communicate their success, the true value of their contribution will be seen throughout the organisation.

Only then can the role of mobility fully transition from administration to strategy, and its team members from administrators to strategic advisors.