Global mobility and global talent management

Queen’s University Belfast’s Michael Isichei analyses the significance of global mobility for global talent management and how better integration between these functions, which often operate separately, can help multinational enterprises to better manage their talent.

Over the past decade, global talent management (GTM) has become a key theme in both research and practice in the field of international human resource management (IHRM). A key advantage for organisations that operate in multiple countries (i.e. multinational enterprises), relative to those that operate in a single country, is the ability to source talent beyond national borders. GTM is thought to play an important role in enabling multinational enterprises (MNEs) to achieve their strategic objectives.

GTM reflects an increased focus on the effective management of individuals with the highest levels of human capital who are central to the success of an MNE, both at home and abroad. It also reflects a shift away from a home country (or HQ) perspective towards a broader perspective which recognises the importance of managing talent across an MNE’s global network of subsidiaries.


A key challenge that GTM has faced is a lack of consistency and agreement on its conceptual boundaries. In practice GTM has been operationalised in a number of different ways. The most challenging of these perhaps is the simple rebranding of IHRM as GTM, whereby the discourse of GTM simply replaces IHRM with little impact on practice. The second operationalisation of GTM emphasises filling an organisation with ‘A players’ and managing so called ‘C players’ out of the organisation through processes such as forced performance distribution. A third approach sees GTM shift toward succession planning through the use of talent pools.

Professor Kamel Mellahi and Professor David Collings have provided what has become an increasingly influential definition of GTM. In defining GTM they suggest that it consists of three key elements. Namely: identifying the key positions that contribute to a sustainable competitive advantage on a global scale; developing globally-deployable talent pools to fill these roles; and developing a differentiated human resource architecture to facilitate filling these positions with the best available incumbent, whilst also ensuring the continued commitment of the incumbent to the organisation.

GTM and global mobility both play an important role in the realisation of an MNE’s strategic objectives. Global mobility refers to the temporary transfer of employees internationally within an MNE. These employees are often referred to as ‘international assignees’ or ‘corporate expatriates’. They are temporarily relocated by their organisations to another country for the purpose of completing specific tasks or accomplishing organisational goals.

Evidence from practice seems to confirm the importance of global mobility within MNEs. A global mobility survey conducted by Santa Fe Relocation in 2017 found that 96 per cent of business leaders believed that international assignments were critical to the career success of managers. Indeed, international assignments are considered to be an influential force in the development of managers. It is evident that there are inherent ties between the GTM and global mobility function. For instance, GTM strategies often involve the movement of talent across an MNE’s global network through the use of international assignments.

Supply and demand

The growing significance of several different types of international assignments over the last decade (e.g. short-term assignments, international business travel, and commuter and rotational assignments) has afforded MNEs greater flexibility in providing high-potential employees with the international experience necessary to move them into executive roles within the global enterprise. Integration between global mobility and GTM is necessary in order to effectively manage the supply and demand of globally mobile professionals within an MNE.

In recent times there have been calls for greater integration between both functions. A recent industry report published by Brookfield Global Relocation Services noted that ‘more than ever mobility must be ready to play a central and more ‘mindful’ role in a company’s global talent management strategy’. Despite the inherent ties and calls for greater integration between both functions, the integration between global mobility and GTM is relatively poorly developed. There is much evidence of this.

The 2015 RES Forum Annual Report on Strategic Global Mobility confirmed that global mobility professionals consider their roles to be more operations focused than people focused, with 79 per cent of respondents considered experts on due diligence compared to only 7 per cent enacting the role of global talent manager. Furthermore, the roles of strategic advisor (56 per cent) and expert on due diligence (42 per cent) were found to be valued more by top management compared to the roles of global talent manager (15 per cent) and global people effectiveness expert (9 per cent).

“Research confirms that assignees who have a clear line of sight between their international assignment and their career development are more likely to remain with their organisation.”

A report by KPMG in 2016 indicated that 67 per cent of MNEs do not align their global mobility program to their talent management initiatives. More recent industry data continues to confirm the poor integration between global mobility and GTM. A global mobility report, published this year by Santa Fe Relocation, found that while business leaders perceive that global mobility professionals are already engaged in talent management activities, these professionals indicate otherwise. Self-reported data from 654 global mobility professionals across 50 countries revealed that they continue to focus mainly on compliance, assignment compensation and payroll, administration and supply-chain management. The small degree of importance attributed by global mobility professionals and top management to the role of GTM within the global mobility function represents a significant challenge in improving the integration between global mobility and GTM.


Professor David Collings and I have argued that, considering GTM at key stages of an international assignment, can help to improve the level of integration between global mobility and GTM. Specifically, we consider GTM within the context of the pre-assignment (before), assignment (during), and post-assignment (after) stages of the International Assignment cycle.

Before the assignment, assignee selection is a key concern for MNEs. During this pre-assignment stage the employment of a global talent-pool strategy has the potential to link assignee selection to GTM by ensuring that all high-potential employees across an MNE’s global network are considered for international assignments as part of a career development process.

Within the context of GTM, the development of employees is a key objective of international assignments. During assignments the global mobility function plays an important role in the development of high-potential employees. The provision of adequate support (e.g. home and cost country mentors) can contribute to the integration of global mobility and GTM by ensuring that assignments yield the expected developmental outcomes for high-potential employees and their organisations.


Considering GTM after an international assignment may facilitate better management of the repatriation process and subsequently improve the level of integration between global mobility and GTM. Many assignees experience frustration during the post-assignment stage because of the failure of their organisation to link their international experience to their career development. Industry research shows that few MNEs guarantee positions for repatriated assignees (i.e. assignees returning from international assignments), have someone in place to help repatriates find suitable positions, or have a formal repatriation strategy linked to career management and retention in place. This might be because many MNEs view repatriation as an end-point in the international assignment cycle. However, viewing repatriation as an intermediate stage, which is connected to longer-term career and development issues, can help improve the level of integration between global mobility and GTM by ensuring that MNEs are intentional about the development of employees beyond international assignments.

Research confirms that assignees who have a clear line of sight between their international assignment and their career development are more likely to remain with their organisation. In addition, a greater focus on the development of employees beyond assignments is also likely to improve an MNE’s ability to ensure that key positions that differentially contribute to the organisation’s sustainable competitive advantage are filled by the most suitable employees.

Dr Michael Isichei is an Assistant Professor, Queen’s Management School, Queen’s University Belfast.

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