The lure of access to new and profitable high-growth markets has, for decades, encouraged companies from the developed world (and increasingly, from emerging economies as well) to expand outside their home countries. Such overseas ventures are initially led by expatriate leaders from parent companies. But over time, local executive talent is successfully developed, with many of these executives eventually selected for roles in the parent company or to lead businesses in third countries. This trend has created an eclectic and globally mobile managerial talent pool that is multi-cultural in character.
Coinciding with the rapid emergence of Technology as a business driver and indeed, as a business sector in itself, another trend has visibly gained momentum in this millennium. Technology companies needing top-notch talent in STEM disciplines (Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics)- and other companies needing IT services and solutions- have relied increasingly on cross-border talent. Countries have even created visa regimes to facilitate cross-border mobility of talent.
But in the last couple of years, a wave of ultra-nationalism has surfaced across the world ostensibly on the back of stagnant economic growth, job losses and rising domestic unemployment. The influx of legal and illegal immigrants into EU, UK, North America, Australia etc. appears to have further fuelled this extreme right-wing thinking. This clamour seems to have resonated with the masses, in turn leading to outcomes such as BREXIT, the mainstreaming of political leaders with strong anti-immigration views (e.g. in Germany, France etc.) and the ongoing demand for an independent Catalan state separate from Spain. Even President Trump’s victory has been frequently attributed to his campaign promises to “make America great again”, in part by cutting down on H-1B visas that brought in foreign IT workers and denying tax breaks to companies that move operations overseas.
There is nothing wrong if countries put their citizens first; indeed, governments are obligated to do so. However, political leaders must keep in mind that advanced countries in particular are facing a demographic challenge with fewer people in the productive working age. In a world which is being shaped by technology-led innovation and disruption at a pace that has never been seen before, it may simply become impossible to get enough qualified people from within the country to fill certain categories of jobs. Especially for organizations that need expertise in cutting-edge areas such as AI, IoT, 3D printing, Composites and Advanced Material Science, Analytics, Digital Transformation, the Nanotechnologies etc. Also, innovation finds ways to evolve and diffuse globally- so if the core technology is developed in one country, its application to solving a certain problem may emerge from another corner of the world. The business mode to bring this innovation to the market may be the brainchild of a venture in yet another country. This is why global collaboration is vital.
In an era where companies are increasingly setting up globally distributed R&D centres, product development teams and captive IT units, collaborative innovation is critical to their sustained success. People must be able to transcend barriers imposed by cultural or linguistic differences to work together as a team focused on achieving the assigned goals. This ability is best developed when individuals work in other countries to gain “immersive experiences”.
If the current trend of countries wanting to make it harder, costlier and more time-consuming for companies to freely hire talent across national borders continues, it is fair to say that innovation will suffer in terms of quality, pace or even both. And in turn, this may well allow countries which have been at the forefront of innovation for decades to be leapfrogged by others.
Large, globally-recognized companies like Google and Microsoft are today headed by foreign-born leaders who were selected for their technical prowess and business acumen. PepsiCo’s leader was also born and raised on foreign shores. Fortune 500 companies across industry sectors- automobiles, pharmaceuticals, banking & financial services, consumer goods etc. have overseas talent leading and managing critical businesses or functions. Similarly, American and European executives are leading global businesses that originate from Japan, China or India. Their selection to these roles surely reflects their track record and the confidence that they can steer the organization in the days ahead. It is access to this experienced global talent pool that risks being sacrificed at the altar of ultra-nationalism and protectionist policies.
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