Blog: A flight of fancy

Life @ Work

A flight of fancy

Can the desire to migrate internationally be turned into an organizational advantage?
A flight of fancy

One of the most pressing issues in business leadership is of determining whether or not an organization has the right portfolio of skills to successfully face the future with. Although there are plenty of enquires that rightly gravitate around new media literacy and cross-cultural competencies, I will focus on the largely understated role of demographics, a slow but sure driver of change that may challenge the capacity of businesses to attract talent or retain the good talent they already have. 

The social tension stemming from the proximity of a rich and aging Europe to a poor and young Africa has materialized in the droves of migrants from Africa attempting to settle in Europe. Something similar can be said for the Mexican and Central Americans migrating into the United States, and about the rural migrants to urban India. Whether in Europe or the United States, the upsurge in migration has resulted in xenophobia and nativism in host countries. I mention the issue of migration because it has a significant impact in the ability of relatively young countries to retain or to accept the most resilient ones. 

Higher salaries add to costs without quenching human desires because these are impervious to calculus

But what can the business theories tell us about how to manage this situation? Over half a century ago, Edith Penrose spelled out the limits to how fast a corporation could grow. From managerial activities and decisions, organizational routines, to knowledge creation within organizations, all these are critical to the ability of a firm to grow. But what makes a corporation truly different from others is its organizational culture. And preserving a corporation’s culture requires training new entrants, which calls for allocating a share of the staff to training and diverting it from production. The move effectively limits the rate of growth of corporations wanting to retain its culture besides growing. 

The case is similar with countries too. Large cohorts of migrants are attractive to the host countries because they arrive in their productive age, yet they are relatively old to socialize with the host culture. Thus, to preserve the culture at a low cost, the host country takes the hands but not the minds of the migrants. Consequently, the new entrants tend to group together in contemporary ghettos, which frequently become the locus of social unrest. 

News networks have made us all well aware of the risks associated with migration and of the social and individual costs of exclusion in the host countries. But that is not convincing enough for the most restless, who are most driven by desire, to stay at home. And as desires cannot be suffocated, I will now focus on how to turn this ‘desire to migrate internationally’ as an advantage for organizations.

For corporations in countries with younger people, like in India, the big challenge is in retaining the restless — the ones who are the most creative and the most audacious, the ones who the corporation cannot afford to lose and who are the most prone to leaving for abroad or to the local competition.  The conventional argument focuses on pay differentials and recommends paying more to those most prone to leave. However, I am afraid that it is not enough because higher salaries add to costs without quenching desires because these are impervious to calculus. Desires express imaginations with uncertain outcomes which people invest hope in; and because corporations operate mostly in the realms of rationality, they are poor at tackling desires and its mirror image, anxiety.  

Because desire is only partly logical and oriented toward goals that might not materialize, desire also generates anxiety. Both, desire for something else and anxiety for not achieving it are disengaging. Either way, because the candidate cedes the desire to work abroad or stays behind disengaged, the corporation loses productivity among the share it cannot afford to lose, abroad or to the domestic competition, the worst of the two evils. 

In addition to searching and attracting young people for modern skills, a corporation should be structuring partnerships with organizations abroad willing to take in their desirous young for internships or job rotations. The prospect of short deployments abroad would not only turn careers at the corporation more attractive but could also help instill realism into the fantasy of desire, downplaying the attractiveness of permanent migration and even helping to bring back the person with new knowledge besides an enhanced willingness to stay. It is worth trying something creative to make the best use of would-be migrants, because the pull to leave may be too hard to live with, and it will not go away on its own. 


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