FELOs in Malaysia

Systematic cross-cultural management research on FELOs

FELO research conducted in Malaysia involved participation from two sample groups (46 FELOs from 13 countries and 25 local peers from various cultural backgrounds).  This provided two large data-sets, which, together with public domain information and supplementary data, were subjected to ‘between groups’ and ‘within group’ analysis. Dyadic data was used for triangulation purposes, while non-dyadic data, group-level, and ‘within group’ analyses assisted the development of typologies of FELOs and local organisations.

Findings have been reported in various presentations, an Academy of Management (AoM) paper (Arp, Hutchings, & Smith, 2011), a case study that illustrates two of four types of FELOs found during fieldwork (Arp, 2012), a typology of the organisations and individuals involved (Arp, 2013), and further articles in academic journals.

The investigation conducted in Malaysia illustrates the rarity of the FELO phenomenon. It also highlights significant differences to other concepts in the literature such as expatriation, inpatriation, transpatriation and repatriation. The term inpatriation, for example, is unsuitable for the specific FELO phenomenon, as that term was developed to describe the relocation of foreign employees / managers from a subsidiary to the parent country of an organisation. Hence, ‘inpatriation’ is a term used for workplace reassignment within a multinational organisation’s existing headquarter/subsidiary structure (see e.g. Michael Harvey’s work).

FELO research conducted in Malaysia carefully distinguishes between individual, organisational, country and global levels of analysis. This permits country-specific influences to be identified and elucidated. For example, influences stemming from Malaysia’s multi-ethnic and multicultural society can be distinguished more clearly from the influence of ‘brain drain’ that also affects some other countries.

Malaysia – a fascinating microcosmic laboratory for research

Malaysia’s very large ‘minority’ groups — technically, even the Chinese who constitute about a quarter of the population are a ‘minority’ — distinguish it from most other countries where minorities represent only a few percentage points. This distinction makes Malaysia an interesting setting in which to study cross-cultural management issues on an individual-, organisational-, and country-level (Fontaine & Richardson, 2003). Westwood and Everett (1995) opine that Malaysia “provides a fascinating microcosmic laboratory . . . [for] . . . a discussion of heterogeneous cultural value systems”. Malaysia’s population composition provides a heterogeneity of perspectives that was suitable for research on FELOs.

Four levels of analysis

Due to the novelty of the FELO phenomenon, no explanatory models or conceptual frameworks existed. Consequently, there was a need to review the literature from a broad range of academic fields that are related to the topic, and to consider the approach taken in FELO research in respect to levels of investigation and analysis.

The international human resource management (IHRM) literature provides guidance on how research on international workplace affiliations should be conducted. For instance, based on the Schuler, Dowling, and De Cieri (1993) integrative framework for IHRM, Jackson and Schuler (1995), as well as Schuler, Budhwar and Florkowski (2002) emphasise that management scholars should study international workplace affiliations in the context of changing economic and business conditions which reflect the dynamics of both international/global and local/regional contexts. Schuler et al. (2002) argue that research in contextual isolation is misleading, and fails to advance understanding in any significant way. IHRM research should be undertaken within the context of changing global economic, social, cultural and business conditions, as these have an impact on all workplace affiliations worldwide. Second, the country should be taken into account, as its legal and regulatory system, its politics, socio-economics, and culture have an impact on all workplace affiliations in that country. Schuler et al. (2002) further delineate as levels of investigation the organisation, its strategy and organisational culture, and the characteristics of individuals it employs.

Taking local perspectives seriously

The insights gained from FELO research in Malaysia could not have been obtained without the participation of two groups of interviewees (FELOs and LOCALs) and ‘between as well as within group’ analysis. As emphasised by Gelfand, Erez, and Aycan (2007: 479) “taking indigenous perspectives seriously [i.e. those of local individuals and local organisations], and moving beyond intracultural comparisons to understand the dynamics of cross-cultural interfaces”  has been instrumental for this study.

Giving local colleagues and peers a voice (those having hired FELOs as well as those subordinate to them; those who are closely involved with FELOs as well as those whose perceptions are somewhat more distanced) has been invaluable, as it permitted ‘within group’ analysis and a complete picture of this intriguing cross-cultural workplace phenomenon.