Managing Change In Organizations Assignment Abroad

The purpose of this article is to examine how organizational culture influences the likelihood of success for change strategies, and to provide tools for the reader to apply within his or her organization. Evidence suggests that organization members are more inclined to embrace change when the organization’s culture is aligned with the mission and goals of the company.[3] Although senior management may espouse a set of values that they assume defines the organizational culture, the reality is that the way members perceive what is rewardedand what they believe to be the underlying messagewill constitute the “real,” in-use culture of how things are accomplished.[4] Therefore, we suggest that a cultural analysis be undertaken to facilitate the planning and implementation of organizational change.

Understanding culture can be useful in two ways. First, cultural insight provides awareness of the extent to which organization members are willing to accept change; and second, a cultural assessment is likely to determine the root cause of the problems that impede stronger performance.[5]

Measurement of Organizational Culture

By investigating two disparate organizationsa family-owned business and a global manufacturing companythis article describes ways that management can utilize cultural assessments to increase the likelihood of success in managing change. The Goodwin Company, an organization specializing in contract packaging of household and automotive cleaning products, and Patagonia, a global brand supplying high-quality outdoor clothing and equipment, provide examples of this phenomenon. In both cases, the instrument used to assess culture was the Integrated Cultural Framework (ICF), which was adapted by the authors from the work of Hofstede[6] and Kluckhohn and Strodtbeck.[7] The ICF has been used to analyze culture across a number of companies and industries and stands up to reliability and validity testing.[8] The dimensions of measurement include:

  • Ability to Influence: The extent to which organization members have an opportunity to influence decision making.
  • Comfort with Ambiguity: The extent to which members are comfortable with uncertainty and risk taking.
  • Achievement Orientation: The extent to which members are assertive, goal-directed, and achievement-oriented.
  • Individualism versus Collectivism: The extent to which individual versus group loyalty exists.
  • Egalitarianism: The extent to which equal opportunity exists for advancement.
  • Time Orientation: The extent to which the organizational goal/mission is focused on values from the past, present, or future.
  • Space Orientation: The extent to which the physical layout of the organization is public, private, or a mix of both.

The 35-item ICF survey was initially used to collect responses from organization members. Following the collection of survey data, an extensive number of interviews were carried out to provide more substantive information concerning organizational culture.

Goodwin Company

For several years, Goodwin Company, founded in 1922 by Thomas A. Goodwin, manufactured and sold its own line of household cleaning products. However, due to the competitiveness of the retail market, its focus shifted to contract packaging and distribution in the household, industrial, and automotive cleaning markets. Only the original product, Goodwin’s Ammonia, maintains the Goodwin label. Still a family enterprise, Goodwin Company currently has approximately 300 employees and manufacturing and distribution facilities in Los Angeles, California, and Atlanta, Georgia.

In response to concerns about increased labor costs and stagnant revenues, an organizational culture study was launched to determine the appropriate change strategy. Forty-three members of the organization, including managerial and clerical staff, completed the ICF survey and 13 one-on-one interviews were conducted.

The results revealed the following key findings:

  • Ability to Influence: The data indicated that the ability of employees to propose and implement change in the company was low. The interviews suggested that marginal regard for input had caused the staff to become discouraged and had reduced motivation for process improvements.
  • Individualism/Collectivism: Although Goodwin Company espoused teamwork as a core value, feedback from the management teams in California and Georgia indicated a low level of trust among management, which resulted in a lack of collaboration among the managers.
  • Time Orientation: The data showed that employees viewed the company as focused on the past and present while lacking a strategic plan for the future.

Proposed Structural Changes

Given the results of the study, three recommendations were presented to the management team:

  1. Establish a strategic management group that meets weekly to address business challenges, coordinate travel between facilities, and find common ground to build trust.
  2. Give employees, customers, and suppliers a voice and increase their ability to influence policy and procedures. Initiate an electronic comment box for employees, and implement surveys on customer service and supplier satisfaction.
  3. Establish a company vision and mission statement to encourage a sense of ownership, and incorporate management teams from Atlanta and Los Angeles to spearhead this effort. Relocate artifacts, such as company photos from the early years and bottles from the product lines of the 1930s and 1940s, to both facilities in order to acknowledge the company’s history and longevity and encourage teamwork between members of the two offices.


The establishment of the strategic management team proved to be very beneficial. By having the management team travel between facilities, the group developed a better understanding of the challenges at both locations, and they began to build a baseline of trust. The resulting collaborative effort of the team yielded two new contracts. In addition, Goodwin Company was certified by a major chemical manufacturer as a top facility in the nation, which resulted in requests for manufacturing proposals that would not have been possible without improvements in cooperation among regional managers.


Goodwin Company was able to correlate changes that emerged in response to the organizational culture study; however, not all of the recommendations produced the desired results. For example, the customer service surveys did not yield the expected outcomes due to a lack of customer response. Additional customer contact will likely be necessary for future surveys to be effective. And although the recommendation to create a vision, mission, and values statement was originally well received, the management team eventually backed off the project, deciding that the company vision should come from its CEO.


Patagonia’s corporate headquarters are located in southern California and the company has overseas offices in Japan and France. Revenues in 2007 totaled $275 million and the firm currently has 1,300 employees worldwide, with 382 located in the corporate office. In 1966, founder Yvon Chouinard was dissatisfied with the conventional equipment used in adventure climbing and so he redesigned and manufactured almost every climbing tool to make each stronger, simpler, more functional, and environmentally friendly. From that operational base, Chouinard Equipment, which later became Patagonia, expanded to include outdoor and casual clothing and a line of underwear. The unique mission and focus of the organization was to make the best products, cause no unnecessary harm, and rely on the business model to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis. Chouinard’s management principles were captured in a self-published book, Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman.[9]

Although the essence of Patagonia’s initial philosophy has survived, increased growth and operational complexity have created challenges for the organization in its quest to remain committed to the mission. To better understand the underlying issues and develop a strategic direction, an organizational culture study was initiated. Using the ICF, 27 surveys were completed at the corporate office along with 15 one-on-one interviews with 4 senior managers and 11 mid-level managers from 8 departments.

Key Findings

  • Ability to influence: The data showed that organization members felt they had a moderately high degree of opportunity to influence, but the inclusion of their input also led to a prolonged decision-making process.
  • Comfort with ambiguity: Although the climate seemed to foster innovation and encourage risk taking, the lack of a systematic feedback process minimized the flow of ideas. In addition, the dilemma of attending to what appear to be dichotomous goalsattaining a profitable return while maintaining a commitment to environmentally safe productscreated a challenge.
  • Individualism/Collectivism: Patagonia attempted to build community by establishing an on-site childcare center, comprehensive health insurance, and a family setting. However, the company employs a large number of unique and creative independent-minded people, and in supporting innovation, it created a sense of individualism, as well as a limited incentive for teamwork.

Although Patagonia has been successful, the study indicated that to remain competitive, the organization needed to address the duality of encouraging individual creativity and promoting a collaborative work environment, particularly as this duality related to the corporate mission. In addition, it appeared that information flow and decision-making efficiency needed to be addressed.


The organizational culture study was presented to the Board of Directors, who recognized the need to enhance productivity by reinforcing the organization’s mission and emphasizing the importance of a collaborative environment. The following structural changes emerged:

  1. The human resources director was appointed to the senior management steering team to assist in the development of a strategic training initiative. Training courses were developed to provide skills directed toward facilitating performance management feedback, improving communication skills, and enhancing negotiation capability in dealing with suppliers.
  2. A new employee training manual was created to better educate new hires regarding the organizational structure and the flow of product lines from development to sales. The purpose was to build teamwork and collaboration and to emphasize the company’s core values related to quality, integrity, environmentalism, and the desire to not be bound by convention. In addition, Yvon Chouinard’s book[10] was presented to each hire with the hope of inculcating new members to the principles associated with the organization’s mission.
  3. All employees are now encouraged to participate in the Patagonia National Park protection program in Chile and Argentina to reinforce the importance of the mission statement and its meaning in their work. Employees receive a salary and all related expenses are paid by the organization during the three-week program.
  4. The selection process for hiring new members was reviewed with a focus on measuring candidates’ knowledge and skills, particularly their ability to work in a team.


Shifting a culture that has to some extent moved away from the values established by its founder is always a challenge. A number of Patagonia’s high performers have been successful because of their innovative talents. However, unless these individuals are also able to recognize the importance of collaboration, in the long term, the organization may not be able to respond in a timely manner to competitive pressure.

Lessons Learned

The article examined two distinct organizations, a family-owned operation and a global manufacturer, which utilized a cultural framework to determine underlying organizational issues. In both cases, the plans of action were system-wide and strategic. Although each company experienced favorable outcomes, considerable follow-up strategies must still be implemented before significant change is realized.

Cameron and Quinn[11] claim that organizational improvements are unlikely without culture change as an initial step in the process. But culture change is illusive, requires lengthy interventions, and, for many organizations, is either too costly or too time-consuming, making successful transformation problematic. This study offers another perspective. Although culture change is necessary in creating and reinforcing organizational transformation, our position is that making necessary structural changes may serve as the initial intervention for shifting culture. At Patagonia, changes in how new members are socialized may bring about a commitment to organizational values and encourage a team-oriented mindset. The impact of these initiatives is likely to result in norms that reflect organizational objectives. Goodwin Company’s focus on enhancing collaboration, particularly among the management team, may result in continued dialogue between members, which will hopefully become embedded in their working relationships. In conclusion, the creation of structural initiatives that incentivize the desired ways of accomplishing goals may be more effective in responding to inefficiencies than a commitment to changing culture, which, over time, may naturally occur as shifts in behavior emerge.

[1] John Kotter, The Heart of Change: Real Life Stories of How People Change Their Organizations, (Harvard Business School Press, 2002).

[2] Janet Parish, Susan Cadwallader, and Paul Busch, “Want to, Need to, Ought to: Employee Commitment to Organizational Change,” Journal of Organizational Change Management, 21, no. 1 (2008).

[3] Edgar Schein, The Corporate Culture Survival Guide, (California: Jossey-Bass, 1999); Sally Riad, “Of Mergers and Cultures: What Happened to Shared Values and Joint Assumptions,” Journal of Organizational Change Management, 20, no. 1 (2007).

[4] Chris Argyris, “Teaching Smart People How to Learn,” Harvard Business Review, 14 (1991).

[5] Celeste Wilderom, Ursula Glunk, and Ralf Maslowski, “Organizational Culture as a Predictor of Organizational Performance,” in the Handbook of Organizational Culture and Climate, Eds. Neal Ashkanasy, Celeste Wilderom, and Mark Peterson, (California: Sage Publications, 2000).

[6] Geret Hofstede, Culture’s Consequences: International Differences in Work-Related Values, (London: Sage Publications, 2001).

[7] F. Kluchhohn and F.Strodtbeck, Variations in Value Orientation, (Illinois: Row, Peterson, 1961).

[8] Mark Mallinger and Gerard Rossy, “Film as a Lens for Studying Culture and its Implications for Management,” lecture, presented at the Western Academy of Management, (Redondo Beach, CA: 1999); Mark Mallinger and Gerard Rossy, “The Trader Joe’s Experience: The Impact of Corporate Culture on Business Strategy,” Graziadio Business Report, 10, no. 2 (2007); Mark Mallinger and Lindsley Boiney, “An Interdisciplinary Approach to Teaching Organizational Culture,” presented at the Western Academy of Management, (2002).

[9] Yvon Chouinard, Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman, (Penguin Press HC, 2005).

[10] Ibid.

[11] Kim Cameron and Robert Quinn, Diagnosing and Changing Organizational Culture: Based on the Competing Values Framework, (California: Jossey-Bass, 2006).

Authors of the article

Mark Mallinger, PhD, is a professor of applied behavioral science at the Graziadio School of Business and Management’s at Pepperdine University. He teaches in the full-time, fully-employed, and executive programs. Dr. Mallinger is a management development consultant and has published works in a number of academic and practitioner journals.

Don Goodwin, MBA, obtained his BS in Business Administration from Pepperdine University’s Seaver College and his MBA from Pepperdine’s Graziadio School of Business and Management. Don is a fifth-generation family member in the Goodwin Company, his family’s contract packaging and distribution company, which began operating in 1922. Hired originally as the Director of Purchasing, his focus has changed to encompass overall responsibility for the operations of the company, specifically software integration and modernization. He is currently focused on the day-to-day operations of all departments and on helping to develop the strategic direction for the company’s future.

Tetsuya O’Hara, MBA, attended Doshisha University in Kyoto, Japan, where he received a bachelor’s degree in economics in 1985. He was then employed at Teijin Limited, a multinational chemical company in Osaka, Japan, where he was in charge of sailcloth from 1985 until 1995, and contributed to America’s Cup as an official sailcloth supplier. In 1992, he won the Most Valuable Employee Award at Teijin. In 1996, he moved his family to Connecticut to work for Dimension Polyant Sailcloth, Inc. As Executive Manager, he developed new materials, including polyester-laminated fabric for NASA’s environmental research balloon. In 2003, he moved his family to California to join Patagonia, Inc., as Director of Material Development and Advanced Concepts. There he manages the raw material sourcing, development, new business concepts, and new technologies for the product lines, along with finding materials that are the most environmentally friendly. He received his MBA from Pepperdine’s Graziadio School of Business and Management in 2008. The United States Patent Office approved his scientific inventions and granted him patents in January 2000 and July 2008.

Is an international assignment worth the risk and cost to an organisation? According to a recent Harvard Business Review, study organisations can anticipate costs to be about three to five times the expatriate’s annual salary. As global mobility teams are under pressure than ever to reduce costs, they need to ask themselves, how can they ensure a successful assignment?

What prevents a successful assignment?

Moving is already a stressful time of life for most people. Moving abroad only enhances this stress. It also raises the chances of personal or professional failure if it is not managed well.

The personal, professional and cultural challenges make an international assignment a potential risk for the individual, their family and the organisation – it is also, of course, a huge opportunity.

There are plenty of areas that can reduce the chance of a successful assignment:

  • The local office may resent the imposition of an outsider into a senior role, with the implication that they are not good enough.
  • The success criteria of the assignment may not be clear to the assignee or the host and sending organisation
  • The assignee may feel isolated, and that they are missing out on opportunities at head office

The personal, professional and cultural challenges make an international assignment a potential risk

Most organisations recognise that they need to offer a robust relocation package as an attractive, practical part of their assignees’ relocation. Ideally, this includes much more than assistance with the logistics of moving.

Most organisations will provide:

  • Tax and financial advice
  • Immigration support
  • Home and school search

Many also provide support to the family. For example, providing support for a partner, ranging from family wellbeing matters to assistance in executive search for their own career. These additional services can make a huge difference in the expatriate’s chance of success.

Similarly, providing cultural training benefits the assignee in both their work and everyday life, and benefits their family as well. Without these basics, international assignments have a much higher chance of failure.

But this is not enough to maximise the chances of a successful assignment.

Managing The Assignee And The Assignment

A successful assignment is much more than simply performing a job well in a new environment. Most assignees get to grips with the tasks required in their new position quickly enough. Organisations often look at the bottom line in assessing the employee’s performance.

But this is not the whole picture. Learning how to adapt to their new environment also means learning how different cultures do things differently.

For those assignees who do this well, a new level of knowledge is gained that enhances the assignee’s skills and knowledge. Smart employers recognise that these new skills and knowledge enhances their organisation as well.

Most organisations fail to maximise the assignee’s new value. Here is what they can do to maximise the return on investment in a successful assignment.

5 Keys to Managing Assignees Successfully

1. Have a business plan

Of course, there needs to be a business case for the assignment to begin with. Is there a gap in the market? Is the assignee the best person to fill this gap? How will the market work with the new assignee? How can the market and the organisation both benefit from the assignee’s placement during and after the assignment?

Considering these questions lays the foundation for an assignment that adds value to the organisation.

2. Choose the right person

Professional and technical skills should not be the only criteria for consideration. Assignees with the best chance of being successful abroad are open- minded and able to adapt to a new environment and culture.

Choosing the right person includes recognising these abilities and not simply their effectiveness in getting things done. Being curious about their new assignment should extend to curiosity about how and why things may be different in their new location.

Assignees with the best chance of being successful abroad are open- minded and able to adapt

Learning how to incorporate this new knowledge into their skillset means gain for the assignee and their organisation.

3. Select assignee sponsors both home and abroad

Organisations wanting to manage assignees successfully may wish to establish a sponsorship or mentoring system, where someone is working with the assignee in two locations: the assignment destination and back home.

Organisations wanting to manage assignees successfully may wish to establish a sponsorship or mentoring system

This system does wonders for keeping both the employee and the organisation informed of key events and activities undertaken by the assignee. It also keeps the assignee current about what is happening back home and helps the host office understand the wider objectives for the assignment.

4. Set up formal channels to keep in touch

Structured communication is key. Sponsors on both ends of the assignment and the assignee should consider communicating openly and often. Scheduling calls to discuss key targets, progress and challenges of the assignment are a step that many organisations fail to do, especially if they are operating in crisis mode or are only focusing on task-related deliverables.

Scheduling calls to discuss key targets, progress and challenges of the assignment are a step that many organisations fail to do

Setting up a strong channel of communication allows the assignee to adjust to most situations. It also provides the organisation with an opportunity to assess what is going well and what could be improved upon whilst there is still a chance to change things for the better.

5. Plan for the assignee’s repatriation or next assignment

Many well-planned international assignments are successful while the assignee is abroad. However, expatriate assignments eventually end. Assignees either accept the next assignment or they return home.

Either way, many organisations fail to get the maximum benefit from the assignment. Many organisations do not recognise the valuable information and experience of a freshly returned assignee.

The return home is also a source of frustration for the assignee. They may feel that:

  • their experience is not valued
  • their role may have less independence
  • they have missed opportunities to progress in their careers

The biggest frustration is that they feel as if they no longer fit into an organisation that they do not recognise – either because they have changed or the organisation has changed.

Many organisations do not recognise the valuable information and experience of a freshly returned assignee.

Many assignees come home to find that they do not have a clearly defined role – as if a job was created for them as an afterthought.

Ensuring that an assignment is a success means that organisations must not only leverage the assignee’s experience but must also find a meaningful way for the assignee to continue to be motivated within the organisation, building on their new skills and experience. Otherwise, it’s almost certain that the assignee will quickly find another organisation that does value their skills and experience.

To the uninitiated, an assignment is as simple as getting a visa and a plane ticket. However, to ensure that it is a successful assignment, organisations must carefully:

  • define the success criteria
  • select the correct person
  • engage host and sending offices
  • keep communication lines open
  • plan the repatriation

Adding Value to the Assignment

Global mobility teams are often considered a cost centre, adding little value, beyond their administrative skills. And this is certainly true for those who limit themselves to providing the logistical support to an assignment.

However, a successful assignment that contributes to the long-term performance of the organisation is managed by a strategic global mobility team that is actively involved from the identification of the need to utilising the talent development on return. A strategic global mobility team can maximise the return on investment that comes from a successful assignment.

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