Creating and Navigating Transnational Social Spaces within Multinationals Boundary-Spanning Work and Its Regulation By Global Mobility Policies

Saturday, 4 July 2015: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
TW2.3.01 (Tower Two)
Ursula Mense-Petermann, Bielefeld University, Bielefeld, Germany
Ursula Mense-Petermann

Creating and Navigating Transnational Social Spaces within Multinationals – Boundary-spanning Work and its Regulation by Global Mobility Policies

Abstract for Mini-Conference

“Multinational Firms: Labor, Mangement, and Society”

SASE 2015, London School of Economics

This paper investigates the impact of a specific section of MNC employment systems, namely the global mobility policies regulating the transnational mobility of skilled professionals within MNCs, on structures of inequality and resulting effects on the transnational integration of MNCs. It thus addresses the overall questions of this mini conference and in particular the question of “how multinationals construct international systems for the management of their workforces, taking account of the varied dynamics of integration and differentiation” (theme 1), by concentrating on the so-called expatriates, i.e. highly skilled, transnationally mobile employees who act as boundary spanners in MNCs, and on the mobility regime that governs their international placements.

In the transnationalization of MNCs, expatriates play an important part in implementing global programmes, distributing best practices, and aligning the organizational cultures of the headquarters and globally dispersed subsidiaries (Black et al. 1992). The expatriate has thus emerged as a boundary spanner (Ancona & Caldwell 1992; Au & Fukuda 2002; Park & Mense-Petermann 2014) and thus a key actor when it comes to create and navigate the transnational social spaces (Morgan 2001) within MNCs.

In MNCs, global mobility divisions regulate international placements through highly formalized global assignment programmes based on a core of global mobility policies. In this paper, I analyze these global mobility policies as “mobility regimes” (as one important part of MNCs’ employment systems), governing the work of transnationally mobile specialists and executive staff in MNCs. Global mobility policies contain basic rules and regulations for international assignments in MNCs (Moeller & Harvey 2009). They regulate (1) how much an expatriate earns while being abroad; (2) which other financial benefits the expatriate gets, such as moving, housing and mobility allowances; (3) which other services the company offers the expatriate and his/her family, and finally (4) which services and benefits the company offers to accompanying spouses and children (Bonache et al. 2001; Phillips & Fox 2003; Moeller & Harvey 2009).

The global assignment programmes are developed by single MNCs – and thus constitute a case of private law regulating employment – but tend to be disseminated in organizational fields (DiMaggio/Powel 1991), resulting in isomorphic trends. Hence, analyzing the global mobility policies of MNCs means observing the institutionalisation of a supra-organisational regime governing transnationally mobile work.

This mobility regime on the one hand allows for international placements of expatriates in large numbers by standardizing and routinizing global assignments, and by homogenizing expatriates’ working and living conditions at the globally dispersed sites of MNCs. Thereby, they play an important part in facilitating the transnational flow of knowledge, technologies, and best practices that is indispensable for transnationally integrated MNCs. On the other hand, however, they also create new differences and inequalities: between the mobile expatriates on the one hand, and two groups of immobile employees on the other hand: the local staff of the globally dispersed subsidiaries, as well as the immobile employees in the HQ. The full paper will spell out the ambiguities and contradicting impacts of this mobility regime on expatriates’ capabilities to act as boundary spanners and on MNCs’ transnational integration. Whereas the literature on expatriation and MNCs’ global mobility policies solely focuses the expatriates as employees and considers the impact of the policies on the willingness to migrate or the motivation for work, in my paper I will investigate the impact of the global mobility policies on the social positioning of the expatriates within the organization, i.e. with regard to their job in the foreign subsidiary, as well as outside the organization, i.e. with regard to their non-work lives in the localities they are assigned to. I will show that the global mobility policies encroach into the non-work everyday lives of the expatriates and their families in an all-encompassing way, and I will analyze how that social positioning creates repercussions for the boundary spanning capabilities of the expatriates.

The data on which this paper is developed form part of a  research project aiming at exploring the “global everyday” of German and American expatriate managers in China and Germany/the US respectively. The paper will concentrate on two of the subsamples, namely seven in-depth ethnographic case studies of German expatriate managers in China and ten in-depth ethnographic case studies of German expatriate managers in the US. In addition we have carried out seven interviews with experts from the global mobility departments either at the HQ or the local subsidiaries of the employer MNCs of our cases.


Ancona, D. G. & Caldwell, D. F. (1992) Bridging the boundary: External activity and performance in organizational teams. Administrative Science Quarterly 37, 634-665.

Au, K. Y. & Fukuda, J. (2002) Boundary spanning behaviors of expatriates. Journal of World Business 37, 285-296.

Black, J. S., Gregersen, H. B. & Mendenhall, M. E. (1992) Global Assignments: Successfully Expatriating and Repatriating International Managers. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, CA.

Bonache, J., Brewster, C. & Suutari, V. (2001) Expatriation: A developing research agenda. Thunderbird International Business Review 43 (1), 3–20.

DiMaggio, P. J. & Powell, W. W. (1991) The Iron Cage Revisited: Institutional Isomorphism and Collective Rationality in Organizational Fields. In: Powell, W. W. & DiMaggio, P. J. (eds.) The New Institutionalism in Organizational Analysis. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, London, pp. 63–82.

Moeller, M. & Harvey, M. (2009) Expatriate managers: A historical review. International journal of management reviews 11 (3), 275–296.

Park, K. M. & Mense-Petermann, U. (2014) Managing across Borders - Global Integration and Knowledge Exchange in MNCS, submitted. Competition & Change (18, Special Issue "Multinationals, social agency and institutional change: Variation by sector").

Phillips, L. & Fox, M. A. (2003) Compensation strategy in transnational corporations. Management Decision 41 (5), 465–476.

Prof. Dr. Ursula Mense-Petermann

Bielefeld University

Department of Sociology

P.O. Box

D-33501 Bielefeld