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The Motivation, Facilitation and Limitations of HRM Practice Diffusion: A Study of Chinese Multinationals

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The Motivation, Facilitation and Limitations of HRM Practice Diffusion: A Study of Chinese Multinationals ABSTRACT Miao Zhang Kingston Business School, Kingston University, UK Christine Edwards Kingston
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The Motivation, Facilitation and Limitations of HRM Practice Diffusion: A Study of Chinese Multinationals ABSTRACT Miao Zhang Kingston Business School, Kingston University, UK Christine Edwards Kingston Business School, Kingston University, UK With the increasing global integration, diffusion of best practice is a critical activity in an MNC, in particular, MNCs from countries who have recently joined in global markets to learn the best practice in their international operations. In the current research on MNCs HRM diffusion, reverse diffusion is argued to be an important approach in the internationalision of managements. However, there is little empirical evidence in support of this argument. This paper uses the UK subsidiaries of Chinese MNCs as an example to explore the nature of the diffusion activities in these companies and its impact on the whole MNC. The paper explores that reverse diffusion played a positive part in the internationalisation process of these companies, although the impact on the home firms is limited. It has also been found that some new forms of the international learning are emerging in these Chinese MNCs. This suggests that diffusion in MNCs can be varied with different national and organisational characteristics. INTRODUCTION MNCs (multinational companies) are playing an innovation role in the globalisation of the world economy. In particular, they are seen as major vehicles for the dissemination or transfer of best management practice. Most research in this area has concerned MNCs from developed countries and how their home or HQ practices impact on HRM in their overseas operations. Generally, they adopt local practice only in response to legal or cultural constraints, or to operate in local markets, and have little interest in learning from it. In this context the transfer process is one of the forward diffusion of best practice from home to the subsidiaries. Less attention has been paid to MNCs from developing countries and their HRM strategy. This paper argues that MNCs from developing countries are not only obliged to localise their management practice when they operate in a country with an advanced economy, but may also use it as a means of acquiring the advanced management practice they need to compete in international markets. In this scenario, subsidiaries play a major role in organisational learning by absorbing advanced local practice and diffusing it back to the home firm in order to speed up their internationalisation process. Thus reverse diffusion is seen as a means of knowledge acquisition for MNCs from countries relatively late to enter the global economy (Edwards and Ferner 2000, Ferner and Varul 1999). In terms of Edwards (1998) s definition, reverse diffusion is the process by which practice developed by foreign subsidiaries is captured by the centre of a firm, and diffused into other subsidiaries. Edwards and Ferner (2000) suggest that reverse diffusion is most likely used by MNCs whose subsidiaries operate in a country with advanced business and management environment. The subsidiaries absorb advanced practice and experience from the host environment, and then diffuse them back to the home firm. In this manner, the subsidiary becomes a source of innovation (Edwards, 1998) and plays a vanguard role in the process of change (Ferner and Value, 1999). The degree to which MNCs from developing countries engage in reverse diffusion and the methods which they use to achieve it are largely unexplored. In this paper we attempt to gain a greater understanding of these processes through a study of Chinese MNCs operating in the UK. Chinese MNCs represent an interesting case from which to study the concept of reverse diffusion. Until the 1970s they operated in a domestic arena characterised by a centrally planned economy with little experience of competing in world markets. When the Chinese government adopted a policy of outward investment and encouraged participation in global markets they had a great deal to learn. Using practice and experience from economically advanced countries was regarded as a quick and direct way to internationalise (Young et al, 1995; Duan, 1996). In the 1980s, the Chinese government began to advocate using international borrowings (jiejian) from Western countries as a means of promoting the modernisation of Chinese firms. The Government supported the process of knowledge acquisition in two ways. One was by encouraging foreign companies to invest in China in order to have access to their knowledge and experience. However, several authors have concluded that this process is constrained by the nature of Chinese institutions and cultures and foreign investment (Young et al, 1995). It is argued that the other method, Walking out the Country Gate is a more effective and direct way to learn international rules and experience (Duan 1995, Feng, 1995). Since the 1980s, China has had over 7000 non financial related companies operating internationally (People s Daily, 12 September, 2003), opening up significant potential for learning from overseas subsidiaries. Edwards and Ferner (2000) have argued that reverse diffusion is most likely to be found in MNCs operating in an economically advanced environment but add a number of other conditions. These include a high degree of business integration between the home firm and the subsidiary, and strong financial support and no short-term profit targets set by the home firm, thus giving resources and time to learn and diffuse. Even where such conditions may be present in Chinese MNCs, the degree to which reverse diffusion activities effect change in management practice in the Chinese parent companies is questionable. The difficulties experienced by foreign companies and joint venture s attempts to introduce western practice are well documented (Warner, 2004, Gamble, 2003). To some extent these have been attributed to the problems foreigners have in penetrating the social networks (guanxi) that give access to people and resources that can get things done (Ahlstrom et al, 2000). Chinese companies are at an advantage in this respect, but established companies experience significant barriers to change posed by Chinese economic, social and political systems (Warner 2000; Child and Tse 2001). The particular resistance of the state owned sector to modernisation, to which the largest MNCs belong, has been illustrated in a number of studies (Cooke 2004). Nonetheless, China has experienced rapid institutional change in the last decade through its open door policy, introduction of a market economy, a degree of decentralisation and privatisation, and some reform of the state owned industries. Such change has reduced economic differences between China and the advanced economies, and eroded some of the factors that have constrained the adoption of innovative practice in the past (Child and Tse 2001). However, the extent to which Chinese MNCs engage in reverse diffusion, and the impact on management practice in China, has yet to be empirically evaluated. This paper reports on a study of Chinese MNCs operating in the UK in an attempt to answer this question. We start by explaining the methods used in the case study research, and then our findings. Finally, we return to the question of the extent to which reverse diffusion is a major characteristic of these Chinese MNCs, and conclude that while significant reverse diffusion activities take place, the extent to which it brings about significant changes in home practice is limited. We end by discussing the latest trends in international borrowing through which China is seeking to transform its home firms. METHODS In order to examine the diffusion activities, six organisations from the 24 Chinese companies in the UK were selected for in-depth case study. All were in the London area and are China s leading and largest state-owned enterprises. Two are from the international trade sector which took the lead in setting up MNCs because of their long-term experience in international markets and with foreign clientele. The other four are from the financial sector, run by financial institutions such as the Bank of China. Thus, these companies not only play an important role in China s trade and economic development, but also are main representatives of the Chinese MNCs internationalisation process. The six companies are all located in the London area which as an international financial and trading centre provides both the opportunity for and pressure on these Chinese companies to use and absorb advanced management practice. Data collection was two stages: the first was from March, 1998 to January, 2000 and concentrated on the diffusion activities in the UK subsidiaries. In the second stage in May, 2002 and April, 2003 the parent companies or HQ of three of the companies in China were studied to find out the impact of the UK subsidiaries on the MNCs as a whole. The main sources of information were HR and corporate performance data, and some 200 in-depth interviews in the three parent companies and six subsidiaries. In the UK subsidiaries, interviews were conducted as part of a study of HRM strategy (see Zhang, 2001, 2003, Edwards and Zhang 2003). The interviewees included all top managers, most middle managers, and some senior staff who were involved the diffusion activities, both expatriates and locals. In the parent companies, interviews were conducted with the top managers in charge of international HRM, and branch and departmental managers who had work or training experience in the UK subsidiaries. MOTIVATION FOR DIFFUSION Edwards and Ferner (2000) have argued that the MNCs most likely to undertake reverse diffusion have the following characteristics: (1) a demand for business integration between the home firm and the subsidiary; (2) the subsidiaries operate in an economically advanced environment. (3) strong financial support and no short-term profit targets set by the home firm (4) time to learn and diffuse. The Chinese MNCs studied largely conformed to this model. The main drivers in their case were that as state owned enterprises they had to comply with Chinese government internationalisation policy, and also deal with competitive pressure in the domestic markets which were gradually being opened up to foreign competition. These MNCs desperately needed the knowledge and experience of operating in a market-oriented economy in order to compete with international companies. All the top managers interviewed in these subsidiaries claimed that learning western management practice is one of main purposes for which they were established or expanded in the UK. The government allowed them far more autonomy in doing business internationally than subsidiaries in other countries, and were given unprecedented latitude in the development of their management systems. In return they were expected to acquire market economy experience and to assist in the modernisation of the traditional Chinese management system in the state-owned companies. Newly established companies were allowed to adopt UK organisational structures and set up their organisations either via mergers with UK companies, or by using local managers in their design. Subsidiaries with a long history in the UK were permitted to place locals in managerial positions previously exclusively held by expatriates. The use of UK managers was extensive: in four of the six subsidiaries all middle managers were locals and 70% in the remaining two. While the migration of UK managers was less pronounced at senior level, in three companies, over 25% of top managers were from the UK. The overall effect was a significant degree of localisation of organisational structure, management systems and business procedures: 80% of Chinese and UK interviewed staff thought their company was more like a UK company than a Chinese one. Other factors said to facilitate diffusion were also present: all six had a strong financial support from the State, and five out of six had no short-term pressure on profitmaking, and, they had time to learn and diffuse. In addition these subsidiaries report directly to the parent companies, unlike subsidiaries in other countries that report to the regional HQ. As one of the chief executives explained, the parent company requires them to pass on their experience directly so that it can be adopted by the whole company. With the possible exception of business integration which varied, it is clear that these Chinese MNCs have all the characteristics associated with the potential for reverse diffusion. We would add to Edwards and Ferner s (2000) list a high degree of localisation, a reporting structure that facilitates the transmission of information from subsidiaries and the home firm, and an owner (the Chinese state) intent on learning from their experience. It appears therefore, that these companies have both the motivation and the opportunity to engage in reverse diffusion. The extent to which they realise this potential is the question to which we now turn. DIFFUSION ACTIVITIES IN THE SUBSIDIARIES There was evidence of diffusion taking place in all six subsidiaries whereby practice developed was captured by the parent company, and passed on to other subsidiaries. This was achieved through a variety of cross-organisational learning activities: All six companies take home firm senior and middle managers as trainees in the subsidiary. Local managers act as supervisors and mentors, passing on knowledge and experience. Trainees are also sent on external training courses, and given support for study to gain professional and educational qualifications such as the MBA, and Doctorates in Business Administration. The subsidiaries also provide formal training programmes, but this activity was most prevalent in one company that has its own training centre. They use UK experts to run training courses for home managers, and about 800 from the parent company and other subsidiaries have been trained so far. Most trainees are in senior managerial positions in the home firm, and 90% of the top managers of the parent company and main branches have been trained at the centre. The training courses are being extended to the departmental heads of main subsidiaries and branches. UK managers are also sent to the parent companies to establish new practice and train staff in their use. For example, in one company, they go to the home firm every year to help set up systems similar to those in the UK. So far, 90% of middle managers have visited the equivalent departments in the parent company and other subsidiaries to help them establish new systems and to share their experience and expertise. The local manager in charge of the programme visits the parent company to train branch managers several times a year. The success of the exercise is such that his role has changed: I go to the parent company four times a year. At first, I helped them set up the systems and trained the Chinese staff to use them. Now I go there and make regular checks to ensure they work correctly he explained. The assistance given by the UK managers can be substantial; one of the sample subsidiaries had been set up with the help of managers who were trained or had worked in the UK. It now transfers its management practices to other subsidiaries, including payment systems, performance appraisal and work organisation. In another company, the UK HR director was leaving to restructure an old subsidiary. He explained that all UK HRM practices and experience would be applied. These companies also play an active role in sending information about UK management practices to other subsidiaries. The managerial structure and work organisation in one case is regarded as a standard for other new subsidiaries as it was the place where HQ used to be located, Even after HQ was moved to Hong Kong, the subsidiary is still regarded as the source of new and standard practices. Examples of their diffusion activities were observed during the fieldwork. During this time the author was asked to help them improve their appraisal system and run training courses. The activity was reported to HQ, and one week later, the HQ gathered all the details of the appraisal and the training programme and sent them to the other subsidiaries. The chief executive explained: We have to do it because HQ keeps asking us for the practices here and then sends them other subsidiaries. We are used as an exemplar. Management meetings and visits play an important role in the diffusion process in all six companies. One company uses management meetings not only to introduce UK practice to the home firm, but also to diffuse the best practices they create in the subsidiaries. Of particular interest is their UK management system mixed with Chinese management style which constitutes UK performance and objective-led work organisation combined with Chinese harmonious relations. It has been introduced by their parent company through management meetings, and accounts in Chinese newspapers have spread their experience nationally. In another example, international management experiences are diffused to the parent company through visits, management meetings and by passing on information. The chief executive described the process as follows: The parent company used to have no formal international management system. The expatriate management usually followed the domestic system, in particular of remuneration and assessment, which was low and egalitarian, and there were no links with performance and business objectives and profits. After this subsidiary s success in business, we have been sending information about MNCs management here to the parent company through informal meetings with top managers in the parent company. The payment for expatriates has been changed to match international standards and will be related to performance. In addition to hosting managers from their own companies all six regularly accepted visitors from the Chinese government, and managers of Chinese firms. The main purpose was to provide an introduction to UK management practice and experience as well as explaining the operation of the subsidiary. In this way the six subsidiaries studied not only diffuse their experience within an MNC but also country-wide. Even the company with the shortest operating experience in the UK plays an active role in diffusion activities which reach beyond the MNC to the wider Chinese business community. It holds a series of conferences on financial business and management for the Chinese financial sector. One of the top managers pointed out: As a subsidiary operating in a new area, which is also emerging in the domestic market, the managers in these organisations desperately need relevant UK practices and knowledge, and the relevant government departments ask us to take responsibility for it. So the conferences organised by us are open to relevant organisations all over the country rather than just our parent company. We share all we have learned from here even though we have not used them in this subsidiary. Local managers play a key role in these diffusion activities. They attend and speak at the conferences to share information and knowledge about UK business and management with Chinese colleagues. In turn, they also have the opportunity to update their knowledge about the development of the Chinese business system. Diffusion very much depends on the expertise of UK managers who are used as vital sources of information, and as trainers, mentors, and supervisors. Thus there is significant evidence of diffusion activities using a range of methods. The direct beneficiaries are primarily the parent company, and the other subsidiaries; but there are also indications of a wider diffusion process spreading beyond the home firm to the government and other state owned companies, and to the Chinese business community at large. THE CHARACTERISTICS OF DIFFUSION It app
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