Globalizing Actors in Multinational Companies: The Creation, Diffusion, Implementation and Contestation of Global Norms

Lead Research Organisation: King's College London
Department Name: School of Management and Business


In a globalised economic and business context, the norms that shape human resource management travel internationally. This is particularly the case within the multinational company, where individuals are responsible for the creation, diffusion, interpretation and negotiation of norms - which may be rules, principles or guidelines - across international operations. We refer to such individuals as "globalizing actors". The aim of our research is to identify the resources mobilized by globalizing actors in the creation, diffusion, interpretation and negotiation of norms concerning the global coordination of human resources (see 'Objectives' for more detail).

Previous research has examined individuals in important international positions, focusing on their orientations and values (e.g. whether they possess 'global mindsets'), the management of international assignments and the characteristics of members of the international business elite. However, these literatures have not systematically examined the actual roles of globalizing actors within firms, and precisely how they create, diffuse, and manage international norms.

We examine what such actors actually do within a theoretical framework that sees the behaviour of globalizing actors as shaped by institutions: the institutions in the country in which they originated affect their competencies; they must be sensitive to a variety of host national institutions; and they must navigate their way through a growing range of transnational institutions. Their role is also shaped by organizational context, particularly how the firm derives synergies from integrating their operations internationally, which influences the types of global norms required.

However, globalizing actors are not prisoners of institutional and organizational contexts. They can create new norms, develop strategies that help shape the 'rules of the game' and attempt to exploit institutional contradictions and ambiguities. We will explore the individual level resources of these actors to deal with these contexts, such as their skills and knowledge - 'human capital' - the relationship these actors have to others in terms of power, position and trust - their 'social capital' - and their transnational experiences or exposure.

We will examine UK MNCs, both at home and across subsidiaries in Europe, North America and East Asia. The research will use multiple methods, consisting of five steps:
1. Pilot Work. Using seed-corn funding, we have tested key concepts and generated contacts for twelve full case studies in subsequent stages of the research.
2. UK interviews. These will focus on those charged with creating new norms, spreading them across international operations, or ensuring compliance.
3. Foreign Subsidiary Interviews. We will conduct interviews in the international operations of each firm, enabling us to understand frames of reference and actor choices in foreign subsidiaries.
4. Multi-level Survey. The survey of a set of globalizing actors will establish individual level capabilities associated with the establishment and diffusion of global norms.
5. Quantitative Diary Study. This methodological innovation allows us both to explore what globalizing actors actually do and to test predictors of behaviours and attitudes.

The research will make a substantial and distinctive contribution to understanding of the processes of international management, through focusing on individual "globalizing actors" within the contexts of the multiple institutional and organisational contexts within which they make decisions. Equally, through the development and communication of a strong evidence base on how firms build individual and organisational capabilities in international management, the research also aims to enable improvements in the economic effectiveness of UK firms with overseas operations, while acting in ways that respond to the need for social responsibility at local-host and global levels.

Planned Impact

This project examines the building of individual and organisational capabilities in international management, with a focus on UK-owned businesses. Through detailed research across a range of firms, we will identify what, in the specific national and market contexts of different firms, can be identified as good (or bad) practice in dealing with globalizing operations. Through the process of performing the fieldwork, and the impact strategy presented in the "Pathways to Impact" document, we aim to provide firms and other relevant stakeholders with an evidence base which targets both efficiency and effectiveness through better management practice. It also aims to mitigate the severe reputational risks that firms run when international management practices fail to ensure acceptable social outcomes in their international operations.

Specifically, the research targets impact in the following areas beyond the academic research community:

First, as the project consists of firm-level research into the organisation of international management, our research is intended to impact on participant firms. This will be done through the development of 'lessons learned' for the international coordination of business, and the identification and management of globalizing actors themselves, which are grounded in the specific circumstances of those firms.

Second, we envisage a wider impact on the UK's commercial private sector, through the development and communication of a strong evidence base on how firms build individual and organisational capabilities in international management. As our research will feature both large established multinational corporations, and smaller firms which have internationalised recently, this impact is expected to cover globalising SMEs as well as the leading British-owned firms. Both these groups are of crucial importance to UK economic growth and provision of quality jobs, while their ownership makes them additionally crucial to the UK tax base.

Third, we will target impact with professional bodies (such as the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development), and with sectoral associations such as the National Microelectronics Institute. We will engage with such associations to provide contextually relevant recommendations for the practice of international human resource management, in an area often dominated by recommendations of US-owned consultancies which show little context sensitivity.

Fourth, we anticipate that the outcomes of this research will usefully feed into the work of government agencies (e.g. UKTI, devolved administrations) which have as part of their remit, to support UK firms in their internationalisation processes. While UK government agencies generally refrain from involvement in firms' managerial processes, insights based on our research are particularly likely to be useful to the efforts of such bodies to promote new or expanding international firms. Further, the research will identify the transformative effect of globalising actors and thus feed into UK professional associations' efforts on training and developing capability to attract global talent and business.

The research is also likely to have lessons for broader management education in the UK and elsewhere. The educational resources available for those pursuing careers in international management often lack sensitivity to national institutional/cultural contexts, and/or to specific contextual factors such as sector, etc. The development of a stronger evidence base, centered on UK firms, therefore has the potential to create impact at the individual level for those interested in pursuing careers which involve management across borders.

Benefits to the general public we see in terms of creating wider awareness of the role of international firms and skills in the face of global labour market competition.

Details of the mechanisms by which we will seek to pursue impact is detailed in the Pathways to Impact.


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