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Foreign experience sparks creative innovations of organizations, but more is not better

Datum:13 november 2018
Auteur:Suqing Wu
Foreign experience sparks creative innovations of organizations, but more is not better
Foreign experience sparks creative innovations of organizations, but more is not better

Many employees nowadays have experiences of working abroad, which is often viewed as providing a spark of creativity by organizations. Indeed, previous studies have suggested that people with multicultural experiences are more creative: they are more open-minded to incongruent perspectives or norms, and can combine new ideas and concepts in a novel way (e.g., Leung, Maddux, Galinsky, & Chiu, 2008). Following this logic, job interviewers may expect to recruit employees with abundant multicultural experiences in order to foster creative innovations of companies. Intriguingly, however, there is evidence that contradicts this “more is better” belief. Excessive foreign working experiences may bring harm to the creative innovation of organizations.

One study (by Godart, Maddux, Shiplov, and Galinsky, 2015) pointed out that companies benefits when senior leaders in charge of creative operations have a moderate level of foreign professional experiences. These researchers explored overseas working experiences of senior leaders in the high fashion industry from three aspects: breadth, depth, and cultural distance, and how these relate to each other, what is best to invest in.

Breadth of an individual’s foreign working experiences can bring many benefits for creative innovations. According to the researchers, breadth is often associated with the exposure to various information, knowledge or views. Observing how things differ in different countries helps individuals to better solve problems using different approaches in companies.

Similarly, the researchers suggested that professional working experiences in culturally distant countries (e.g., Japan and United States) enable senior leaders to better generate and implement novel and useful ideas, compared to those in culturally close countries (e.g., Canada and United States). Distant multicultural experiences expose individuals to heterogeneous networks and practices, which in turn help firms’ to translating and promoting creative ideas to the costumers with different backgrounds.

However, one’s ability to absorb and adapt in culturally distant countries is limited. Experiencing overmuch variety of cultural difference causes information overload and over-embeddedness, something that individuals cannot handle. Such sense of inability can stress senior leaders in charge of creative operations, and in turn impede their ability to generate and implement creative ideas in firms. The data supported this prediction: there was indeed a positive effect of breadth and cultural distance, but eventually this turned negative at high levels – a curvilinear relationship of exposure with creative innovations (Godart, et al., 2015).

Depth of multicultural experiences showed to be the most important dimension for innovation. According to the authors, the longer an individual works in a foreign country (depth), the more likely that this individual internalizes the foreign culture and embeds into foreign professional networks. Such connection offers firms the opportunity to obtain resources, buy-in, and supports. Interestingly, Godart, et al. (2015) found that breadth and cultural distance only had a contribution when depth was low (acting as substitutes). When high levels of depth emerged, the added benefits of breadth or cultural distance are very little. A possible explanation is that high depth (living long time aboard) offers enough variety of inputs for individuals to the creative processes, which render breadth and cultural distance less important. And also depth of foreign professional experience showed a curvilinear effect although not turned negative.

In summary, when hiring people or establishing international rotation programs for senior leaders in order to foster “creative innovations” (which is being novel and useful from the standpoint of external audiences), moderate levels of breadth, depth and cultural distance are associated with highest level of creative innovation. Depth seems to be the most important dimension, while breadth and cultural distance benefits primarily at low levels.

Literature introduced:

Godart, F. C., Maddux, W. W., Shipilov, A. V., & Galinsky, A. D. (2015). Fashion with a foreign flair: Professional experiences abroad facilitate the creative innovations of organizations. Academy of Management Journal, 58(1), 195-220.

Leung, A. K. Y., Maddux, W. W., Galinsky, A. D., & Chiu, C. Y. (2008). Multicultural experience enhances creativity: The when and how. American Psychologist, 63(3), 169.

Suqing Wu (s.wu@rug.nl) is a PhD candidate of Human Resource Management & Organizational Behavior at the Faculty of Economics and Business, University of Groningen, with expertise on creativity and innovation, team membership change, and team creative processes.