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To expand or not to expand? Houston researcher weighs in on global growth

Expanding into foreign markets is tempting, but strategic fit can determine success or disaster. Photo via Getty Images

You built your business from the ground up, patiently finding techniques and products that work, carefully crafting solid bonds with your clients. Then one day a new project, opportunity or simple request poses a question: Is it time to branch out overseas?

Of the welter of questions to consider, the first and most important involves location: not just the physical location of the prospective expansion site, but the cultural differences between a firm's home country and its new destination. Secondly, key company traits need to be considered in choosing the investment locations. Is your firm large or small? Young or old? Finally, of pivotal importance to companies outside the United States: Is your company privately held or state-owned?

In a recent paper, Rice Business professor Yan Anthea Zhang looked closely at these three variables with Yu Li of the University of International Business and Economics Business School in Beijing, China and Wei Shi of the Miami Business School at the University of Miami. What, the researchers wanted to know, was the relation of these three features and firms' location choices for their overseas investments?

To find out, Zhang and her colleagues analyzed 7,491 Chinese firms that had recently ventured into foreign markets with 9,558 overseas subsidiaries. Because China now has become the world's leading source of foreign direct investments, the sample promised to be instructive. Thanks to the large sample size, researchers could test hypotheses relating to firm size, age, ownership and the impact of geographical and cultural distance on their location choices.

After studying the elements of geographic distance and cultural distance, Zhang and her colleagues uncovered a paradox. Companies that had an advantage in tackling one dimension of distance were actually disadvantaged — because of the same characteristic — in another dimension.

How, exactly, did this paradox work? Larger firms, with access to more resources, can "experiment with new strategies, new products, and new markets," the researchers wrote. This large size makes geographic distance less of a concern, but it comes with a ponderous burden of its own. Company culture is directly influenced by the country of origin, Zhang wrote. Transferring that culture into a completely different environment can cause the kind of shock that could lead to failure, even with financial and physical resources to ease the geographical distance. Conversely, smaller firms may be more nimble and able to adapt to needed cultural changes — but lack the resources to make true inroads in a foreign market.

A similar paradox exists for older and younger firms, Zhang wrote. A younger firm is more likely to adapt to a culturally distant country than an older firm might, even if that youth means that geographical distance is a greater logistical challenge.

State-owned firms face a similar paradox, one that comes down to the balance of resources against cultural flexibility. A company with state-generated resources may be better equipped to move a caravan people, machinery and materials to a distant new location. However, state-owned companies often typically lack the internal cultural flexibility to handle expansion to a different environment.

What does this mean for the average manager? Simply that going global demands meticulous weighing of factors. Does your firm have the practical resources to expand overseas? Does your staff have the personal flexibility and willingness to meld company culture with that of a different milieu? It's a truism that major overseas expansions require money and heavy lifting. Less obviously, managers of successful companies must thread a very fine needle: ensuring they have the material resources to get their business overseas physically, while confirming that company culture is light enough on its feet to thrive in day-to-day life in a new place.

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This article originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom and is based on research from Yan Anthea Zhang, a professor and the Fayez Sarofim Vanguard Chair of Strategy in the Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

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Building Houston

 
 

A Houston expert outlines what startups and small business need to know about their communications strategy. Photo via Getty Images

Startup founders often focus on outward victories. However, if they look inward and get internal communications right, this can prioritize, inspire, and retain talent, which is the heart of the company.

Consistent internal communication helps employees to understand the company's core values and mission and the evolving internal policies and procedures — health care benefits, reorganizations, remote work — that accompany a young business. Investing in internal communications also supports external public relations efforts because the best company storytellers are well-informed employees.

Consider these tactics for effective internal communications.

Prioritize messaging

In any startup, internal procedures evolve as the company grows. Take control of the narrative while easing employees' minds by prioritizing internal messaging.

Whether transitioning to a more flexible work schedule, updating healthcare benefits, or rolling out a performance review process, planning messages in advance can help team members understand the change, the impact, and how they can contribute positively to the development.

Well-informed employees help mitigate uneasiness and tend to achieve business goals more quickly. Make sure to allow the employees time to reflect and react.

Support managers

Leaders and mid-level managers play an integral role in internal communications by cascading information throughout the organization. They regularly engage with their employees, so it is important that managers feel confident and supported in their communication skills.

Managers can benefit from a common company language, talking points, or communications training for more effective and productive conversations. By identifying, clarifying, and reinforcing common goals and key objectives for managers, companies can strengthen productivity and eliminate confusion, especially if the company changes teams' roles and responsibilities.

Be consistent

Make sure that the drumbeat remains steady, whether this includes a monthly town hall meeting or weekly CEO emails. Since communication is not necessarily one-size-fits-all, use a communication approach tailored to the workforce.

For example, there might be more effective communication methods than email for employees not behind a desk. As a smaller company, take that time to connect with the team directly because as the company swells, that one-on-one experience will become increasingly difficult to manage.

Listen to employees

Delivering top-down messaging that resonates with the workforce remains critical. However, internal communication is a two-way street.

Allow team members to give valuable feedback. Encourage team members to share their thoughts about the company, concerns, and how to improve communications. Issue internal surveys or hold face-to-face meetings to gain useful insight.

Understanding these critical proof points will enable more effective communication and quick action on any issues.

Be a human

Keep humanity at the heart of internal communications. Amid the company's transition, maintain transparency and recognize the emotional toll some changes can have on teammates. The best talent will remain when they feel connected, informed and listened to.

Greater employee engagement can help build a strong company culture of accountability, authenticity and communication, setting up the business for bigger success.

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Melanie Taplett is a communications and public relations consultant for the technology, energy, and manufacturing industries.

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