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Houston startups planning to go global need to prioritize adaptability, researchers find

Firms looking to expand globally need to ensure that their organizational resources are adaptable to new markets. Getty Images

When foreigners invest in emerging markets, the prospect for those markets' local businesses looks bright. The payoffs for a country's companies can range from injections of foreign capital to better managerial talent, technological sophistication and international know-how. But does foreign investment ever push local firms to venture into international projects of their own?

Rice Business professor Haiyang Li looked closely at the ripple effects of foreign investments, and concluded it all depends on the local businesses' adaptability. That — and their appetite for risk.

Together with Xiwei Yi of Peking University and Geng Cui of Lingan University, Hong Kong, Li launched a large-scale study of Chinese manufacturers to better understand how multinational investment in domestic companies influences the global market.

The subject was ripe for analysis. Over the past decade, more and more companies in China and other emerging markets have been testing the waters of direct investment in other countries in sectors as varied as food and beverages, apparel, electronics and transportation equipment.

Li's team hypothesized that these emerging market companies were leveraging benefits that foreign investment had ferried into their home markets. This investment, the researchers theorized, had brought in useful resources and skills, which helped ease the local companies into international business markets.

To confirm this, the team needed to test whether the converse was true: Might information gained from foreign investors actually dull a local firm's interest in branching out overseas? Maybe the risks of that type of venture — which are higher for firms in emerging markets — would seem too stark.

To find out, the researchers first vetted the literature on inward and outward investment activities. How, they wanted to know, did domestic firms interact with foreign players in the technology or product importing process? In equipment manufacturing? In franchising and licensing, mergers and acquisitions and activities such as setting up subsidiaries?

Working with a global research company, Li and his colleagues next surveyed 1,500 Chinese businesses in the food, clothing, electronics and vehicle industries. (Firms in finance, banking, natural resources and business services were ruled out because of their government ties, and also because such organizations usually use fewer resources, which made them harder to evaluate.)

Each company that took part in the survey rated how much they engaged with foreign investors in activities such as importing products and services or forming joint ventures. They also indicated if dealing with foreign direct investment had brought them foreign capital, advanced manufacturing know-how, managerial experience or competitive insight into overseas business.

The researchers also measured the "fungibility" of these firms' resources — in other words, how easily could their organizational, cultural and technological resources be adapted to various geographical settings?

Finally, managers rated how risk-prone they thought their firms were.

After Li and his coauthors processed the answers, they found several links between foreign investment in domestic firms and local companies' internationalization efforts.

First, there was a positive relationship between the local gains from foreign investment and a firm's interest in internationalization projects. While this effect was indirect, it was amplified when foreign investment gave a firm new capabilities that made it more adaptable. In other words, the Chinese companies whose contact with foreign multinationals made them more adaptable in general were better positioned to prosper in ventures abroad.

This stands to reason, the researchers note. That's because by its very nature foreign investment sparks awareness of new opportunities: every business trip, plant visit or negotiation with foreign partners is a hands-on lesson in international trade.

But the researchers also uncovered a significant downside to foreign investment for local Chinese firms. When a project was considered high-risk, such as a merger or establishment of a wholly owned subsidiary, the local firms were less prone to venture abroad. This adverse effect was worse for firms that labeled themselves risk-averse, probably because exposure to foreign investors only made the risks of internationalizing clearer.

These findings add important detail to the way foreign investment can affect their local partners' own international plans — for good and ill. Already, businesses in emerging markets are used to optimizing resources, wrangling diverse idioms and artisans and adapting logistically to get their products to market. That nimbleness, Li and his colleagues propose, should also be seen as a globalization tool. For businesses in emerging markets, the researchers conclude, day-to-day technical ability is actually less important than cultural and organizational flexibility — and applying lessons learned from foreign investors to their own projects abroad.

In other words, for firms in emerging markets, globalization is not just a path to new markets. It's a way to study interactions with foreign firms while on their home turf – and learn how to apply those lessons abroad.

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This story originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom.

Haiyang Li is Area Coordinator and Professor of Strategic Management at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

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Who let the robotic dogs out? AT&T — and a Houston expert explains why in a guest column. Photo via Getty Images

What has 4 legs, can recognize your face, and precisely obey commands on cue? If you guessed a dog, you’re half right.

I’m referring to robotic dogs, a modern marvel of innovative engineering. AT&T recently expanded our solution offers to include network-connected robotic dogs for public safety, defense, federal and state agencies, local police and fire departments, and commercial customers. We do this in collaboration with a leading provider of robotic dogs, Ghost Robotics.

Robotic dogs are just one way we are proving the innovation and transformational possibilities of 5G and IoT. Network-connected robotic dogs can deliver a broad range of IoT use cases, including many that have previously required putting personnel in dangerous situations. Here’s a quick look at some of the fantastic capabilities network-connected robotic dogs deliver.

  • Our robotic dogs can support public safety agencies and organizations on FirstNet – the nation’s only network built with and for America’s first responders. FirstNet delivers always-on prioritized network connectivity for these “first responder” robotic dogs, helping them stay connected during disaster response and recovery, facilities surveillance, and security operations. They can support search and rescue, venture into areas that could imperil human lives, and support the ability to reestablish local communications services following major infrastructure damage.
  • We can integrate Geocast into the robotic dogs to provide Beyond-Visual-Line-of-Sight (BVLOS) operational command and control so that operators of the dogs can be located virtually anywhere in the world and remotely operate them. Geocast is an AT&T innovation covered by 37 patents.
  • The robotic dogs can be equipped with sensors that allow them to operate autonomously without human intervention. They can be outfitted with drones that can launch and return to their backs while in motion, allowing the drones and dogs to perform missions as an integrated team.
  • Rugged terrain? Water? Not a problem. These robotic dogs can move across natural terrain, including sand, rocks, hills, rubble, and human-built environments, like stairs. They can operate fully submerged in water and, like living dogs, can swim.
  • An early use case adopted by the military involves equipping our robotic dogs with wireless network-connected cameras and deploying them to patrol military bases. Robotic dogs we provided to the Air Force at Tyndall Air Force Base in the Florida panhandle are doing just that. Our robotic dogs patrol the flight line and base perimeter at Tyndall, feeding video data in real-time to base personnel who can safely track activity 24/7/365 and support the safety of base operations. They can perform the same task for commercial users, indoors or outdoors. For example, they can patrol the perimeters of large warehouses or outdoor fence lines.
  • They can also support hazmat efforts, inspect mines and high-voltage equipment, and detect explosive devices including improvised explosive devices (IEDs): all while keeping people out of harm’s way.
  • Another interesting use case involves equipping robotic dogs with Long Range Acoustic Devices (LRADs). LRADs are sound cannons that produce noise at high decibels and varying frequencies. We have discussed with the Navy the possibility of outfitting our robotic dogs with sound cannons to warn off wild boars and feral dog packs that have impeded operating crews working on telecommunications infrastructure located in remote areas of one of its bases.

Commercial applications for network-connected robotic dogs are proliferating. Utility companies, for example, are using robotic dogs equipped with video cameras to perform routine equipment inspections in substations. Human inspection requires operators to shut down the facilities during inspections; the robotic dogs eliminate the need to take this precaution. Allied Market Research projects a $13.4 billion global market for the particular use case of robotic dogs performing such inspections.

Our robotic dogs can also be equipped with technology that extends network connectivity into difficult-to-reach areas or mechanical arms that can grip and carry materials such as tools. Their use cases include Pick and Pack capabilities for warehouse operations to improve order fulfillment efficiency.

And this is just the beginning. We’ve said from the outset that the 5G journey of innovation and solution development would evolve to deliver new ways to conquer many challenges.

Now, we’ve let the dogs out.

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Lance Spencer is the Houston-based client executive vice president of defense at AT&T Public Sector.

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