In this study, we build on the ability-motivation-opportunity framework to test whether both repatriates’ disseminative capacity and domestic employees’ absorptive capacity as well as their opportunities for interaction affect repatriate knowledge transfer. Further, we examine the moderating effects of two distinctive factors associated with repatriate knowledge transfer: repatriate knowledge characteristics and characteristics of international assignments. Using multi-source time-lagged data from 101 dyads, we find support for most of our hypotheses. Our study contributes to theory and practice by providing an integrated analysis of antecedents and boundary conditions of repatriate knowledge transfer and by highlighting its dyadic nature.
One of the core competitive advantages of multinational companies (MNCs) arises from their ability to acquire and utilize globally dispersed knowledge (Zeng, Grøgaard, & Steel, 2018). MNCs possess unique capabilities to transfer this knowledge efficiently across their network of subsidiaries, which, in turn, contributes to their superior performance in comparison to their locally based competitors (Gupta & Govindarajan, 2000; Foss & Pedersen, 2004). While corporate headquarters (HQ) and globally dispersed subsidiaries can learn from each other in several ways, reverse knowledge transfer from foreign subsidiaries to HQ has recently gained in importance (Peltokorpi & Yamao, 2017; Yang, Mudambi, & Meyer, 2008). Access to results of local research and development activities and insights into customer preferences in foreign countries can facilitate the targeted development of products and services for specific groups of customers (Kogut & Mello, 2017). In addition, receiving valuable knowledge from foreign subsidiaries enables HQ to orchestrate intra-organizational knowledge flows among different foreign subsidiaries, thereby ensuring more efficient implementation of global strategies (Ambos, Ambos, & Schlegelmilch, 2006). However, our understanding of the factors that shape reverse knowledge transfer is still limited (Kogut & Mello, 2017), in particular when it comes to individuals as knowledge transferors. This represents an important gap in the literature because knowledge is ultimately created and transferred by individuals (Minbaeva, 2013; Nonaka & Takeuchi, 1995). One crucial group of individuals that can contribute to reverse knowledge transfer are international assignees returning from assignment, or repatriates (Nery-Kjerfve & McLean, 2012). Through their work experience at the foreign subsidiary, international assignees can acquire highly valuable knowledge about local markets and its customers and more general knowledge about doing business across borders (Berthoin Antal, 2000; Fink & Meierewert, 2005; Oddou, Osland, & Blakeney, 2009). Given their familiarity with multiple organizational units, international assignees are ideally positioned to transfer knowledge across the MNC (Caligiuri & Bonache, 2016; Harzing, Pudelko, & Reiche, 2016). Their role is particularly valuable when it comes to transferring tacit knowledge (Polanyi, 1967), knowledge that is intuitive and difficult to articulate independently of knowing subjects (Lam, 2000). However, research has documented that upon repatriation the knowledge that assignees gain at the foreign subsidiary is consistently underestimated as an assignment outcome and it is not viewed as a strategic resource that can leverage the global competitiveness of MNCs (Burmeister et al., 2015; Sanchez-Vidal, SanzValle, & Barba-Aragon, in press). Thus, while repatriation creates a knowledge dissemination opportunity, evidence strongly suggests that this opportunity is rarely seized (Berthoin Antal, 2001; Oddou et al., 2013).