THE world economy continues to perform strongly, and last year saw the fastest average rate of global growth for over 30 years.
Such growth has encouraged 70 per cent of companies to increase their international operations in the past three years, according to ECA International's Trends in Managing Mobility Survey 2007.
Increases are occurring to and from all regions, with the Asia-Pacific now vying with Europe and the United States as a major region for sending and receiving assignees. As a result, there is a growing diversity of international workforces, with over 90 per cent of the 263 multinational organisations surveyed by ECA International reporting that they now employ international assignees of more than one nationality.
This is a clear reflection of recent expansion into and out of new markets. For Asian companies, the most popular destinations for sending staff are now China and India, but there is also increasing interest in Vietnam and also outside of the region in the Middle East, particularly the United Arab Emirates.
Even though there is a broad consensus that economic growth will be somewhat lower this year than in 2006, more than two-thirds of companies are predicting further growth in assignee numbers in the next three years.
The natural anticipation that technology and improved communications might go some way to reducing the number of expatriate assignments has proved largely unfounded in practice, indicating that there is no substitute for on-the-spot management.
The key objectives for employing expatriates have remained largely unchanged over the past 10 years, with managing a local operation and transferring skills or knowledge still the two most frequently cited business drivers.
However, as the business environment changes, so too do companies' priorities. With companies moving into more new markets than 10 years ago, setting up and managing a local operation has become an increasingly important business driver. This is now cited as a key objective by 82 per cent of companies, compared with 56 per cent in 1996.
There has also been a significant increase in the proportion of companies citing corporate and financial control as a key reason for international assignments. A contributory factor is the need to take note of the impact of Sarbanes-Oxley in international business and finance.
For the larger, more internationally established companies, there has also been greater than average attention paid to strategic objectives such as career development and grooming for senior management - a practice more common in boom cycles.
Asian companies report a greater importance on filling skills gaps and grooming for senior management than companies based in other regions.
To overcome the talent shortage evident in a number of markets in the region - especially at junior manager level - Asian companies are increasingly sending junior managers on intra-regional assignments (from Singapore to China, for example). This trend can go some way in explaining why Asian companies tend to place a greater importance on these two business objectives than companies based elsewhere in the world.
While the number of longer-term assignments is increasing, the proportion of long-term to other types of assignment is actually decreasing.
Our research shows that by 2010, only 54 per cent of all assignments will be a traditional long-term assignment, down from 68 per cent in 2000.
Alternative assignment types, most notably short-term (less than one year) and commuter assignments (where employees remain employed in the home country but work all or part of the week in another country), are becoming increasingly popular, often seen as a more flexible and less disruptive alternative to traditional assignments. Companies are predicting that short-term assignments will make up 22 per cent of all assignments in 2010.
Similarly, we are seeing a change in the assignee profile, with one notable trend being an increase in the proportion of female employees on assignment, which is up to 20 per cent from 6 per cent in 1996. This shift, in part, reflects the efforts of a growing minority of employers (one in five) who are actively encouraging women to take international assignments.
Looking at the sub-sample of 57 Asian companies that participated in the survey reveals that the Asian expatriate workforce is less male-dominated than the sample as a whole.
Asian-based companies report that 29 per cent of their international assignees are female, compared with 22 per cent for companies with headquarters in Europe and North America.
While there is no obvious explanation as to why females make up a larger element of the expatriate workforce in Asian companies, some countries in the region, particularly China, Hong Kong and Singapore, tend to have a higher proportion of women in the workforce as a whole.
Continuing evolution of international business means that managing international assignments is becoming increasingly complex.
Differences in the profile of expatriates, their nationality, where they are being assigned to and the types of assignment that companies now use means that the human resource departments' standard assignment policy may need to be revised to facilitate the mobility needed to capitalise on international business opportunities.