Managing the Global Workforce

As the World Economic Forum opens in Davos, companies ponder how to gain an edge by finding the right talent in the right location

The war for talent never ends. Middle managers in China? Good luck finding them, let alone keeping them. Assembly line workers in Central Europe? They're well-educated and hard-working: Trouble is, every company wants them. The cubicle warriors of Bangalore? They get the job done—if they stick around. I For corporations, managing this widely scattered, talented, restive, multicultural workforce has never been harder. This Special Report, written to coincide with the 2008 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, brings readers to the front lines of the struggle. It delves into IBM's (IBM) effort to rein- vent the way it gets tasks done around the world, follows a Nokia (NOK) manager as he recruits a workforce from scratch in Transylvania, meets a restless generation of IT workers in India, and hears from the corporate road warriors who never, ever stop traveling.

These and other stories make a simple but powerful point: The old way of managing across borders is fading fast. In the first half of the 20th century, the globalization of business was based on the British colonial model. Headquarters, functions, and capital were in one place, with managers dispatched to run regional operations like colonies. In the second half of the 1900s, companies adopted the multinational model, replicating their home country operations in other places where they did business. Country units rarely dealt with other divisions in other markets.

Today, global corporations are transforming themselves into "transnationals," moving work to the places with the talent to handle the job and the time to do it at the right cost. The threat of a U.S. recession only makes such efforts at lowering expenses and grabbing the best talent even more urgent. William J. Amelio, the CEO of Lenovo, the world's third-largest computer maker, calls his global workforce strategy "worldsourcing." Lenovo has executive offices in five cities worldwide and organizes its workforce around hubs of expertise, such as hardware designers in Japan and marketers in India. "You operate as if there's just one time zone," Amelio says. "And you're always on."

If anything, companies are devising new strategies to reach global scale faster. To retain workers in China, for example, PepsiCo's (PEP) snacks unit funneled nearly 300 extra people into its talent assessment program last year and promoted three times as many managers as it did in 2006. In mid-2007 storage equipment maker EMC (EMC) started a global innovation network for research and development workers at six labs around the globe. EMC set up a wiki Web site for scientists and engineers to develop technologies and product concepts together.

Moving people across borders and ensuring that workers' visas and permits are compliant with local immigration rules are also vital to the tasks of globalization. Deloitte principal Robin I. Lissak has a client, a CEO of a large multinational, who was told he could quintuple his business in Dubai if he quickly moved 2,000 workers there from India. But like half of the companies in Deloitte's 2007 Global Mobility Survey, the CEO simply wasn't set up to do it. "You're not just moving people from the U.S. to the rest of the world anymore," says Lissak. "You're sending people from all continents to all continents." The companies that play this global, mobile game best will emerge the winners.Back to Davos Special Report

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.