Business learning can reverse brain drain

- Leadership - Feb 28, 2015

Concern about a “brain drain” of executives from developing countries who work in mature markets is misplaced because such “indirect” learning abroad is critical to their companies’ growth in developed markets, finds research co-authored at Cambridge University's renowned Judge Business School.

Companies from India and other emerging economies have little opportunity to learn directly from their own so-far limited experience in developed markets. So the knowledge gained from learning indirectly from business leaders, rival firms and networks in mature markets “plays a crucial role” in explaining why some developing-country firms grow faster in developed markets, found the research.

The study, published in the January issue of the Journal of Marketing, holds important policy implications for the debate over the free flow of skilled people from emerging economies such as India.

“Developing countries have worried about a ‘brain drain’ of executives and talented young people if they work or study in mature markets,” says the study’s co-author, Jaideep Prabhu, Jawaharlal Nehru Professor of Indian Business & Enterprise and Director of the Centre for India & Global Business (CIGB) at the Business School.

“But our research shows that encouraging such movement of people helps both developing and developed countries: business leaders from countries like India often return to manage Indian companies and help them grow in mature markets like the US and UK, while countries in the West benefit because these Indian business leaders who return home to run companies often invest in developed countries. It’s really a win-win situation.”

Prabhu cites the India-based Tata Group as a prominent example of an emerging-country firm whose leaders’ travels have reaped benefits both at home and abroad. Former chairman Ratan Tata studied in the US and current chairman Cyrus Mistry studied in the UK. The group’s holdings currently include luxury carmaker Jaguar Land Rover in Britain, while Tata Consultancy Services has offices throughout the US and now sponsors the prestigious New York City Marathon road race.

As part of the study, the research compared the growth in developed markets of 116 Indian firms with a sample of 160 UK firms, drawing on the contrast between those two countries’ global business history. “While India discouraged and even prevented its firms from venturing into international markets until 1999, the United Kingdom has encouraged its firms to venture into international markets for several centuries.”

The findings suggest that policymakers in emerging economies should not only be careful about placing obstacles in the paths of citizens who wish to work or study abroad, they might in factencourage such movement through scholarships, an increase in loan availability and removal of foreign exchange restrictions on spending in developed countries.

In addition, such policymakers should resist the demands of domestic business leaders for protectionist barriers, because “greater developed-market competition help emerging-market firms learn about developed markets and pursue international growth.”

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