Working Abroad Increases Creativity and Innovation

by Ray Clancy on April 20, 2015

Professional work experiences abroad can be a critical aid to creativity and innovation, according to a new study from management researchers in the United States.

Researchers at INSEAD and the Columbia Business School analysed 11 years of fashion collections from 270 of the world’s top fashion houses to determine the effect of creative directors’ foreign work experience on their collections’ creativity ratings.

USAmap‘Experiences in foreign countries are key drivers of novel ideas. Lab studies show that multicultural experiences have a positive effect on individuals’ creativity,’ said Professor William Maddux, but he added that despite this, all too often companies see overseas work experience of their executives as both expensive and not necessary.

For the first time, this research assessed the real life impact of professional experiences overseas and creativity and found a positive correlation between the two and Columbia Business School professor Adam Galinsky found that they all had a positive impact on creativity.

When examining the number of countries creative directors worked in, the total time spent working outside their home country, and the ‘cultural distance’ to which they are exposed in their current positions, the authors found that moderate or high levels of work experience abroad was associated with more creative fashion collections produced.

‘The findings show that there is an optimal level of cross cultural experiences. Moderate cross cultural experience is great for creativity, but when an individual moves too much around the world or accepts a working assignment in the country that is culturally very different from what she is used to, then this person’s creativity will suffer,’ said INSEAD professor Frédéric Godart.

Galinsky pointed out that the findings could prove useful to not only the world’s leading fashion brands but companies more generally when they’re assessing what their next executives should bring to the table.

While the research looked specifically at the fashion industry, the results have broad implications for managers accepting job opportunities overseas, firms looking to hire managers with foreign experiences and states designing mobility programmes and dealing with diasporas.

‘Creativity is the driver of growth for companies and individuals in the 21st century. Professional foreign assignments are the surest way to become creative, and fashion industry understands that. Companies in other industries also should value executives’ foreign experiences and promote them through global talent mobility programmes,’ said INSEAD’s professor Andrew Shipilov.

‘Foreign experiences increase both cognitive flexibility and depth and integrativeness of thought, the ability to make deep connections between disparate forms,’ Galinsky said but pointed out that it is not just about living abroad, expats workers need to engage with the culture where they are based.

‘The key, critical process is multicultural engagement, immersion, and adaptation. Someone who lives abroad and doesn’t engage with the local culture will likely get less of a creative boost than someone who travels abroad and really engages in the local environment,’ he added.

The researchers also found that the more countries the executives had lived in, the more creative the lines tended to be, but only up to a point. Those who had lived and worked in more than three countries, the study found, still tended to show higher levels of creativity that those who hadn’t worked abroad at all, but less creativity that their peers who had worked in a smaller number of foreign countries.

The authors hypothesized that those who had lived in too many countries hadn’t been able to properly immerse themselves culturally; they were bouncing around too much. ‘It gets back to this idea of a deeper level of learning that’s necessary for these effects to occur,’ Galinsky concluded.

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