Sign in

From spreadsheets to AI: how will technology shape the future of global mobility?

It should come as no surprise to anyone involved in global mobility (GM) that a lot of the current buzz revolves around technology. Whenever we at ECA speak to colleagues or clients involved in mobility, almost inevitably they are looking for ways to modernise their programmes, whether through automation or increasing their use of technology to save time, reduce errors or generate efficiencies. 

By spending less time on laborious tasks and removing duplicate work by implementing tools that integrate with each other, GM teams can spend more time focusing on value-adding tasks. In other words, technological solutions will help them to meet the requirements imposed by the business: do more with less; manage ever-shortening lead times; demonstrate value and ideally produce savings; and have strong analytics at the ready to support the business. Doing all this will increase the chances of GM teams being involved when the big decisions are made. 

As the topic seems to be on everyone’s radar, we thought it would be worthwhile to take a step back and consider the plethora of mobility technologies out there for us to take advantage of. However, before we start, it’s important to note that using the umbrella term “technology” often covers a huge range of options from spreadsheets to artificial intelligence. We are going to consider the concept using this broader definition and assess the different ways that new technologies can be an asset for us and help transform the way we do mobility, both now and in the future. 

Varying degrees of automation

In its most basic form, a tech solution to automate a GM task can be something as simple as an Excel spreadsheet that runs some basic macros to deliver a build-up calculation or a rudimentary cost-estimate. Given all the excitement around technology, we should not forget that Microsoft Excel is still the number-one tech solution for most companies and, technically speaking, a macro is a basic type of robot. This is worth bearing in mind, as often people talk about ‘robots’ without really considering that anything that replicates something that humans do is already a ‘bot’. 

The next level of automation utilises standalone calculators, designed by experts, that save GM teams from writing and maintaining the various macros and spreadsheets, whether for the latest cost of living data or changes to the tax code. After this come the more sophisticated assignment management systems, and this is typically the stage where GM teams begin to customise technological tools to their specific policy rules and requirements. A system like this typically works off the back of a database of assignees, which also allows for convenient and accurate reporting with a few clicks – something that even the most talented spreadsheet wizards would struggle to put together. The more high-end systems also offer time-saving functionalities like workflows or document generation.

The importance of user experience 

When it comes to automation, we should not limit our imagination by simply focusing on the laborious grind of paperwork and number-crunching. There is growing demand to improve the user experience (UX) for both GM teams and assignees. This is no surprise, since we are constantly reminded about UX and expectations are now sky-high, as we all enjoy easy access to top technology in our pockets. However, when it comes to GM as a function, it’s also important to combine the look and feel with actual substance and truly useful functionality, and to choose solutions that bring in real added value on top of looking good. There’s nothing worse than investing in a pretty system that you end up not using, because it can’t do the job.

As a way of improving UX, many organisations wish to involve assignees in the GM process. Their contributions can be as simple as filling in forms with dependants’ or passport details, thereby ensuring the correct information has been entered. Employers might not hold such data over the course of regular employment, and with GDPR having been in place for over two years, the importance of handling sensitive information in a proper and secure way should be clear to all – and not just because it’s the law, but also to avoid reputational damage and hefty fines from noncompliance. More and more companies have had to rethink the way they share sensitive documents, like salary calculations, and using an employee portal where the GM team can upload final documents for the assignee to retrieve directly is a compliant, as well as time-saving, option. 

Due to the importance of UX, and because the expectation is that everyone wants to log in and out whenever and wherever, there is increasing demand for mobile access. While this makes sense for assignees – who typically won’t be doing any particularly detailed or extensive tasks on mobile devices – a simple app won’t necessarily be the right solution for the needs of the GM team. Few GM professionals would want to check something as detailed as a tax break-down on their phone. This is a good example of where the technological advances that we’ve grown used to can be less suitable for traditionally office-based tasks.

The next generation – VR, AR and AI

The scope for GM technology doesn’t end with systems and portals, as virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and artificial intelligence (AI) are starting to enter the arena, especially when it comes to relocation. Instead of arranging a look-see visit to check out a selection of properties ahead of an assignment, some potential assignees could – and indeed already do – take a 360-degree tour with a VR headset. Although this can’t fully replicate the experience of a visit in person, it’s much more immersive than scrolling through pictures, and significantly cheaper, more convenient, and environmentally friendlier than flying over. AR can also be harnessed for the physical relocation process, and apps already exist that help you figure out whether that piece of furniture you have will fit into your new home, or how big a shipment you require for the contents of your house. 

AI offers real potential to free up GM teams from having to answer the same basic questions again and again. What if assignees could speak with chatbots as the first port of call, and only the cases where the AI can’t figure out the answer would be escalated to the GM team? Although it’s still early days when it comes to VR, AR and AI, we can only expect these technologies to develop and change the way we do mobility – and quite likely in ways most of us can’t even envisage today. 

Finding the best fit for your needs 

It’s worth noting that not everyone is looking for state-of-the-art solutions or full digitalisation – because they are not going to be right for every organisation. Sure, if you’ve got hundreds or thousands of assignees and your team is decentralised around the world, it can be a massive relief to rely on a system that everyone can access, but if you have a couple of dozen assignees and handle them centrally from one location, investing in a big system can be overkill. The industry you work for can also play its part. For example, tech companies might feel the need to quickly embrace innovations whereas more traditional industries might be content to be later or non-adopters.

New tech also tends to come with a hefty price tag, and will not always be affordable, especially at first. If your organisation is all about being at the forefront of change, it’s probably easier to get sign-off for technology spending. Having achieved the initial budget sign-off (often the biggest hurdle), and having convinced the business of the added value likely to come from the technology in question, it tends to become easier to get approval for add-ons down the line. 

On the horizon

Regardless of where they are in their technology ‘journeys’, companies appear to be increasingly aware, at least in a broad sense, of what the future might offer. Even if technology is not yet utilised to its full potential, many are taking steps to future-proof themselves, perhaps starting with a smaller, simpler solution, but with the aim of letting it grow with them through the years (as they secure more funding by demonstrating the savings made through utilising technology). The key here is to have a clear focus of your future needs when making the initial selection; transitioning from one software to another can be an arduous process. It’s also vital that you can rely on your suppliers. Ideally, when beginning the process, identify those who can become long-term partners, rather than just transactional vendors for a specific project. This way, you can help to ensure they will be by your side as your requirements evolve over time.

Crucially, we cannot forget the human aspect that seeps into everything we do, both within GM and beyond. Although technology can be a huge asset that makes our day-to-day jobs and life in general easier, it cannot and will not fully replace the roles of humans. Of course, it will change the way we operate, but in the sphere of GM, we must not forget the importance of the human touch. What we deal with are very sensitive issues, and no matter how much technology advances, it will never match the level of human understanding required to effectively manage mobility. Imagine being stranded in a foreign country with an urgent issue and all you have to communicate with is a chatbot? It’s hard to think of a better case study for UX gone wrong! 

With the pace of technological advances seemingly accelerating as we speak, it’s easy to see why it can at times feel overwhelming to keep up: just as you’ve wrapped your head around some process, along comes something new that makes it obsolete. Add to the mix the fearmongering about robots replacing humans, and we can see why some might find the way things are supposedly heading a bit worrying. However, I’m optimistic that the human touch in our industry will very much be needed in the future. Naturally, what we do and how we operate will evolve – and that’s not a bad thing. Most GM professionals won’t mind if technology takes care of some of the more run-of-the mill tasks, allowing them to focus on more complex issues and figure out creative ways to solve them. Rather than fearing eradication, we should embrace the exciting opportunities and liberties that new technologies can offer, and how they will enable us to add value to what we do every day, for both the people we answer to and those we are responsible for. 


From Assignment Management Software to online calculators and tools, ECA has a solution to suit you, take a look at the software and calculators we offer.

Find out how you can optimise your global mobility programme with ECAEnterprise - the assignment management system that integrates processes, calculations and interfaces to deliver successful international assignments from start to finish.

  Please contact us to speak to a member of our team directly.

Like this article? Share it... Twitter Facebook   LinkedIn