Global Operations Insight

How can we integrate our global operations with local cultures and locations? As challenges multiply across international markets, new global operations insight is needed. This guest briefing by Nicholas Krohley, Ph.D. provides extensive and valuable insight. Dr. Krohley is a globally respected social scientist, with deep practical experience working with interests such as the military and energy industries to integrate leaders into new cultural environments.

Global Operations Insights

Global Operations Insights

 A new perspective for the front lines of global operations…

It’s a jungle out there – sometimes literally. From the creeks of the Niger Delta to the deserts of southern Iraq, to Philippine archipelago, international operations are growing more and more challenging. Geopolitical turmoil and regulatory changes are both adding big-picture complexity. Yet the most critical factor is the human element of business and the ways that local realities are intruding evermore into our day-to-day operations.

A confluence of factors creates complex challenges:

  • Workforce nationalization mandates are bringing the nuances and complexities of local society into the workplace.
  • Increasingly robust social and environmental regulations invite heightened scrutiny from local and international stakeholders.
  • Empowered community activism and aggressive actions by local governments draw us into a web of complex (and often intractable) local social and political disputes.
  • Simmering conflicts in and around our areas of operation pose a host of risk- and security-related threats.

As a result, the fundamental operational management strategies and personnel models of many global organizations are being upended. 

Life in the Bubble

For decades, industry leaders in sectors ranging from resource extraction, to project management, to finance and consulting have cultivated an expat-led management strategy. We developed the technical skills of a cadre of expatriate managers and operational leaders and then rotated them among various geographies.

Global operations insights

This was meant to create an international vitality within our organizations. A career progression that included leadership roles in a diverse set of countries would contribute to the growth of the individual, and the dynamism of the organization as a whole. This, in turn, was central to our identities as “global” multinational organizations.

In reality, this approach was effective in proportion to our ability to create “expat bubbles” from one country to the next. As a manager or operational leader, we might move from the United States to Colombia, and then on to the United Arab Emirates, and then to Vietnam. In theory, this progression imbued a range of cross-cultural experiences that would enhance our professional development. In practice, however, we typically moved from one expat bubble to another, seeing the same sorts of faces in the same sorts of housing compounds, and sharing drinks at the same sorts of social events. The scenery changed, but the fundamental “expat experience” was broadly consistent. Moreover, our workplace culture was deliberately directed toward the establishment and maintenance of global “best practice”, which we would apply from country-to-country as our careers took us around the globe. Our core technical skills enabled us to do our jobs, while the realities of our operational management strategy (where the leadership team was staffed predominantly by fellow expats and the lower echelons of the workforce were often drawn from low-cost labor markets outside of the host country) insulated us from local reality.

Adapting to the “New Normal”

This model is no longer tenable. Around the world, the expat bubbles are bursting. Local content mandates force us to hire and source locally. Community activism and external oversight bodies have achieved broad visibility on our inner workings. National governments are increasingly assertive in contract negotiations and associated impositions and may hold us up as foreign scapegoats for (or merely a convenient distraction from) a broad range of locally-rooted challenges.

How do we adapt to this new reality? On the one hand, we must maintain global standards. This is critical to our organizational cultures, and essential to our maintenance of performance, ethical, and safety benchmarks. On the other hand, however, we must also come to terms with where, when, and how to adjust to our local environment. An apparent contradiction results: we have to be a coherent global entity that is, simultaneously, a local organization in each of the markets where we operate. What does this look like for an organization that has its headquarters in New York, and operations in Nigeria, Nicaragua, and the Netherlands?

global operations insights

From leadership and personnel development to HR administration, to security and crisis management, there are core values and standards to uphold. Yet “the right approach” to implementing the attendant policies and procedures will vary in subtle yet enormously significant ways from Mongolia, to Mexico, to Mauritania. These subtleties may well decide the balance between success and failure, or profit and loss – yet few organizations have recognized this dynamic, and developed a systematic approach to adapt accordingly.

How do we do this? How do I, as a country manager, operational leader, HR professional, security officer, or crisis manager determine what matters about where I work, and what it all means when I am making a business decision? How should local dynamics influence my leadership style, my security posture, my recruiting efforts, and my crisis communications strategy? How do I navigate my immediate environs, and make practical sense of the complex and dynamic social, economic, political, and cultural currents that are swirling around my operation?

Who Can Help Us?

There are resources that we can draw upon. The media offers an abundance of information. But how do we vet our sources (particularly in unfamiliar cultural environments, where we may not appreciate the perspectives and/or biases that are embedded in reporting)? Moreover, how do we zero in on the issues that are operationally relevant, amidst the overwhelming volume of reporting on any given geography? Unless we know exactly where to focus, “information overload” ensues almost immediately.

Political risk and advisory firms offer more focused, industry-specific reporting. Yet their focus is at a macro-level, with geopolitics and regulation as key issues of concern. To what extent can a country report, or a regularly-issued email update from an analyst in Washington, London, or Dubai, enable us to navigate the “here and now” of specific concerns as we lead operations in Port-au-Prince or Port Harcourt? What can a desk-based Libya expert in Paris offer to an operational manager working in the desert south of Sirte about what is happening around me at my worksite? Certainly, there is an abundance of contextual information that will be helpful to know. But this is only a starting point, not a destination. How do we generate the actionable, targeted insights that we need to take informed actions on a daily basis?

Learning from the Best…

Fortunately, there is a high-profile, exceptionally well-resourced, industry-leading behemoth that has taken on precisely this challenge, and whose (very, very public) successes and failures offer a wealth of relevant insights. An organization that has a clearly established and widely revered set of global standards, and an exceptionally well-developed internal regimen for the honing of professional and technical skills – but that found itself unable to function effectively in its most important overseas markets, due to an inability to come to terms with local realities.

Any veterans reading this message may well have guessed the organization in question: the United States Army.

Faced with faltering campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US Army came to appreciate the critical importance of local understanding. Of the need to dig into the details of its operating environment – the “human terrain” in military parlance – and understand how local social, economic, political, and cultural realities were tipping the balance from success to failure. The fundamental intent was not to soften the Army’s approach in pursuit of “hearts and minds”, but to equip operational units with the depth of local insight that would enable them to adapt and succeed on the ground.

Having recognized the need for this sort of insight, Army leadership confronted an organizational dilemma: who is going to do this, and how? Put simply, the collection, analysis, and operationalization of this sort of contextual insight fell outside of the core job categories within the Army. Intelligence officers were focused on the enemy. Civil Affairs was focused on the rehabilitation of infrastructure and engagement with local officials. Company- and Battalion-level commanders were already working 18-hour days to manage the day-to-day operational flow of their deployments. The front line leaders who were able to tackle these questions “in their spare time” were making an enormous difference on the battlefield, but this was clearly not a viable operating model.

In need of a rapid and scalable solution, the Army chose to bring in outside expertise. In effect, the executive leadership team outsourced the problem to consultants. The resulting program, known as the Human Terrain System (with which I served from 2007 to 2011), became the flagship effort of the US Army in resolving these challenges. Central to the utility of these teams were the skill sets of civilian social scientists, who brought academic skills to bear in the navigation of local realities.

At its peak, the Human Terrain System was a $150,000,000-per-year operation, with upwards of fifty small teams embedded with operational military units across Afghanistan and Iraq. The program also maintained a sizable rear echelon for research support and internal administration, and it developed a proprietary technological platform for the organization and visualization of research.

The performance of the Human Terrain System’s elite teams fully validated the utility of the concept, delivering critical insights from unique perspectives, and shaping the design and execution of operations on the ground.

Yet, in the final account, the program delivered an unsustainably poor return on investment – prompting its shuttering after seven years of operations, and the delegation of its analytical and operational responsibilities to a range of “in-house” military and intelligence entities.

The Key Lessons Learned

A host of lessons have been learned within military and intelligence circles from the rise and fall of the Human Terrain System, many of which are captured here, and here. Yet there is a clear and concise list of lessons that are applicable to our current predicament:

  • We have the in-house talent to take on this challenge. We do not need to embed legions of expensive experts within our operation. The Human Terrain System tried this, and two things became rapidly apparent: First, a host of challenges arise when we try to embed significant numbers of outsiders into our operations, which inhibit their ability to add the right value at the right time. Second, any large, high caliber organization will have ample intellectual firepower within its workforce to take on this sort of work. Reaching the desired end-state does not require long-term engagement with teams of external subject matter experts. Instead, the challenge is to harness the talents of our current personnel, establishing processes and procedures through which we can analyze these issues ourselves.


  • Technology won’t solve this for us. The tech solution pursued by the Human Terrain System was a staggeringly expensive failure, consuming up to 1/3 of the program’s budget and ultimately delivering nothing of practical value. Technology can solve all sorts of problems in business, and it’s appealing to think that there might be a magic button we can press, unleashing “artificial intelligence” and “algorithms” to make sense of the world around us. The US Army spent tens of millions of dollars to that end – with virtually nothing to show for it.


  • Investing in the front line personnel pays off in myriad subtle waysand neglecting us can wreak havoc. The US Army, like many of our organizations, dedicates significant time and resources in strategic decision-making processes at the executive level. Questions of what should we do, and how should we do it, are well resourced and debated. Within our organizations, the decision to enter a particular market will involve extensive (and expensive) consultations with lawyers, lobbyists, risk analysts, surveyors, and accountants. Yet, once the decision is made to “go in”, what do we do to prepare the men and women who will be leading the operation on the ground? This dynamic was a key factor in the challenges faced by the US Army in Iraq and Afghanistan, where front line units were typically provided only the most basic information about the areas to which they were deploying. Similarly, this is a potentially crippling weakness for large global organizations in the private sector. If vital practical and contextual insights about the local operating environment are not conveyed to front-line personnel, the potential for disaster is unlimited. This was recognized as a problem within the military, leading to the notion of the “strategic corporal”. In a positive sense, this term captured the idea that junior enlisted soldiers had the potential to make strategically significant contributions to our campaign, by doing the right thing for the right reasons. More commonly, however, the term came to be used in the negative sense, with the realization that a mistake or misdeed at the lowest levels of the organizational hierarchy could cause ripples that would cascade into a strategic-level catastrophe.

Taking our discussion back to the corporate world of international operations, there is an obvious need to convey factual knowledge to the men and women who lead our operations, and for global organizations to provide a baseline of focused, structured information on the societies in which we work. This is an essential first step as we adapt to the challenges outlined above. Yet we must appreciate that these environments are dynamic and that operational success requires a level of specificity that cannot be fully captured in a report or a briefing. To reach the needed level of granularity, we also require a defined process and method for home-based and in-country personnel to come to terms with local realities. We need to equip our personnel with skill sets to make sense of these shifting cultural, socioeconomic and political paradigms, and to empower them with a mandate that recognizes the importance of this endeavor.

The Way Ahead…

Once we embark on this path, new opportunities present themselves for integrated action. How can our local recruiting strategy support our security and community engagement efforts? How can we tap the knowledge and access of our local workforce for targeted insights into key social, economic, or political dynamics? How can the refinement of our leadership and personnel management strategies optimize the performance of our local workforce, and enable compliance with rising workforce nationalization mandates? How do we integrate detailed local insights into the organization, so that we can pre-empt or avoid potential crises? Failing that, how can we leverage our local understanding to respond to an incident with the right messaging and actions at the right time? More broadly, how can our executive leadership strike the balance between global standards and local norms across our international operations?

There is no prospect of the international operating environment becoming less complicated. There are no lights of simplicity beaming from the end of a proverbial tunnel. There is no emerging technology platform that will sort all this out for us. On the contrary, we will require ever increasing levels of awareness and understanding of the world around us and flexibility in adaptation to events outside of our control. This will demand the refinement of existing skill sets, and development of new ones as well.  The social sciences will have much to offer, but social scientists themselves will have only a light-touch advisory role to play. The companies that are able to harness and leverage that expertise and instill these capabilities – and the mindset that underpins them – into their own organizational DNA, will be the ones best positioned to succeed in the ever-challenging “new normal” of international operations.


Dr. Nicholas Krohley

Founder, FrontLine Advisory LLP


Contact Us

Phone: +1.833.227.4747


Address: 405 Main Street, Suite 730
Houston, Texas 77002