Saturday, March 12, 2011

Should expats stay or go?

Japan 1I have watched the video feeds from Japan all day as I worked, images of flooding, devastation, and the all too human impacts of this major disaster.  I have a number of friends on expatriate assignments in Japan, as well as colleagues working at clinics, colleges, and businesses throughout the country.  Thankfully, many of them have posted updates on Facebook or in broadcast e-mails to say that they are okay, certainly shaken, but uninjured and sheltered.

Many of the expats were over for assignments to transfer or develop technology headed to new biotechnology or medical device applications.  They certainly won’t be able to continue that work.  Although the International Human Resource Management (IHRM) literature doesn’t offer statistics, I expect companies to bring them home: both the risks of remaining and the disruption to their assignments are too great to continue.

Expats with spouses and partners, on the other hand, have every reason to remain.  There are lives and possessions to be recovered, extended families to be sheltered and supported, and I can’t imagine that expats would not work to sort things unless the damage was so great that repatriation was the only route to safety.

Japan 2Intermediate cases of independent expats with roots and businesses but no dependencies are more difficult to judge.  Is the help that an expat might provide outweighed by their burden on scarce resources?   Do language and cultural gaps keep them from participating effectively in community responses? Are they outsiders or insiders in times of disaster?

I think that unless there is a clear benefit and connection, then an expat’s responsibility is to leave once their neighborhood situation has stabilized and help has begun to arrive. 

There will be cleanup and rebuilding to be done, and there’s no question that I would feel loyalty to friends and colleagues and want to help where I could.  But unless I could offer unique skills or resources I suspect that I would be more burden than a help, no matter how well intentioned.

It’s a really tricky question and the answer is doubtless situational.  But, watching the images flow in from Japan, I had to wonder how I would cope, where I could help, and whether I should leave.

Many sites (eg: here, here, or here) offer advice on how to make individual preparations against natural disasters.

And please contribute to one of the disaster relief agencies like the Red Cross if you have resources to spare.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Some end-of-week links

DSC02902It’s a work-at-home day, catching up with a long to-do list across a host of topics.  Hopefully the weekend will be relatively quiet, I head back to the SE-US for a week on Monday, and have to organize thoughts and goods ahead of the trip.


I’ve written about the need to have dynamic content in blogs and web pages, keeping them fresh and up to date.  Now you can do the same for your e-mail signature.  This tool allows you to create a custom .sig with elements for status, tweets, news, random quotes, whatever, from a large array of applets and templates.  I already aggregate my dynamic content into my FriendFeed on Facebook; this allows me to do something similar (but more limited) for my email.

And, in passing, I’m getting pages rolling on Facebook and LinkedIn for each of my businesses, arranging for news and updates to be piped into the subscriptions. And, for frivolity, there’s the page for Random Road Art as well.


On the subject of email apps, a quick plug for Cambridge University Entrepreneurs alum Rahul Vohra, who has founded and funded Rapportive in Silicone Valley.  It’s a tool to merge contact information with e-mail, dynamic and static content, in a single mail-reading page.


This is a social network aggregator, allowing status, link, and image updates across social networks, like Ping.FM, and combining feed streams out of the various services.  I’m experimenting with it to see if it makes my life more- or less- confusing, but the concept in interesting.


Time to make the pilgrimage to The European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF) at the MECC south of the city next to the University, March 17-27.  Admission is a bit steep at 55 euro, but once inside you have full run of the huge private art exhibition.  Many of the works are by ‘name’ artists of all styles, and there are antiques, clocks, and jewelry also on exhibit.  This is all exchanging hands between private collectors, so there is one chance to see these works as they get a rare public showing.

Sam Welie’s mailing list:

If you’re expat in the Maastricht area, Sam sends out a weekly newsletter of events and happenings.  It’s a nice summary, an eclectic mix of big items and smaller ones.  He’s at the International Service Desk of LIOF and you can be added to his mailing list(or add your event to his list) by writing him at international @

DSC02906Online Marketing:

I’m reading Lorrie Thomas’s book, the 36-hour course to online marketing success.  It’s up to date and has good meaty questions and recommendation throughout.  I know about all of the tools, but this is helping me to see how to use them together more effectively.  It’s still a toss-up as to whether I’ll seek out a publicity group geared towards micro-business awareness or do it myself, but this text helps either way.

And finally,

I’ve been watching the images and video feeds from Japan, charting the destruction caused by today’s earthquake and tsunami.  I have expat-friends living with their families near the quake area: They all checked in safe in broadcast e-mails to friends.  The areas look devastated, though: hopefully the loss of life is much less than feared.

Disclaimer: these links and products are used without encouragement or compensation of any kind from their creators or vendors.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

On Wisconsin

Wis_protestI’ve been following developments in Wisconsin’s labor law dispute, where the  governor is attempting to eliminate collective bargaining for state employees.  The Democrats in the legislature have fled to prevent a vote on the issue; Republicans have passed it without them using a procedural loophole.  Gov. Walker promises to sign the measure quickly.

I have been vocal in my criticism of these developments, and have heard from friends asking whether I’m expressing  simple  anti-Republican bias.  Fair enough: I’m admittedly no fan of the party.

But two larger issues still deserve comment.

First, both parties are engaging in parliamentary maneuvers instead of negotiation to pass major legislation.  The culture wars began in earnest when policy began to be set unilaterally by courts and legislative majorities without regard for minority views.  We now see endless tit-for-tat excesses that are just raw power-politics.  It was wrong for the Democrats to do it with Health Care Reform; it’s wrong for Republicans to do it with Labor Reform.

The second is the war on labor unions themselves.  Business stands on ‘three legs’, customers, employees, and shareholders; their competing interests and perspectives create cooperation and tensions that ensure the proper functioning of free-market systems.  Dominance by any one element leads to excess; personal enrichment substitutes for responsible growth. Work unions are a necessary check and balance on corporate governance.

OndernemingsraadThe root of this belief  is my experience with the balanced system that I’ve seen work in the Netherlands.  Briefly, there is a system of trade unions that set collective bargaining guidelines at a national level, and company-level ‘works councils’ which negotiate specific pay packages, working conditions, and layoff policies.  These national co-determination structures fit within the EU Works Councils directives, mandating labor representation and participation for company above a threshold size or with transnational operations.

In our company, the Works Council (Ondernemingsraad) was elected yearly by the employees, and they met with the General Manager periodically – they did not attend General Management or Board meetings.   They relayed information between management and employees, participated in policy discussions regarding business strategy, and resolved workplace issues (memorably, allocation of parking and safety for women walking to the satellite lot).

When the division was closed, but Works Council was notified, and these folks, all ordinary employees, took on all of the negotiations for severance and retirement packages, for synthesizing and communicating worker concerns, and for organizing support and outplacement networks.  They were advised but not directed by trade unions.  I was really impressed with the way that they organized meetings, resolved issues, and negotiated on behalf of the workers: they were known and trusted in return.  In the end, they secured a good settlement that enabled people to go on to rebuild their professional lives. 

The US and UK do not have company-level councils, preferring national, centralized trade unions.  As a result, they don’t share an interest in the success of local businesses, can’t address company-level issues, and fail to be known and trusted by management as well as workers.  They become prone to self-protective excess and defensive, heavy-handed policies, leading to a loss of influence and declining membership.

I’ve always been a believer in human scale organizations and local governance, and like what I’ve seen in the effectiveness of works councils that adhere to these principles.  I believe that workers are partners in business, and should have their interests represented and  their voices heard.  I see the policies promoted in Wisconsin as dangerously unbalancing that partnership, closely allied with right-wing anti-union rhetoric, so my 140-character tweets tend to focus on those events, missing the nuance.

A good background document is here.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Faces of Carnivale

Sometimes it’s more interesting on the ground than from the aerie.  More pix at my Flickr site.


Sunday, March 6, 2011

Carnivale from my window

Sunday started out with sunshine and blue skies, biting cold but with some warm colors starting to gather on the steps across from the apartment.  

…then, within two hours, it was Carnivale.

The big parade rerouted this year, passing directly beneath my apartment window.  We organized a party and watched the 3 1/2 hours of floats, bands, costumes, and creatures roll past.

I’d done the parade from the street before, but the bird’s-eye perspective was really amazing.