Migration & knowledge transfer

By Charlotte Mueller

“It’s amazing what migrants bring”. This was the slogan of a 2013 media campaign by the International Organization for Migration (IOM). It displayed sketches of migrants, carrying suitcases filled with “multitasking skills”, “heaps of team spirit”, “a love of teaching”, “strength for building”, “twelve years of study”… The main message: migrants bring valuable skills, expertise and knowledge to their country of destination and thereby make an important and positive contribution to the societies of destination country. Yet, this is only one aspect of migration and knowledge transfer. The topic is of much greater complexity: migrants can be knowledge senders and knowledge receivers simultaneously, in their country of destination as well as in their country of origin. Hence, we not only have to consider the circular nature of knowledge (transfer) but also the circular nature of migration.  

Defining knowledge and knowledge transfer

In today’s global economy knowledge is the most important driver of productivity and economic growth, assuring competitiveness and innovation. In developing countries, knowledge is regarded as an important tool for development. The easiest and most intuitive way to define knowledge is as “literally what people know”. Knowledge emerges from the individual and always remains intrinsically linked to the individual, that is each person creates her or his own knowledge from data and information. Knowledge can be divided into two types: explicit knowledge and tacit knowledge. Explicit knowledge can be codified and transmitted through a systematic language and is somewhat independent from context. Examples of explicit forms of knowledge include: words, sentences, manuals, reports, assessments, patents, databases and computer programs. Conversely, tacit knowledge is difficult to articulate and codify as it is personal in nature; it is created through performing actions and gathering experiences. This type of knowledge is therefore highly context-dependent and more complex than explicit knowledge. Polanyi, the founder of this distinction, also argued that “all knowledge has a tacit and explicit component”.

Knowledge transfer can be defined as a multi-stage process which includes the transmission of information by one individual or group and the absorption of said information by another individual or group. The value of knowledge lies in its impact on behaviors, policies, processes and practices within the recipient party. Knowledge transfer is considered successful when a practice adopted from another individual or group becomes routine within the recipient unit.  

Due to its ease of articulation, explicit knowledge is more readily transferred through structured or formal processes sometimes involving technology or information systems. Interpersonal reaction is not required for the successful transfer of explicit knowledge. Methods to transfer explicit knowledge include manuals and up-to-date documentation, memos or guidance notes, translated foreign language materials or online communication tools, such as Wikispaces.

Tacit knowledge is more difficult to transfer, and also to measure or quantify.  The transfer of tacit knowledge requires a great amount of effort and personal interaction by all parties involved. Tacit knowledge transfer methods include mentoring and coaching, learning by example, teamwork encouragement, on-the-job training, job shadowing and job rotation, communities of practice.

‘The suitcase’ – What migrants bring

As the introductory example illustrates, migrants can bring important knowledge to their country of destination. For instance, migrant workers in UK businesses have been identified as possessing supplementary skills and innovative ideas, contributing to improved business performance and increased productivity. Migrants also facilitate the ‘immigration’ of existing ideas into new contexts: one example is Charles William Anton, an Austrian refugee from the Anschluss who migrated to Sydney in 1938 and subsequently became one of the founding fathers of Australian post-war skiing.  Migrants might also contribute certain cultural knowledge, values and behavior, also referred to as “soft knowledge”. The value of migrants’ knowledge therefore often lies in the scarcity of this knowledge in the destination country.

‘Packing and Unpacking’ – Knowledge transfer to the country of origin and knowledge circulation

Acquiring knowledge is a continuous process; migrants may acquire new knowledge through employment, education and social connections in the destination country. As migrants remain connected to their country of origin while abroad, they have to potential to transfer knowledge gained in the country of destination to their country of origin through transnational activities. In this context, the transferred knowledge is commonly referred to as a form of social remittances, and can include norms, practices, identities, and social capital. A distinctive characteristic of social remittances is that some type of personal connection exists among the actors involved. Migrants can transfer knowledge to their country of origin in several ways; the concept of circular migration thereby plays an important role. Return movements for knowledge transfer purposes can be divided into three categories: permanent return, temporary return and virtual return.

Permanent return

First, migrants who return to their country of origin after having lived in another country for a significant period of time might make important contributions to the country of origin’s development by transferring their knowledge acquired abroad. In the 1990s and 2000s, returning Irish diaspora professionals pushed the country’s high-sector boom with their “enhanced human capital”. Temporary migrants – migrants who have lived for a shorter period of time in the destination country without the intention to stay – can also facilitate knowledge transfer to their country of origin. For instance, Korean managers acquired project management and industrial skills working in turn-key projects in the Middle East in the 1970s; they later applied their skills in large construction projects in Korea.

Temporary return

Second, migrants do not have to return permanently to their country of origin in order to transfer knowledge; migrants also transfer knowledge and skills through visits and short-term returns. In the late 1980s, the government of Taiwan offered incentives to Taiwanese engineers based at Silicon Valley to return permanently to the country; simultaneously, high numbers of Taiwan-born, US-educated engineers started travelling back to their country of origin on a regular basis, creating a transnational community. The engineers transferred technical know-how and organizational models to Hsinchu companies.

In recent decades, governments of countries of origin and destination and international organizations have launched programs to encourage temporary return to enable knowledge transfer from highly skilled migrants. One illustration of this trend is the effort of the Chinese government to encourage temporary return of overseas professionals, dating back to the introduction of postdoctoral programs in 1985. This was followed by a series of policies and incentives, making diaspora engagement an important factor of the development of the Chinese Knowledge Economy. Examples of international programs include Migration for Development in Africa (MIDA), Transfer of Knowledge through Expatriate Nationals Programme (TOKTEN), Temporary Return of Qualified Nationals Programme (TRQN) and Connecting Diaspora for Development (CD4D). During TRQN to Afghanistan, migrants designed new curricula and re-wrote and edited poorly translated schoolbooks to make them comprehensible for the teachers and students. TRQN participants also set a positive example for professional workplace behavior and encouraged teamwork and discussions about democracy, women’s rights and good governance.

Virtual return

Finally, increased global connectivity and major improvements in information technology have enabled migrants to maintain close contact with their family and friends in their country of origin. Migrants are therefore able to interact with people in their country of origin and transfer knowledge without physically returning to their country of origin (also referred to as virtual return). Letters, emails, videos, cassettes and telephone and video calls and applications such as Skype, WhatsApp and Facebook facilitate a cost-effective transfer of knowledge that comes very close to face-to-face interactions. This transfer can take place on the individual level, but also between organizations or networks. Virtual return is especially important in conflict-affected countries with high insecurity where long-term physical return is not an option.

What to keep in mind

To conclude, I would like to highlight a few aspects. First, social remittances and knowledge transfer can have positive and negative impacts. It has been demonstrated that migrants have the potential to transfer important expert knowledge and technical and managerial skills and might transform lifestyles, behaviors and notions with regard to gender relations and democracy. At the same time, social remittances might discourage remaining family members from investing their time in career development or community projects in the community of origin, lead to an idealization of life abroad or lead to the transfer of unfavorable norms and practices.

Second, programmes such as TRQN or CD4D are based on the assumption of a double-advantage when working with migrants for knowledge transfer to the country of origin. One, that they possess unique context-specific knowledge and language skills which international consultants do not have; and, two, that they have been exposed to other rationalities in the country of destination, other than that of the non-migrant population of the origin country. Migrants often blend values and behaviors from destination and origin countries; they are therefore seen to have an unique insider-outsider perspective or an in-between advantage.  That said, migrants’ potential should not be overestimated or taken for granted. The knowledge and skills that migrants bring (and continue to receive) from their country of origin influence their experiences in the destination country; this, in turn, affects what they send back.

In the same way, not all migrants are highly skilled. While temporary return programs focus on highly skilled migrants, knowledge transfer via the different channels discussed is not limited to the highly skilled. We have to consider factors that inhibit or facilitate knowledge transfer in countries of destination as well as in countries of origin. For engagement to take place, migrants must possess the willingness and capacity to do so. Likewise, the decision to return, temporarily or permanently, might be influenced by the ability to mobilize, opportunity structures and context. Additionally, factors in the destination country, specifically the acceptance of a migrant’s qualifications in the local labor market, time to find a job upon arrival and the extent to which the job matches the level of education and qualification, may facilitate or inhibit knowledge transfer; so do labor and immigration policies and trade agreements. At the same time, the absorptive capacity in the country of origin is another crucial factor in the knowledge transfer process. Depending on the context in which knowledge transfer takes places, other barriers might be mutual mistrust, negative attitudes, lack of motivation, an unsupportive working culture, competing interests, a lack of the equipment and resources required for knowledge transfer.

Charlotte Mueller

Charlotte Mueller

PhD Fellow, Maastricht Graduate School of Governance, Maastricht University / United Nations University-MERIT

Staff page at UNU-MERIT: https://www.merit.unu.edu/about-us/profile/?staff_id=2490

More information about the CD4D Impact Evaluation can be found here: https://macimide.maastrichtuniversity.nl/new-macimide-project-connecting-diaspora-for-development-cd4d/



  1. IOM (2013). Migrants contribute. Retrieved from http://migrantscontribute.iom.int/
  2. As defined by UNDP (2010), Measuring capacity, Technical report, UNDP. Retrieved from http://www.undp.org/content/undp/en/home/librarypage/capacity-building/undp-paper-onmeasuring- capacity.html; p. 21
  3. For example see: Polanyi. (1966). The tacit dimension. New York: Doubleday.
  4. See definition of knowledge transfer summarized in: Kuschminder, K., Sturge, G. & Ragab, N. (2014). Contributions and barriers to knowledge transfer. The experience of returning experts. (CIM Paper Series No. 7). Maastricht Graduate School of Governance.; For a list of knowledge transfer methods see for example: IMPA-HR. (2004). Knowledge Transfer: 12 Strategies for Succession Management. Capturing the Lessons of Experience.
  5. Examples taken from: Department for Business Innovation & Skills. (2015).The impacts of migrant workers on UK businesses. BIS Research Paper No. 217. February 2015. Retrieved from https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/406760/bis-15-153-impacts-of-migrant-workers-on-uk-business.pdf; Strobl, P. (2016). Migration, Knowledge Transfer, and the Emergence of Australian Post-War Skiing: The Story of Charles William Anton. Int J Hist Sport. 2016 Nov 1; 33(16): 2006–2025.
  6. Siar, S. (2013). The Diaspora as Carrier to the Home Country of ‘Soft Knowledge’ for Development.” Chapter 12. In Global Diasporas and Development. Edited by Sadananda Sahoo and B.K. Pattanaik. India: Springer.
  7. Levitt, P. (1998). `Social remittances: Migration driven local-level forms of cultural diffusion’, International Migration Review 32(4), 926-948.; Levitt, P., Lamba-Nieves, D. (2011). Social Remittances Revisited. Journal of Ethinic and Migration Studies 37(1), 1-22.
  8. Examples taken from: Kapur, D., McHale, J. (2005). Sojourns and Software: Internationally Mobile Human Capital and High Tech Industry Development in India, Ireland, and Israel. In: Ashish Arora and Alfonso Gambardella (eds.), From Underdogs to Tigers: The Rise and Growth of the Software Industry in Some Emerging Economies, Oxford University Press, 2005.; Newland, K. (n.d.) Can Migrants, Countries of Origin and Countries of Destination All Win from Circular Migration? Retrieved from https://gfmd.org/files/…/gfmd_brussels07_csd_session_3_en.pdf
  9. Example taken from : Saxenian, A. (1999). Silicon Valley’s New Immigrant Entrepreneurs. Public Policy Institute of California. Retrieved from http://www.ppic.org/content/pubs/report/R_699ASR.pdf
  10. For the Chinese example see: Xiang, B. (2005). Promoting Knowledge Exchange through Diaspora Networks (The Case of People’s Republic of China). ESRC Centre on Migration, Policy and Society (COMPAS), University of Oxford. A report written for the Asian Development Bank. Retrieved from https://www.compas.ox.ac.uk/media/ER-2005-Knowledge_Exchange_Diaspora_China_ADB.pdf; For TRQN see: Kuschminder, K.  (2014). Knowledge Transfer and Capacity Building Through the Temporary Return of Qualified Nationals to Afghanistan. International Migration 52(5).
  11. Levitt, P. (1998); Levitt & Lamba-Nieves (2011).
  12. Ibid.
  13. For example see: Brinkerhoff, J. M. (2009). Creating an Enabling Environment for Diasporas’ Participation in Homeland Development.; Levitt & Lamba-Nieves (2011).
  14. For example see: Siar, S. (2014). Diaspora Knowledge Transfer as a Development Strategy for Capturing the Gains of Skilled Migration. Asian and Pacific Migration Journal, 23(3).