British firms slow into Europe: Few companies are geared up for the single market, writes Roger Trapp

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IT HAS long been assumed that while Britain's politicians were showing a certain ambivalence towards greater European union, the nation's business folk were forging ahead in the urge to make the most of new markets. Not so, says a just-published study - or, at best, it is true in patches.

'Only a small number of companies can be said to have geared themselves up fully for these challenges, in terms of their strategic and human resource management planning,' says Nick Forster, in a report for the Cardiff Business School on the response of British companies to the advent of the Single European Market.

He accepts that an important contributory factor has been the harsh economic situation, causing many to retrench. But this is only a partial explanation, he believes. Many UK companies are not treating the changes due next year as an opportunity to expand, he says, and the insularity and complacency revealed by a similar study a year ago is largely unchanged.

Nor is it that UK companies risk missing out only on 1993. The next century is bound to bring an increasing trend to trade and commerce across not just the frontiers of Europe but also those of the rest of the world. And the report, based on responses from the personnel directors of leading British companies, covering a variety of manufacturing and service industries, suggests that only a few have the resources, and the integrated strategic planning and human resources policies, to rise to the challenge.

Some companies do not want to become involved in this kind of environment. But even those that are expanding overseas have a lot to do. Already faced with difficulties over the selection and training of expatriate employees, they will encounter increasing problems related to the management of international relocations. One in five UK managers does not complete the full term of a foreign assignment, and about the same proportion performs below expectations.

Since 'family problems' are found to be behind many of these failures, companies will have to get to grips with the fact that few households today have a sole male breadwinner who can lead the household wherever his employer wants at the drop of a hat.

The message is that human resource management (or personnel), which traditionally has been regarded as a soft area, has a key role to play in planning for the overseas expansion that British companies will have to embark upon in order to survive. And, as in many other areas, the action needed is urgent.