Upon reading news reports last month that Chi­nese firms had recently acquired auto parts com­pa­nies in Detroit, Annique Un’s mind began to bubble with ques­tions. What made these Amer­ican com­pa­nies attrac­tive? What new inno­v­a­tive strate­gies and prac­tices will these Chi­nese com­pa­nies bring to their new hold­ings? What knowl­edge and tech­nology will they transfer back to China? How will this impact the dynamic in the auto industry cap­ital of America?

Topics like these cut to the core of Un’s research and teaching as an asso­ciate pro­fessor of inter­na­tional busi­ness and strategy in the D’Amore-McKim School of Busi­ness. Her work focuses on inno­va­tion in inter­na­tional busi­ness; in par­tic­ular, she’s inter­ested in under­standing how research and devel­op­ment and the man­age­ment of employees influ­ence inno­va­tion in both for­eign and domestic firms.

Inno­va­tion is an impor­tant topic for any orga­ni­za­tion. Many com­pa­nies com­pete on this basis, whether the inno­va­tion is in prod­ucts or processes,” Un said. “Any com­pany that has oper­a­tions out­side its own country is con­stantly dealing with the issue of their ‘for­eign­ness,’ which can be a source of advan­tage, a source of dis­ad­van­tage, or both at the same time.” For a domestic com­pany, Un said, under­standing the unique advan­tages and dis­ad­van­tages of its for­eign com­peti­tors is crit­ical to success.

Un is not afraid to chal­lenge the tra­di­tional thinking of many inter­na­tional busi­ness strate­gists; she said fac­tors that others believe are neg­a­tives for a com­pany oper­ating out­side its home country may actu­ally be pos­i­tives. For instance, com­pa­nies that enter a new inter­na­tional market aren’t tied to the social norms and tra­di­tions that domestic firms might feel oblig­ated to uphold. In other words, foreign-​​owned firms can imple­ment strate­gi­cally impor­tant prac­tices or poli­cies and get away with them because they’re new in town. Un also said com­pa­nies that are expanding their global foot­print can take more chances than domestic firms in areas ranging from adver­tising to product design.

A 2011 article in Forbes high­lighted her study of more than 750 for­eign and domestic man­u­fac­turing firms oper­ating in Spain. Backed by grants from the Spanish gov­ern­ment, Un found that foreign-​​owned firms held the edge in inno­va­tion output. “If you’re an out­sider, your way of thinking and doing things are not always con­strained by the local social con­text,” said Un, who will present her find­ings in July at the Academy of Inter­na­tional Business’s annual meeting in Turkey. “The con­ven­tional wisdom is to assim­i­late. But if you’ve proven you’re doing a better job, why would you want to be more like your competitors?”

Un’s interest in inter­na­tional busi­ness blos­somed while studying in Japan as an under­grad­uate at the Uni­ver­sity of Notre Dame. After earning her master’s in busi­ness admin­is­tra­tion, she began working with Ford Motor Com­pany in the early 1990s, when the U.S. and Japan were feuding over trade and the auto industry. “As a finan­cial ana­lyst,” she said, “I was fas­ci­nated by the dif­fer­ences between how auto com­pa­nies in the two coun­tries operated.”

Un earned her doc­torate from the Sloan School of Man­age­ment at the Mass­a­chu­setts Insti­tute of Tech­nology. At North­eastern, she teaches an under­grad­uate course on inter­na­tional busi­ness and global social respon­si­bility. “Our stu­dents are very worldly,” she said.