Lessons from Scandinavia
Wed, Aug 19, 2009
The Business Times
DENMARK, Sweden and Norway – three countries in the Scandinavian Peninsula – are frequently on the top 20 list of any worldwide ranking of the best countries for doing business. And because of Singapore’s increasing trade and economic ties with these countries, Scandinavia’s dynamism and success present an interesting case study for business and management students.
A group of 28 Singapore Management University (SMU) undergraduates had the opportunity to take a first-hand look at their business and management practices when they were in the Scandinavian region from May 16 to 19 on a business study mission (BSM).
The BSM focused on the entire supply chain management of Scandinavian companies in the energy, pharmaceutical, banking, manufacturing, and food and beverage industries, as well as the region’s culture, tradition and lifestyle.
An intense immersion in the Scandinavian business and way of life started weeks before the trip, with lessons held three times a week for the visiting students.
Guest speakers, such as the Danish Ambassador to Singapore, Vibeke Rovsing Lauritzen, Swedish creativity guru and founder of interesting.org, Fredrik H??ren, and even Scandinavian exchange students in SMU, talked about what it meant to be Scandinavian – and shared perspectives of how Scandinavian businesses operate.
The Danish Ambassador also generously invited us to a sumptuous Scandinavian meal. It was a memorable evening as she did all the cooking and preparation herself and we felt extremely privileged and honoured to have experienced Scandinavian culture and hospitality in this way.
On visits to companies based in Singapore, such as Vestas, the world’s leading producer of wind turbines, and Swedish bank Skandinaviska Enskilda Banken, we learnt that Singapore’s political stability, business potential and excellent relations with Scandinavia were key reasons for many Scandinavian companies to set up their regional headquarters here.
This sentiment was echoed by the Norwegian Ambassador to Singapore, Janne Julsrud, during a reception she hosted at her home, which gave us the opportunity to interact with Norwegian businessmen. She also noted that Singapore was a leading importer of Norwegian goods.
During the trip, our first stop was the Lego factory in Denmark. Lego senior management representatives introduced us to the history of the company and gave a snapshot of where the business is now before treating us to a rare, behind-the-scenes look at how every little piece of Lego found on the shelves of toy stores around the world is produced and packaged.
In Denmark, we also visited Vestas; Grundfos, the world’s leading supplier of pumps; and Novo Nordisk, the global leader in diabetes care.
A major part of the BSM also focused on Norwegian energy companies such as Renewable Energy Corporation, which specialises in solar energy; and StatoilHydro, which specialises in oil and natural gas; Orkla, one of the biggest conglomerates in Norway; and Hansa Borg, the largest brewery and beverage distributor in Norway.
Many of the companies we visited are world leaders in their respective fields. Being able to learn about their history and how they rose to success were a highlight of the BSM. We eagerly asked many probing questions – and the representatives were more than willing to provide the answers.
The warm and candid nature of the senior management of the companies, something not often seen in other parts of the world, generated much dialogue and proved very insightful for us.
This ‘low power-distance’ in Scandinavian business culture is unique to Scandinavia, and is something Singaporean businesses can learn as it reduces tension between management and staff, encouraging an open work environment and culture for employee development.
A common trend among the Scandinavian companies across the various industries is the constant emphasis on sustainability and preserving the environment.
In Scandinavia, the environment is of the utmost importance – companies are penalised heavily if they fail to adhere to international environmental preservation guidelines when conducting their businesses. As such, Scandinavian companies are always looking for innovative ways to adapt their businesses to remain sustainable and environmentally friendly.
Norwegian beverage company Hansa Borg is a good business model. Consumers are charged slightly higher prices for bottled beverages in Norway, but they are paid a sum of money for every bottle returned to the place of purchase.
The bottles are then collected in truckloads by Hansa Borg, and brought back to the factories for inspection, cleaning, and re-bottling. Since bottles are not thrown away but are instead reused, this practice helps to reduce the amount of waste produced as a result of beverage consumption in Norway.
As part of our learning process, my class was also tasked to source for donors to alleviate our travel and accommodation costs for the BSM. We worked in groups of three and were given full autonomy to contact companies and request support. We learnt the hard way that securing sponsorship, particularly in these difficult times, was not easy. But we all picked up important life skills in the process, such as negotiation and pitching a project.
The class is grateful to two donors, World Scientific Publishing and Sirius Marine, which pledged $4,000 each in cash sponsorship to support BSM Scandinavia 2009. Their contributions were invaluable in helping students like us defray the cost of such vital study trips.
Most of us had never set foot in Scandinavia. So visits to key attractions and cultural immersion completed the eye-opening exposure for us. After the Lego office, we of course had to revisit our childhood and fan the flames of creativity again in Legoland, a theme park built entirely from billions of Lego bricks.
There was also the rustic Norwegian mountain village of Geilo, where some of us had the chance to play in the snow for the first time – even though it was summer. And we will remember the beautiful, scenic Flam train ride in Bergen.
For me, the Norwegian philosophy of ‘dugnad’, or the willingness to volunteer and contribute to the community, struck a chord in me and led me to think that it would be wonderful to have a little of that Scandinavian spirit in Singapore.
The company visits, the relationships with the people we met, and the lessons learnt both inside and outside the classroom, will stay with us for the rest of our lives.
The writer is a third-year undergraduate at the Singapore Management University’s Lee Kong Chian School of Business
This article was first published in The Business Times.
Article republished in AsiaOne.com.