By Eilif Trondsen, Ph.D., Chair of SIG on Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Learning
If you are a Norwegian, and curious how people from other countries may think of us (especially in business contexts), you may consider picking up this book: Working with Norwegians (written by the American VC, Sean Percival, who has lived in Norway for two years or so). If you are not Norwegian, but work and interact with Norwegians, you may also read the book and see if you agree with what Sean says in the book.
Of course, Sean makes generalizations (that I think some will take some exceptions to) and state things in “black and white” to make his points stand out, and this makes for more interesting (and sometimes fun) reading, and thus avoids making things too bland and uninteresting. Keep this in mind when you read the book.
Sean refers to the “law of Jante”—which states that you should not stand out and try to be better than others—and I guess that still holds to a certain extent in Norway (and perhaps the rest of the Nordics). BUT, I suspect that “law” holds much less today than in the past, and it will continue to erode, especially as young people in Norway now are embracing entrepreneurship like never before, and also start accepting risk much more than before. Yes, in certain areas of business, risk aversion still is strong, and perhaps especially in the kind of venture operations that Sean works in, as this is very high risk and (hopefully) high return.
My wife, who is American (but lived in Norway for a year), agrees with many of Sean’s observations, including the following: It is hard to get to know Norwegians because they (most) don’t connect easily with strangers/outsiders (my wife certainly found this to be true). In the major metropolitan centers of Norway, which have the largest concentrations of foreigners, this might not be as true as in smaller towns and in rural areas.
Sean also comments on the slow pace in Norway, and he contrasts with Silicon Valley (but today, perhaps even more with the extreme pace of things, especially in entrepreneurial environments, in China). Yes, I think this is true, and this often results in Norwegian entrepreneurs being slow in following up on communications when they come to Silicon Valley. If you want to have success in Silicon Valley, the work-life balance that most Norwegians enjoy (and that Sean is now embracing, it seems) might be difficult. And here, the boundaries between work and leisure are blurry, or don’t exist. Some of us find this ok, but most probably agree that the Norwegian situation is sensible, and something we in Silicon Valley should strive to achieve. But if we want to compete with the Chinese (and others), this may be wishful thinking!
Sean also makes the point, in many parts of the book, that Norwegians—like other Nordics?—are not good at “small talk.” This can complicate or result in awkward business and social interactions. Since Norwegians and other Nordics travel extensively, especially as Norwegian Air often offers incredible deals on international flights, I would expect that Norwegians would slowly pick up the art of small talk. And as Norwegian entrepreneurs—growing by leaps and bounds over the last five years or so (as in the other Nordics)—interact with foreign partners and customers, mastery (at some level) of small talk would (hopefully) result.
Much respect is given in the book to Norwegian business culture of collegiality, lack of formality (including avoiding titles), lack of extreme salary differences (vastly different from Silicon Valley), and honesty, obeying rules and regulations, etc. Sean also claims that Norwegians “love their taxes” but here I think he overdoes it. Yes, Norwegians recognize they benefit in many ways from significant public services that must be paid for, and in contrast to the current regime in the US, which holds that taxes should be minimized to shrink the government/public sector, Norwegians (and most Nordics, I suspect) see things very differently. BUT I have seen many times how people pay cash (“under the table”) to avoid “Moms” (the value added tax, VAT) on services rendered by carpenters, plumbers and others, and one report I saw, said Norway had the second highest underground economy in Western Europe (14% of GDP), which raises doubts about Norwegians love of taxes.
But I enjoyed reading the book and think most readers, whether they are Norwegians or from other countries (and who have interactions with Norwegians) will find it enjoyable, get a few laughs, and hopefully also learn a few things that can avoid some of the cultural challenges that Sean points to in the book. Happy reading.