This article was written and published by IT ID Magazine on May 25th, 2018.
Building an international IT company unified by common values and corporate culture is a challenging task. It requires knowledge of other cultural insights and strong will to cooperate. There is a set of questions to be answered. How does national culture influence a corporate one? Is it possible to incorporate the Scandinavian approach into work process in Ukraine? And what is the difference between the Scandinavian and Ukrainian approaches to work, life and their balance?
Conscensia – a Danish outsourcing software development company with headquarters in Aalborg, Denmark, and development center in Lviv, Ukraine. The company focuses on development within JAVA, Scala, .NET, Mobile Development (iOS/Android), Quality Assurance and others. Conscensia’s clients’ development projects range from software for mobile, desktop and web applications to embedded software solutions and integration of ERP.
The development center in Lviv has a Scandinavian management style that centers on personal development and work-life balance and boasts a very low employee turnover rate. Conscensia has more than 10 years of experience in helping companies to find the best software competencies for their development tasks.
When talking to potential clients, at times I get questions about Ukraine and Ukrainians. What it is like to work with them, if it is easy to do business in the country or even ten quick dos’ and don’ts on such partnership and business relationship.
My answer is always the same. I believe that the only way to understand people from another culture is to understand yourself and your background first. Also, I hold that it would be incredibly arrogant to frame a whole culture relying on one’s personal (and often subjective) opinion solely. Every time I meet someone who tries to do so, it turns out to be a proclamation of oversimplifying statements which never contribute to mutual understanding. It displays prejudice rather than insight.
Nevertheless, it is essential to speak, listen and share about cultural identity to understand how it might affect its representatives. This topic is especially sensitive for teams distributed over a few countries.
What is Scandinavian Corporate Culture
A lot of misunderstanding, frustration and inefficient communication can be avoided if we acknowledge the implication of culture. I believe, the first step to accepting others is understanding our grounds and where we come from. Having this insight helps us predict what kind of microclimate will we have inside of a team and how it can be spread around the whole corporation on a larger scale.
This concept can be explained by a simple example.
When we opened the development center of Conscensia in Lviv, we knew that we wanted to build a company based on Scandinavian corporate culture. As it allows a smooth daily cooperation with Scandinavian clients. To do so, we needed first to answer the first question – what is Scandinavian corporate culture? And second, what does the corporate culture in Lviv look like? And how to merge these two within one company?
To answer the first question, I would like to step back a little and share my thought on how and why we, Scandinavians, are as we are. I will start by going a thousand years back to the Vikings. Those well-known figures were often misinterpreted over the course of history. Very few of them were actually plundering thieves as shown in TV series. A typical Viking was a small merchant peacefully traveling around Europe, Westernmost parts of Asia and Northern Africa. As merchants, they were out to trade goods. Owing to the Scandinavian and Northern Europe climate, the business was active only during summer, the rest of the year people were producing goods, fishing the seas or farming the country to have something to trade the following summer.
They organized themselves into small groups (6 – 8 people), sharing a boat that they would fill with goods and then sail out together to trade. When coming home at the end of the trading season, they split the profit more or less equally. It was a close-knit community where all were dependent at some scale upon each other. In general, all major decisions were made out of the discussion on the boat, and nobody’s opinion was more important than that of the others. Based on the discussion and communication the captain would make a final statement, and everyone would follow that decision loyally.
This way of organizing cooperation and this view on equality have prevailed and are still the cornerstone both in the Scandinavian cultures and in Scandinavian corporate culture. If Denmark and Norway were traditionally inhabited by farmers and fishers who naturally stick to small units, Sweden has been active in mining and ore industry which are not individual crafts but something that would normally call for a larger and more hierarchical organization. But both in the small and in the large organizations we have kept our traditional view that everyone counts and everyone is encouraged to speak their mind.
To summarize my opinion on what a Scandinavian corporate culture is, it would involve these points:
- An organization where everyone counts. It doesn’t matter whether you are the CEO or a junior. Everybody is welcome to speak up suggestions on how to improve operations.
- An organization where decisions are made transparently and where everyone agrees upon the final decision as the decision-making process is always a joint effort.
- An organization where everyone contributes their share and helps the colleagues in need.
- An organization where the CEO makes coffee if that is what is needed here and now. Because corporate hierarchy doesn’t matter. Unlike corporate goals.
- An organization where you trust that your colleagues will rather help than harm you. And where you trust that the management is making the right decisions and will involve you in case you are affected.
- An organization where you comply with rules and ethics and where you ensure a certain level of Corporate Social Responsibility.
- An organization where you cultivate both freedom and responsibility. Meaning that you organize and arrange many things on your own as long as it coincides with the overall goal of the team, department or organization.
- An organization that keeps focus on work-life balance. The company encourages its employees to live a rewarding life where there is time and place for family and leisure.
- An organization of engaged people, who care about the well-being of each other, the company and it overall terms, the prosperity of community they belong to. To keep our employees involved and motivated, every Friday we expect them to finish work by 3 pm in order to come back Monday rested and full of energy.
How to incorporate Scandinavian corporate culture in Lviv
When it comes to the integration of Scandinavian corporate culture into Conscenscia Lviv office, my thesis is that if we succeed in establishing and maintaining the same cultural standards in every development center that we might open, the cooperation with clients will run smooth. All over the world Scandinavian goods and services are known for their quality. That’s why non-Scandinavian clients willingly cooperate with a Scandinavian organization and culture.
When outsourcing in e.g. India, one of the most frequent complaints I hear is that people there always say “yes” even if they mean “no”. This attitude is hard to comprehend and cope with from the Scandinavian perspective because in our culture people tell precisely what they mean, without any additional or hidden context.
A conversation about the importance of a well-established corporate culture can seem somewhat theoretical and even deem. It’s easier to showcase it on real examples. Here is what a daily life in Conscensia Lviv office looks like:
- Our organization is based on three core values: Trust, Transparency, and Responsibility. People are invited to share their opinion. Anybody can approach management and express their thoughts or concerns.
- We have made an office layout that is true to the Scandinavian feel. It was inspired by an old Danish concept – Hygge.
- We have numerous events for everyone; for individual technology groups; for individual development teams; for operational staff or specific departments with a focus on personal growth, team spirit, better corporation, entertainment, etc. All to ensure that people have the means to grow and engage them in corporate life and culture.
- As a part of our onboarding program, we have a class in Cultural Intelligence where we discuss culture and why it is essential, just as we discuss the expectations of clients and where they come from.
- We work to get clients and developers together both in Scandinavia and in Lviv on a regular basis to ensure that a good team atmosphere and culture is being built and maintained.
- People are also told to be true to themselves. If you feel that you’ve got the wrong task, you shouldn’t get straight to it but share your concerns. If you just keep quiet about something that is important to you, it will make you increasingly dissatisfied and demotivated.
- Flat organization. Whenever I am in Lviv, I sit in an open space, not in a private office to be open to everyone passing by to come up to me and chat or ask whatever questions they might have.
As I usually say, we have a true Scandinavian culture at our Lviv office, obviously with a Ukrainian flavor. I don’t see it as a peculiarity but rather as something quite natural. Without adaptation to Ukrainian reality, it would be assimilation, which would be counter to the fact that people must be true to themselves.
The most significant difference between Ukrainians and Scandinavians is trust. In the Scandinavian context, you trust not only people but also systems by default. In Ukraine from my experience, people are inherently more skeptical so you need to gain their trust, which to me means that we as a company better deliver our promises to people working for us. But then again we needed the same in Scandinavia otherwise we would lose people’s trust. So the lesson is that we are not that different and there is no right and wrong, just a different perception of reality.
People from different cultures sometimes interpret same words in different ways. In Denmark, a manager would seldom give orders but often make suggestions. To a Dane, it is clear that if you do not follow the recommendation you need to have a good reason why, but that is not always the case in other places. In general, I think that software developers in Scandinavia and Ukraine have very much in common and are more alike than a software developer from Copenhagen and a fisherman from Esbjerg. They want to work on exciting projects that have a purpose, have possibilities for development and growth.
When it comes to Conscensia, I firmly believe that this Ukrainian flavor – or maybe more accurately this combination of Scandinavian corporate culture and Ukrainian national culture – is adding something extra and thereby increasing the value to the offer that Conscensia provides to our clients.