We talk to Egbert Schram of ITIM International about how businesses can define their cultures and use them as a strategic asset.
TODAY’S economy is global, but there is more than just a new market of consumers on the other side of national borders. As companies become truly international entities, they have the challenge and opportunity of managing their diversity and culture.
Enter Egbert Schram, an expert on helping organisations use culture as a strategic asset. He is the CEO of ITIM International, a company established in 1985 by Bob Waisfisz and supported by one of the pioneers in the field of culture and management, Dr. Geert Hofstede.
Schram was hired by the Finnish software company FeedbackDialog in 2006 to launch their international operations, and he was asked to become CEO in 2011. When the company acquired ITIM International he took over the role of leading ITIM as it becomes a major player in culture and management consultancy.
Can you tell us a bit about your background, and how you came to Finland?
I was raised on the island of Flevoland, the big piece of reclaimed land in the middle of the Netherlands, where my parents moved to as pioneers in the early ‘80s, coming from the northern province of Frisia. After I finished high school [gymnasium] I joined the Royal Dutch Marine Corps officer school recruitment programme to become a career officer. However, due to various reasons, I left the programme.
Working with people and being outside was, and is, quite important for me, and based on these criteria I decided to go to Wageningen University and study forest and nature conservation. My special focus was on environmental psychology, which is studying people in the outdoors in order to create better forest and nature area zoning decisions. This topic is of rather big importance in the Netherlands: there are lots of people but not so much nature, which equals lots of chances for conflicts, just like in the office environment.
While studying I was quite active in the national forestry student association and as such also participated in various IFSA (International Forestry Student Association) activities. During one activity I met my future wife, who is Finnish, and we started a long distance relationship. I graduated and started working as a sales consultant for a market research software company in the Netherlands while my wife was completing her studies in Finland. After flying back and forth for some time I decided that I was quite done with my job in the Netherlands and the Netherlands as such, and looked into opportunities to move to Finland.
At that time a Finnish company, FeedbackDialog, was looking into expanding outside Finland and due to my contacts in the Dutch market research/training industry I was asked to join them, initially part-time as a market entry consultant. This was in April 2006. While working part-time for FeedbackDialog, I initiated my PhD in social psychology and studied Finnish quite intensively. The part-time job grew into a full-time job within one year.
How did you internationalise FeedbackDialog, growing the customer base to sixteen countries in six years?
I was the first foreigner in the company and already due to that fact everybody was “forced” to switch to English. This helped to immediately switch the mind-set from being locally oriented to thinking internationally, which I think is crucial when you are not just going to be present internationally, but truly global as a company or organisation. We managed to grow the customer base by finding the right network partners and by opening a web-shop, which aimed at breaking the monopoly of a couple of big test publishers.
Now you are the CEO of ITIM International. How do you describe your work? What do you like the most, and what do you like the least?
My work involves a lot of communication: commercial, lobbying, motivating employees and network members, and challenging the silo approach most professional associations have. My main task is to grow our organisation. The ability to combine that with loving the topic – making people understand one another better and building business on that is great. I love the people part and to see the sparkle in people’s eyes when what you say or ask hits the mark.
Then there is business development (new products, new markets) and there is the usual paperwork and financial work. The least fun part is the administrative work such as financial planning.
What are the most common mistakes you see when companies manage their culture?
When they think they know their own culture, without having measured it. Or when they think they have only one culture. The way a cleaner relates to his or her work and colleagues differs a lot from the way a CEO looks at it, although it is the same organisation. Trying to create a uniform culture kills off any chance to get the most out of what drives people and only creates disenchantment. People no longer care about what they can contribute to the organisation, what the organisation can contribute to them, and what both can add to the world.
Another mistake is to think they are global while speaking the local language. If you are global, you speak English because it is the global business language, especially on the management team and board level. Yet, at the same time if your board consists of people who have all studied more or less the same subjects – such as law, finance or business – and who all speak the same language, you also cannot say you’re truly global. You are not using the added value of diversity out of fear of the discomfort a diverse team initially brings.
Can you give an example of how you have helped one of your clients?
I’ll give two. One is a Switzerland-based ventilation equipment company with less than 30 employees, which has tensions between the head office – including administrative staff – and field employees – the mechanics. They were talking completely different languages, which resulted in misunderstanding, frustration and sick-leaves. After visualising that work meant something different for each group, the increased understanding made them deliver higher quality work to clients and take less sick-leave internally. This was a job on organisational cultural differences.
Another project was on a Finnish healthcare technology provider, which has outsourced quite a bit of its R&D to India. The Indian team members felt excluded due to the fact that the Finnish R&D people only talked about and focused on the work and didn’t share any personal details. This caused them to feel disenchanted and demotivated. Our work was training and some consulting on how to better include people who work remotely in location and culture, in this case by organising a weekly ‘virtual coffee’ to start the week. This job was mainly on national cultural differences.
How does the national culture and company culture interact in international companies?
National culture determines partly the type of organisational culture. Cultural differences between nations are especially found on the deepest level, or, in other words, on the level of values. Values refer to such preferences as freedom over equality or equality over freedom, and are difficult to catch in numbers and even more difficult to change. In comparison cultural differences among organisations located within the same national culture are especially identified on the level of practices, like what behaviour does a company consider acceptable and what is not acceptable. Practices are much easier to catch in numbers and are easier to change.
In international companies, you can typically identify the company’s country of origin. Anglo-Saxon multinationals will typically have more focus on performance compared to Finnish multinationals, where work-life is considered more important by both Finnish management and employees. Asian multinationals will typically have more focus on loyalty – the company is your life – and more focus on hierarchy compared to Anglo-Saxon multinationals.
Depending on the organisational culture the level of influence these national cultures have can vary, for example, in how much space local offices have to do their own thing. The challenge for organisations is to find enough commonalities for employees to identify with, yet give enough freedom to incorporate locally acceptable practices.
Born: Naarden, the Netherlands, 1981.
Have you noticed a difference between Dutch working culture and how it is in Finland?
The biggest differences between Dutch working culture and Finnish working culture from the perspective of a foreigner is that the Dutch bring more private life into their job, which typically means it is easier to bond with colleagues compared to in Finland: work is more than just work, it is also socialising. In Finland, work is work and private time is private time. This can be difficult to cope with; I certainly needed some time to feel at home. And it’s not about me or others being foreign, I also noticed that among typical Finns people normally don’t mingle that much with colleagues outside work.
In general I like the work ethos of Finns and some more socialising would lighten up the spirit and help people to cope better in life. Work is about more than work – of course, that would be my Dutch bias.
I also think that organisations can do more in helping managers to manage people by letting them first and foremost manage people and not be an expert. For the typical manager in Finland, their main priority is being an expert in their particular area and not managing people.
Another aspect is that Dutch are more accepting that people are different (as they are) and therefore leaving some ‘grey space’ is a way of dealing with these differences. In my opinion, Finns tend to confuse ‘being different’ with ‘being less equal’. This makes Finnish working culture rather ‘black and white’, which is a pity, although it is understandable given the structure of the Finnish national culture.
The Finnish national culture drives people and organisations to structure life as much as possible via rules and institutions in order to avoid ambiguity. Life is stressful, so having things like institutions and rules help to guide people and prevent stress. Another such example is Japan. It is a pity, because being truly global and being able to profit from the financial and social wealth it brings requires more acceptance of the uneasiness diversity brings.
What kind of advice would you give to a foreign company expanding to Finland and who is interested in Finnish working culture?
Hire us for guidance!
The first advice for foreign companies coming to Finland, and also for Finnish companies going abroad, is to know your own organisational culture so that you can see if it is a place that is welcoming for different opinions. This will allow you to get the most out of the genius and work ethos present here in Finland.
Secondly it is to realise that Finnish people in general appreciate their relative freedom in terms of ‘this is my area of expertise, leave me alone’. Control, which is something quite common in Anglo-Saxon, Chinese, French and most of the world, has a big demotivating effect.
How would you describe your own working values?
Keep perspective, give everything you have, learn and adapt fast, be critical but in a constructive way, go for the win-win.
What are you most excited about for ITIM’s future?
The world of work is only becoming more international, meaning more people will have the opportunity to explore working with people from different cultures and more companies will need to recruit from abroad in order to be able to sustain their growth. Young people will become managers, meaning they have experienced the value of cultural knowledge, therefore making the business world a world that takes people management more seriously.
Given our presence in 32 countries with local experts, our name and fame by being linked to Prof. Geert Hofstede, our technological knowledge in how we can make cultural knowledge available online in a cost-affordable way, and our young and driven team of eight nationalities in Finland, we are ready for take-off.
Is there anything else you want to add?
Have a look at how cultural values impact your own behaviour at:
Text David J. Cord, images Tomas Whitehouse.