Does Danish culture boost automation innovation?


Culture matters

As anyone who’s done business internationally knows, national cultures are different and cultural differences do matter. Yes, it’s dangerous to make generalizations and to listen too closely to all the stereotypes, but it’s even more dangerous to assume that all cultures are the same.

Whether it’s at the organizational or national level, culture is difficult to talk about: among other things, culture is all the things that we just do without anyone knowing why we do them. And culture is nearly impossible to change.

Still, culture matters. This is especially noticeable when you’re working with people in a different culture and you can’t quite understand why they act differently than you expect.

So, to help all of our international customers understand these strange Danes (and maybe to help my Danish colleagues understand all of those strange foreigners) here are some aspects of Danish culture that stand out in comparison to other countries’ – and what they mean for our business of creating new automations solutions.

Flat hierarchies, consensus and plenty of collaboration and teamwork

The first thing many foreigners notice about Danish business people is our lack of respect for authorities. It’s more than the boss being on a first-name basis with everyone. Danish business hierarchies are relatively flat.

Just because you’re the CEO doesn’t mean you won’t get challenged on points big and small. “Do it because I said so” is one of the lamest things a Danish boss can say. “Do it because it makes sense, and let me show you why” works much better.

Of course, Danes understand that there are hierarchies and that bosses get to decide more than others, but we expect our good ideas to be heard – every time. We get used to this in school, where multiple-choice tests are rare and group work – even group exams – are common. Elementary schools, high schools and universities put a lot of focus on learning and working together in project teams. This continues unabated right into our professional and business culture, where teams, rather than individuals, are often called on to solve problems and get things done.

Given the above, it should be no surprise that we Danes prefer consensus to unilateral or minority decisions.  It’s important to us that everyone’s opinion gets heard and respected in the decision-making process, and we think solutions are better when they get everyone’s buy-in. Not that things always work out that way, but they often do.

For automation innovation, this is usually a good thing. Everyone on the team is expected to contribute, whether you’re an electrical engineer or the maintenance technician. And everyone’s ideas matter. If the maintenance guy demonstrates to a senior engineer how a design detail creates problems, he gets heard. If the new guy comes up with a crazy way to solve an old problem, he gets his talk time (but not necessarily his idea implemented).  A lot of knowledge sharing happens this way, and it often improves the robustness of solutions, since many perspectives get covered and everyone around the table has a say.

Control is good, but trust is even better

Everyone’s heard of Vladimir Lenin’s famous quote, “Trust is good, but control is better.” We say it sometimes in Denmark, too, usually in a joking way. But generally speaking, the exact opposite is true for most Danes. Control is good if that’s all you can do, but trust is way better.

Trust is an important part of Danish culture. Most people here trust in the government and public institutions. Compared to places like the United States and Eastern Europe, way more.

Trust is an essential part of Danish business culture, too, and you can see this in a lot of different ways. Compare job descriptions between U.S. and Danish companies, for example, and you’ll find that the Danish job descriptions are usually shorter and more general, while the American ones are far more detailed about specific responsibilities. Compared to other cultures, Danish managers are generally more likely to trust subordinates than to control them. The thinking is, if I give you a job, I assume you know how to do or that you will figure out how to do it – and that you’ll ask if you need help.

An automation example comes to mind that combines the Danish preference for trust with our dislike of stiff hierarchies. Qubiqa often send technicians around the world to service and upgrade our equipment. These people know our equipment better than anyone else and are experienced troubleshooters, but they don’t have fancy-sounding titles. Our customers are sometimes surprised that we give them so much autonomy to make important decisions and spend significant sums of money if that’s what they think is the right thing to do. After all, they’re only service technicians, they say.

For Danes, however, there is no disconnect. When a manager sends a technician abroad to do a job, the expectation is that the technician (or a junior engineer working on a project, for that matter) are smart and reliable enough to empower to make the necessary decisions. It’s OK if they call home to check on something they’re not sure about, but it’s even better if they get the job done on their own.  

This sense of trust in each other leads to faster solutions to problems of all kinds. Sure, it goes wrong sometimes. But more often than not, we find that trust in others who share the same goals gives us a big head start.

Aesthetics and attention to design – part of Danish DNA?

Finally, I think it’s important to mention design as something that’s important in Danish culture. It’s not that all Danes are designers, or that everything we do looks great – far from it. But it is a fact that we grow up with and are constantly surrounded by a lot of good product design, architecture and urban planning. I think this kind of rubs off, and inspires people to consider aesthetics as part of any good solution.

Foreigners notice, for example, that the cool lamps and exclusive furniture they only see in high-end design shops or slick interior magazines at home are all over the place in Denmark – not least in public buildings like schools, libraries, city halls, etc. When foreigners think “Why would you put such nice stuff in public places?”, Danes think “Why would we put anything but nice stuff in public places?” We expect our institutions to pay attention to design, and we wonder why, given the choice between good design and bad, anyone would want to choose the latter.

But design thinking in Denmark goes beyond pure aesthetics. It’s also an approach that informs a lot of problem solving and innovation processes, starting with a focus on users’ needs, then building on brainstorms, iterations and other proven design methods.

Here at Qubiqa, we think design processes and aesthetics matter for automation equipment, too. This rubs off on all of our non-Danish colleagues as well. Whether they grew up in the Danish culture or not, and whether they can express it in so many words or not, everyone working here comes to know the difference between good and bad automation design. It’s just one of those things that has become part of our corporate culture.

So, does Danish culture boost automation innovation? We think it does!


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