Being an American in a Danish led corporate business group

For the moment we can forget about the differences between the business cultures of the 'East' and 'West'. The 'West' has its own fundamentally different corporate cultures, among countries that ostensibly have much in common.

On the surface many western countries are very similar. They share a belief in democracy, co-operate militarily, buy each other's goods, listen to the same music, watch the same TV shows and eat the same burger menu.

Beneath the surface though it is very different, because people's roots are fed with nutrients from very different cultural and historical layers. This is especially true for the United States, where ties with Denmark are strong in many ways. Nevertheless there are differences - and potential.

Uncovering potential

This potential is one of the reasons why business psychologist Rikke Lindekilde is writing her PhD thesis at CfL Danish Centre for Leadership and Grundfos where she is attempting to identify the scope for effective distance management across physical, temporal and cultural barriers. 

"The importance of good management at a distance has the effect that in recent years there has been a growing interest among leaders for CfL courses and advisory competences within virtual management. Two-thirds of leaders believe that distance management is a particular challenge" says Rikke Lindekilde.

"To understand, to act and do business in different cultures at a distance is likely to be one of the most important factors of competitiveness in the future but cultural knowledge and understanding are difficult to communicate without categorizing and being abstract. It must be experienced," she says.

The Danish pump company, Grundfos at Bjerringbro, is one group, which in recent years has gained much experience in distance management and co-operation between different cultures. However, what is it like to experience Danish culture outside Denmark and how does it feel being an American within a Danish organization?

A Danish company in the US

Near Kansas City in the United States - over 7,000 km from Bjerringbro - Grundfos has one of its North America units, where Research and Development is located and headed by R&D Director, Dorsey Small. He is being truly successful in the region through execution of a strategy that has relevance and benefit both to the local stakeholder, the region, and the global stakeholder, Grundfos.

Dorsey Small has described how despite the geographical distance and cultural differences, it has been possible to transfer Grundfos's corporate culture and spirit to the American enterprise. Dorsey Small says:

"I believe it is already here but with a touch of an American, Canadian, and Mexican flavor. Grundfos is great at marketing to their employees. They know how to inspire you to drink the company cool aid and buy into the company spirit." 

Differences between the US and Denmark

Dorsey Small lives in the agricultural state of Kansas in the Midwest US and in addition to his R&D Director post, he and his family raise cattle. Dorsey has travelled to Denmark many times this past decade, managed Danish employees stationed in the US, and knows Denmark reasonably well. His description of the cultural differences between the US and Denmark emphasize that even between western countries there are cultural challenges to be faced within global corporations.

When asked what are the basic differences between Americans and Danes, Dorsey Small says: "There are a variety of different cultures within the borders of the US. I think it is fair to say there are many more in the USA than there are in Denmark. Although Americans are in many ways similar, in other ways they are quite differentiated. There seems to be a high tolerance for diversity or difference or individuality in the US. I'm not convinced Denmark's culture has the same tolerance capacity".

Liberated but conservative

"It appears Denmark is one of the most liberal societies in Europe and places a very high value on freedom of speech. However, it is also a nation strong in the tradition of being conservative in some areas. This habit of absolute freedom of speech combined with conservative tradition creates a side effect perceived to be low in tolerance for diversity of a view", he continues.

"In ways, the US is seen to be conservative or even backwards by Danish standards. We are often viewed as embellishing the situation or overzealous in our ambitions. Denmark is seen as more progressive and early adopters of technology while Americans are slower to change but when they do it is all or nothing. It also seems Denmark places less value on the local culture than on their heritage Danish culture. Denmark seems to work to live for their social community while Americans seem to live to work for their individual success", concludes Dorsey Small who points out these are his personal views and beliefs.

Cultural balancing act

Rikke Lindekilde from CfL points out that it's a basic competence required by global managers and employees to raise awareness of the difference between national cultures at different global business locations. Distance management is always a balancing act between the acting out of a common global strategy, use of a common language and business process, while maintaining on the other hand local and cultural autonomy.

Rikke Lindekilde continues by saying:

"This balancing act is an ongoing challenge. In the end, however, we see that good distance management incorporates an urgent need for good relations that can support and manage cultural disagreements and misunderstandings that occur and will occur. Good relationships involve, inter alia, that we include at a distance, meaning the ability to create relationships is as important as the mantra we hear again and again that we must understand and adapt our behaviour to other cultures".