Are you looking far enough?

Dear Norwegian companies in the teknologibransjen: do yourself a favour, hire diverse.

I often hear that Norway does not have enough competence capacity in the field of technology, a field that will be key for us to keep our society in a future without oil. I know we are investing in the education of enough qualified Norwegians that can take those roles. Yes to more and better courses in the universities, yes to initiatives that help building that competence in the workplace, yes to a closer cooperation between business and educational institutions. A definite yes to long term planning. But what do we do in the meantime?

A bit of what I have read:

As of today, 45% of Norwegians over the age of 55 feel their digital skills are insufficient for the work they perform. Start ups are considering locating somewhere else, as they are unable do fill the positions. 57% of the companies that answered the IKT-Norge member survey chose “lack of IKT competence” as the biggest obstacle to further growth. Tax levels in Norway scored 29%. One third of the companies answering the survey didn’t manage to fill up the available positions last year.

My question is: are you looking well — and far — enough? It took me over a year in Norway — with seven years experience plus a master degree — to get into the work market. I can easily name others that went through very much the same. And unfortunately, we are not alone: a few months ago A-magasinet wrote about the struggle of high educated immigrants to get into the qualified work market in Norway. Instead of working within their fields of education, they are washing floors. People with foreign names still have less chance to get invited for interviews — in a study done in Oslo in 2012, anonymous applications doubled the number of applicants with a minority background invited for interviews.

I know it’s not plug and play

It is not a simple task, and I do agree. Language is the main challenge, but is not the only one. There is a cultural challenge: understanding the unspoken rules, what is ok and not ok in a Norwegian business setting, what is expected from an employee. Someone coming from abroad will take some time to comprehend how society is arranged, from practical issues such as tax reports to a more conceptual comprehension of how the market operates, businesses settings are arranged, etc. And foreigners will take more time to understand what is the most important in technology: the people using it. Here they are the Norwegians.

But is not such a complicated task either. Norwegians are well fluent in English as a second language (own empirical research + research that shows it). Although some might argue that they are not comfortable with English in professional settings, it is most likely that those exchanges will happen in a context where clarification is possible.

And it’s worth it.

Hiring diversity is not charity, it’s competitive advantage. The McKinsey report Diversity Matters, from 2015, shows that companies that rank high in gender diversity were 15% more likely to have financial return above average in their industry. Companies that rank high in racial / ethnic diversity were 35% more likely to have financial return above average in their industry. 7

And why diverse companies perform better? According to the study, diversity improves the company image, increases employee satisfaction, but most important, diversity fosters innovation and creativity through a greater variety of problem-solving approaches, perspectives, and ideas.

So if you, dear Norwegian tech company, are dependent on innovation (and you probably are), then it might be a good idea to get out of your own comfort zone and build up a work environment that sees the world a bit different than yourself. When our oil reserves end, we might have to start looking abroad to sell our knowledge, and that will be easier if you can start building those bridges right now.

Ok, I want it, but how do I do it?

Make this a strategic decision. Repeat to yourself, loud and clear: “We will create a diverse workplace, by hiring the best people, independently of where they are. I am not doing anyone a favour: this is actually going to give me competitive advantage.” When this feels just natural for you and the other directors of the company, then you can take it to everyone else. It’s important that they know where this decision is coming from — so they can also make an effort to welcome the new.

Prepare for the transition. If you are hiring foreigners, you will most likely have to do English as the work language. That means written and spoken language, preferably all the way to the informal chat by the coffee machine, so serendipity is really for everyone. Norwegian classes will help anyone to understand the culture, the society and, well, to have a social life outside of the expat group.

Don’t forget to tell your clients. Although it might be a goal that your employees should speak Norwegian after a while, make sure that they don’t end up in situations where their professional proficiency is reduced by the language. Make sure your clients understand they are getting much more for their money if they can compromise a little bit — it won’t hurt, you will promise.

Get things done. Map your current situation and make sure you have diversity targets set, so your bonuses depend on this. Norwegians are known for hiring people from their own network, so be aware of your own bias toward hiring people just like you. Have clear criteria on the position, so your gut feelings — a.k.a. bias — can be toned down every time.

I understand. As a manager I didn’t think it was that easy to try to make things differently from the people who were in those positions before me. It might seem scary at first, but be brave, be curious. There is a whole world out there ready to bring you far with them.