Today’s guest post comes from journalist and writer Sigrún Davíðsdóttir, who is RÚV’s correspondent in London. Sigrún is widely agreed to be one of Iceland’s finest investigative reporters, and I am absolutely in awe of her ability to present some of the most complex scenarios in a language that a regular person can understand. She is a regular contributor to Spegillinn, in my opinion RÚV’s very best current affairs programme [on Radio 1], where her pieces are consistently outstanding. Sigrún writes the excellent blog Icelog, which focuses pretty much exclusively on the meltdown and subsequent fallout. I’m absolutely delighted that she agreed to contribute to the IWR.
Recently, I talked to a businessman who works for a company that is interested in the data storage sector. A priori, he couldn’t understand why this wasn’t already a thriving sector in Iceland – after all, the world, most notably companies like Google and Microsoft, is hungry for green-solution data storage, exactly what’s on offer in Iceland. Technical issues, that were a hindrance a few years ago have been solved. Why hasn’t this interest materialised in up-and-running Icelandic data storage centres?
Well, he found some of the answers when he himself went to Iceland in search of business opportunities. This man, familiar with business cultures in different parts of the world, be it the West or the East, had never run into problems like he encountered in Iceland.
Before going to Iceland he had been in touch with possible partners in Iceland and they had set up a programme that he has confirmed for his part. As it drew nearer to his trip he got more and more frustrated since none of the meetings seemed to be confirmed. In the end, the meetings were either confirmed the day before or on the hoof.
At first, he was quite taken in with the exceptional hospitality and accommodating attitude of the Icelanders. He was invited home to those he met with, met wives and children, friends and relatives. Nothing seemed to pose a problem to the Icelanders who would shrug shoulders and say ‘sure, we’ll do it, no problem.’
However, as the days in Iceland went on he became increasingly frustrated because nothing ever seemed to be finalised. Everything was in a flux, nothing could be pinned down and settled but ‘sure, we’ll do it, no problem’ was the ever-repeated mantra.
His summary of the whole experience was that two things did deeply trouble him: 1) the mixture of private and professional relationships – 2) the lack of or opacity of work/decision processes.
The Icelandic tendency of treating everyone as a friend is rather cute but it’s also deeply insular and indeed rather unprofessional. I’ve lived abroad long enough to notice this – and I can very well understand that foreigners find this plainly weird. To them, it’s also a waste of time. If you are invited to someone’s home for a meeting and the whole family is there and perhaps friends and relatives of the host, a lot of the time will go on non-business related conversation that, however pleasant and interesting, aren’t furthering the purpose – and yes, that can simply give the foreign businessman a sense that he is wasting his time.
The lack of traceable processes is much worse, though. Businesses in Northern and Western Europe and the US are characterised i.a. by formal work processes and decision process that many Icelanders find formal and time-consuming. I once interviewed one of the top bankers in a now failed Icelandic bank. He was explaining to me how quick they were at making decisions (what was seen as a key advantage in the Icelandic banks/businesses expanding abroad during the boom), and that this swiftness gave his bank a real edge. He then pointed at a set of black folders standing in a row: they contained the bank’s work processes ‘and we never look at them,’ he said proudly.
The businessman who had tried to do business in Iceland shuddered when I told him the story. For him it was deeply uncomfortable to think that not only were all processes absent, there also wasn’t any understanding of their benefits. Yes, of course they take time and of course it keeps you from racing on – but that can also be an advantage. And if something goes wrong, the process can help to track the source of the problem. But the businessman still didn’t understand why his possible Icelandic partners found it so difficult to make up their mind as to how they might want to engage with the foreign company seeking business opportunities in Iceland.
I offered an explanation. I once talked to an Icelander who lived abroad for some years (no, nothing to do with Icelandic banks or the Viking raiders). What he had learnt about his countrymen during his time abroad was that they suffered from a huge disability: Icelanders can’t commit themselves to any decision that’s final. It came out in small things, he said, like accepting an invitation – Icelanders wait to the last minute to accept or just don’t answer and then show up. (I couldn’t help but see my inability to decide on flights as this characteristic Icelandic inability to commit myself to travelling at a certain date in the future – I would prefer flights to be like busses). And the unwillingness to commit shows itself in major decisions. Now, it’s Icesave, he said – the offer from the Dutch and the British is on the table and Icelanders seem physically unable to face the facts and finalise a deal, forever thinking that something better might come up later.
When I told the foreign businessman his eyes lit up – his experience fell into place and fitted this description, from confirming meetings to the larger decisions regarding moving the business forward. Icelanders, he said, are excellent at doing things, solving problems but only as long as these are issues are only stepping-stones. However, they were unwilling to commit – and that has had an effect on him: he’s now less willing to commit his company to doing business in Iceland.
He wondered how this national trait had originated. I mused on the fact that fishermen might be like that, if you can’t fish today, tomorrow might offer better prospects. A fisherman doesn’t need to plan so much and is dependent on the weather that he can’t control. He thought this might be the case but pointed at the Japanese, also formed by the sea but still rather good at planning and committing. So if it has to do with the sea, Icelanders are like Nordic fishermen, not like Asian fishermen.
Lately, I’ve been reflecting on the conversation I had with the businessman. Some people have been pointing out to me that this unwillingness to commit is just the opposite of what the Icelandic boom-makers seemed to be about, such as quick decisions. But I’m not convinced. A big part of the boom was about evading finalities such as paying off loans or trying to evade accepting losses by making loan agreements for the chosen few and the bank employees themselves that they would never lose money on. Or, as if the huge commitments to only the chosen few had no consequences. Everything was kept in a constant flux, no clear processes, or processes completely sidelined. And that’s what we are stilling paying the price for.
If Icelanders want to attract foreigners to do business in Iceland they must try to meet them halfway in this respect and to commit. Otherwise, no serious investors will want to do business in Iceland – or it will attract those who seek opacity and thrive in the shadows. And those are not the ideal investors.