Exploring the uniqueness of business education in Scandinavia and why it is so popular today.

Sustainability, a high standard of living and high-tech society influence how MBA programmes are taught in Scandinavian countries.

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With income inequality and economic inequity increasingly rife throughout the developed world, the success of the Scandinavian economies is extremely topical. Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz believes that American policy makers must use their model to achieve more balanced growth. US presidential candidate Bernie Sanders makes this point more forcefully: “We should look to countries like Denmark, Sweden and Norway, and learn from what they have accomplished for their working people”.

The economy in a mirror

So, what is the secret of these countries’ triumph? Not everybody sees the role of the state as pivotal to their success. Nima Sanandaji, a research fellow at the Centre for Policy Studies, for example, suggests, in Fortune magazine, that it is their culture, rather than wealth redistribution, that is key. Sanandaji comments that from 1870 through 1936, Sweden was the fastest growing economy worldwide. Then, she adds, after 1975 - when the state began expanding - it fell from the 4th richest country in the world to the 14th by the middle of the ‘90s.

However controversial this opinion, the Scandinavian business model is worth examining. Of course, the business atmosphere can hardly be separated from the social and other stimuli provided by the state, the overall business-friendly climate and the excellent social infrastructure.

In a 2013 article, The Economist conducted a thorough analysis: “Governments are forced to operate in the harsh light of day: Sweden gives everyone access to official records. Politicians are vilified if they get off their bicycles and into official limousines. The home of Skype and Spotify is also a leader in e-government: you can pay your taxes with an SMS message.”

And the business magazine continued: “This may sound like enhanced Thatcherism, but the Nordics also offer something for the progressive left by proving that it is possible to combine competitive capitalism with a large state: they employ 30% of their workforce in the public sector, compared with an OECD average of 15%. They are stout free-traders who resist the temptation to intervene even to protect iconic companies: Sweden let Saab go bankrupt and Volvo is now owned by China’s Geely. But they also focus on the long term - most obviously through Norway’s $600 billion USD sovereign-wealth fund - and they look for ways to temper capitalism’s harsher effects. Denmark, for instance, has a system of “flexicurity” that makes it easier for employers to sack people but provides support and training for the unemployed, and Finland organises venture-capital networks.”

All these thriving, sometimes contradictory dynamics have created some of the most competitive and innovative economies in the world. Its citizens enjoy a high standard of living, pay notoriously high taxes, but also get a lot in return from the state, and the social, educational and healthcare systems. Corporate taxes are kept at reasonable levels to stem the outflow of capital. Being a business pioneer in the globalised world and yet providing the necessary protective social nets for the population is a combination few countries have mastered more skilfully than the Scandinavians. And the results stand out, especially considering the last years of anaemic growth throughout most of the developed world.

The three Scandinavian states - Sweden, Norway and Denmark - are respectively the 9th, 11th and 12th most competitive countries in the world, according to the 2015-2016 Global Competitiveness Report. The data is compiled by the World Economic Forum at Davos. The survey claims that, in Sweden and Norway, the biggest obstacle to conducting business is the restrictive labour regulations, whereas in Denmark it is the tax rates. Conversely, these features, if functioning correctly, probably appease the labour unions and render social policies efficient, albeit expensive.

Business education in Scandinavia

It is logical that such strong economies would host reputable business schools. But what makes the Scandinavian MBA a distinctive and special case?

The triple accredited Copenhagen Business School launched its Executive MBA in 1994, and its standard full-time MBA made its début in 2004. “We were latecomers to the MBA market, as we already had a successful product in our HD programmes, which were in high demand nationally,” declared the former president of CBS, Finn Junge, and former director of CBS Executive MBA, Claus Valentiner, in a joint speech. “With an MBA, we wanted to establish ourselves on the international scene by offering a globally recognised degree.”

Apart from the education itself, alumni value the networking events the school organises in order to keep former students in touch. “What I really appreciate about being part of the CBS MBA network is the back-to-classroom events,” comments Ada Stein, an American who received his MBA degree in 2007. “They allow me to constantly refresh my MBA skillset and encourage me to think about the big picture instead of just focusing on my day-to-day work responsibilities.” 

For Gerard de Bourbon Ponce de Leon, Global Accounts Manager at Verizon Enterprise Solutions and a graduate of the Stockholm School of Economics, it is the more cooperative form of learning in his Swedish MBA that made the difference: “The SSE MBA was very different from, for example, my studies at Harvard, which was very competitive and where people only cared about themselves. The SSE MBA was an altogether different experience with a more collaborative group dynamic.” There is no doubt that an MBA is a degree about global business, but this is the special hallmark of Scandinavian culture incorporated into the degree. Cooperation and solidarity are so much more than theoretical ideals. They can also be ways of doing business.

Gerard de Bourbon Ponce de Leon decided to study an MBA despite many past achievements. For him, life-long learning is more than an abstract concept: “I have a degree in physics and mathematics, and a successful career in the financial and IT/telecoms industries. Still, I believe you should revisit learning every five years or so throughout your life. You need to reopen your mind, which gets closed up as you get stuck doing things in a certain way and addressing challenges in the same fashion as you have always done. We develop a certain format in how we process things and solve problems. An MBA at SSE opens your mind,” he says.

Another student with an interesting story to share is Katti Hoflin, director of the Dunker’s Cultural Centre at Helsingborg. She also had a versatile career when she started her MBA at the Stockholm School of Economics. At the time, before returning to school, she was a television host and manager at the Stockholm Cultural Centre. What were her motives for doing her MBA? “Having studied literature, theatre and philosophy, I felt that my lack of a formal academic degree posed an obstacle on my way to new positions and challenges.”

Her experience indicates that an MBA could be more than just a nexus between different professional fields - it could also link different skills: “I enjoy the cultural sector but after the SSE MBA I have become more open to working within a completely different sphere in the future. The business world, for example, has a lot to learn from the arts sector when it comes to creativity and innovation. Cultural and creative enterprises make up a growing chunk of the economy in a post-modern world.”

Katti has learnt to benefit from mixing the specifics of the different professional fields from her background. This is one of the most interesting but sometimes challenging things, as it rarely appears in the textbooks: “If there is one sector that needs more rational and analytical thinking, it is the non-profit cultural sector, where decisions are too often based on subjective opinion rather than objective analysis. Public sector operations in the field of culture face a sometimes bewildering array of qualitative objectives, as well as the economic restraint that comes from the desire to reduce public expenses. I have found that a strict operations framework often frees up more creativity.”

Not just about the degree

The MBA experience cannot be divorced from the country and the region within which it is based. All three Scandinavian capitals make the top 30 in the Mercer’s 2016 Quality of Living Rankings. Copenhagen is in 9th place, Stockholm 20th and Oslo 30th. The cultural allure, quality of life and innovative business landscape make Scandinavia a suitable place for attending business school. It may not be as popular an MBA destination as the Anglo-Saxon countries, but it is more than competitive, to say the least.

So it is hardly a surprise that interest in Scandinavian schools is high. Take BI Norwegian Business School in Oslo, Norway, for instance. It is one of the largest European business schools, with almost 20,000 students and 340 permanent faculty. Established in 1943, it has three additional campuses outside Oslo - Bergen, Trondheim and Stavanger. In addition, its research faculty has 8 departments, with 26 research centres dedicated to business administration, marketing, finance and general management. The school is considered to have made a huge contribution to Norway’s economy. It has educated over 200,000 graduates since 1983.  

While we can admire Scandinavian businesses, their way of life and innovativeness, it would be wrong to think that these were constructed overnight. In fact, some say that Sweden, Norway and Denmark discovered the key ingredient - the social state - relatively late. As Nathan Heller wrote in an article for the New Yorker: “Mary Wollstonecraft, visiting in the late eighteenth century, lamented “how far the Swedes are from having a just conception of rational equality,” and this continued to be a valid complaint for several years thereafter. Denmark only began offering a state benefits programme for elderly people in 1891. Norway launched insurance for industrial accidents a few years later.”

“Similar schemes proliferated in the early twentieth century, and by the post-war years the modern Nordic welfare state had its distinctive form. The model, crucially, interprets “welfare” to mean not just financial capacity but well-being. It might take into account that a woman forced to defer dreams of motherhood because of work, or vice versa, is hostage to her circumstances even if she’s able to pay her bills. And, rather than simply catch people on their way down, it aspires to minimise the causes of inequality - more climbing web than safety net.”

Sweden, Denmark and Norway are so popular today because of their special blend of a strong welfare state and a model of capitalism that is both flexible and sustainable. This entails more pragmatism and less ideology. It is precisely here that modern-day education steps in.

This article is original content produced by Advent Group and included in the 2016-2017 annual Access MBA, EMBA and Masters Guide under the title “Terra Scandinavia”. An online version of the Guide is available here.