The best of two worlds

Heidi Wiig

When Heidi Wiig celebrates the talented future leaders of China's business world, a Norwegian bunad is the only right attire.

We hear many languages at BI Norwegian Business School on this day at BI-campus Oslo, in Nydalen. Students from the 28th class of the BI-Fudan MBA Programme (Shanghai) have arrived in Norway for their graduation ceremony. We can feel the excitement in the air. Everyone wants a group picture as many former students gather around the Associate Dean for BI’s programmes in China, Professor Heidi Wiig. "The motto for the BI-Fudan MBA Programme is The Best of Both, so I have to wear the best outfit I have," Wiig says smiling before she joins the flock of former students awaiting the ceremony after two years of hard work.

The little thing that makes a big difference 

We meet her one week earlier in her office at BI's Department of Strategy and Entrepreneurship, where we talk more about Shanghai than Oslo during the hour-long conversation. She spends much time in Shanghai as Associate Dean of the BI-Fudan MBA programme, a joint programme between BI and Fudan University School of Management, one of China's top universities. When the topic of her workday comes up, she feels the need to point out a little, practical detail that makes a world of difference at work in China, which few Norwegians know much about:

– WeChat. The cell phone app you cannot live without in China! Heidi Wiig opens WeChat which is full of messages and mysterious symbols.

This is the most popular app in China and they use it for nearly everything: You can send text messages, voice messages or record video conversations, pay for shopping, order travel tickets, share images, send money to a colleague who paid for dinner, pay your water bill or read official government information. WeChat has an enormous number of functions. It basically has a cellular monopoly all over China, as services run from American servers are not permitted in China.

Finger on the pulse 

More than 2500 executives have graduated from the BI-Fudan MBA since the programme started in 1996, several of whom have achieved key positions in major Scandinavian and international companies in the region.

“Having your finger on the pulse and getting to know so many young, talented leaders on their way up the corporate ladder gives me a unique perspective on innovation at a very high pace. China's leading tech environments make decisions quickly; so quickly that they are often far ahead of their international competitors.”

This excites Heidi Wiig. She has been working with the concept of innovation processes long before innovation became a buzzword. She also has a worried look in her eyes, about people’s interest in understanding how China and the Chinese market function.

"Our Chinese students talk a lot about their daily lives as middle managers in dialogue with western companies. They are constantly discussing problems where we discover that we come from very different worlds. We may have the same goals, but it takes a long time to understand that we are on the same journey," she says. And in many ways they feel they are far ahead of us on that journey.

"Innovation, research and development have now become a significant competitive advantage. The competition is brutal if your company does not have the expertise it needs."

Heidi Wiig


Cash now flows the other way 

Heidi mentions surveys on innovation carried out by Statistics Norway to chart the amount of work on innovation being done by Norwegian companies in Asia and China. – The effort is vanishingly small. Many young and talented business people have little attention towards Asia, which is scary. China is a country in growth, where developments occur fast as the Chinese are taking the lead in many sectors. They already invest more internationally than what all other countries invest in China combined. Cash is flowing the other way now, and innovation is the motor that turned it. That should not be ignored.

Heidi Wiig started doing research at the beginning of the 1980s looking at technology and the transfer of learning at multinational companies before she made the move to internal innovation processes and regional innovation clusters. She has been focusing a lot on the driving forces behind global innovation networks in recent years. That was when the opportunity came along to become Associate Dean for BI's Leadership training programme in China. Heidi accepted the challenge with gusto.

"The students here are young resourceful leaders in their mid-thirties on their way up the corporate ladder at multinational companies in China. Our two-year part-time programme is very popular here. It involves completing 15 different modules in Master of Business Administration. The programme is open to anyone, so the students come from many sectors, companies and countries. That makes for very exciting classroom discussions. And the more national identities we take in, the more we learn ourselves."

Innovation as a competitive advantage 

The students are asked to solve problems from realistic businesses scenarios that could occur in China, with a market that is dynamic and shifting within a global economy where value chains are increasingly becoming more knowledge-intensive and depend more on an educated workforce.

"We operate in a market segment that was originally motivated by low-cost production that had to change quickly as production costs rose significantly. Innovation, research and development have now become a significant competitive advantage. The competition is brutal if your company does not have the expertise it needs. Most Norwegian companies think globally, but the leap to Asia is too far for them, and you will not succeed in Asia without having people on the ground who are open, inclusive, humble and willing to learn. Things here are so different from home and processes tend to be heavy in China; there is so much we fail to understand. But if you succeed, your business will explode."

Female high-tech entrepreneurs

Heidi Wiig's daily life among 27 million human beings in Shanghai is an enormous contrast to her peaceful home at Årvoll near Oslo.

"I leave my apartment every morning and see Gucci shops with exclusive designer clothing on the other side of the street. I see Bentleys and Rolls Royces driving by, driven by entrepreneurs who recently gained some success — and then I turn around to see an old lady sitting on her knees on the sidewalk cleaning vegetables, and I see people sweeping the street with handmade brooms. China is so diverse; China is everything all at once.

I do not have much time to write while I am there, but I do participate in many workshops and seminars and I meet people or delegates from many companies from whom I learn quite a lot. I also have a project going where I gather empirical data from female entrepreneurs within the high-tech sector. I interview them to find out how they succeeded and compare this with similar data from Norway."

Sharing, transparency and horizontal business structures in Chinese 

One week later, Heidi finds herself among her Chinese students on graduation day at BIs campus in Oslo. An intense week with case studies and Scandinavian guests has reached its conclusion as the final step before students receive their diploma.

"We try to impart the best of Scandinavian values such as sharing, transparency and horizontal business structures and unite these with the best Chinese elements. We hone ourselves from different perspectives with one goal.

Everything is about developing a global mindset – what you need to be a success today.

The graduation ceremony for BI-Fudan MBA students is formal, but Heidi Wiig makes sure everyone is in a good mood as they prepare to receive their diplomas.

Published 10. September 2019

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