Immigrants help Norwegian companies to think differently

February 28, 2017 - 06:00

Companies that hire immigrants have more international partnerships and are more innovative, according to researcher.

“Immigrants see things in a different light and help us to put together knowledge in innovative ways”, says researcher. (Illustration photo: Shutterstock)

A report by DNB Markets shows that over 40,000 jobs have disappeared from the oil industry in the last two years. The experts are not sure whether job losses has bottomed out or not. The question now is how we should adapt to create new jobs and new industries.

At the same time, immigration is increasing. Over 16 per cent of the population is either an immigrant or was born in Norway of immigrant parents, according to figures from Statistics Norway.

Can foreign labour help us to adapt?

Like a kaleidoscope

Yes, believes researcher Marte Cecilie Wilhelmsen Solheim of the University of Stavanger Business School. She is researching how various types of diversity affect different kinds of innovation. Solheim has conducted surveys in more than 500 Norwegian companies and looked at the statistics for the entire country.

“Innovation means new combinations of knowledge that already exists. Imagine a kaleidoscope, with its countless tiny pieces in different colours and shapes which form a picture. The picture changes if you twist or shake the kaleidoscope”, says Solheim.

For companies, this translates into putting known knowledge or people together in new combinations, and thereby utilising knowledge in new ways, according to the researcher. 

“Immigrants can help to change the picture we see in the kaleidoscope. They see things in a different light and help us to put together knowledge in innovative ways”, says Solheim.

Why more international?

Solheim’s PhD work shows that companies with a foreign workforce tend to work with more international partners. She has identified the factors which result in this.

“Immigrants facilitate contact in a completely different way to ethnic Norwegian employees. They have professional and social relationships which the companies could make good use of. They speak other languages and know the cultural codes”, she explains.

This means that they greatly help companies to establish contacts and export goods and services to a large international market.

“Norway is a small economy, which needs to participate on the international market. If we only focus on regional cooperation, we reduce our export and innovation options”, says Solheim.

She has seen that the companies which only cooperate regionally are struggling to reach the international market. If they want to be successful, they could benefit from hiring foreign workers with a high level of education.

Must be educated to a high level

Solheim emphasises that her results demonstrate that it is essential for the immigrants to be educated to a high level in order to create innovation. If they have a low level of education, the company does not achieve the same results. The immigrants must also be employed in positions where they can have an effect.

“We know that many immigrants are employed in jobs for which they are overqualified. If they become more involved, this can have positive results for the company”, says Solheim.

Regarded as foreigners

Solheim finds it paradoxical that immigrants with a high level of education and extensive experience feel that their skills are not being used.

They do not get the chance to prove themselves; they are used for routine work and often feel that social relationships outside the company are highlighted. Since they are outsiders and foreigners in the local community, they are regarded in the same way within the company.

“We need to have the courage to try something unknown if we are to create something new. Foreigners often have valuable knowledge that we need”, says Solheim.

Many immigrants are prepared to take risks, and often succeed as entrepreneurs. Figures from Statistics Norway reveal that a fifth of the new entrepreneurs in Norway in 2012 were immigrants.

One of the reasons for this could be that they do not get the jobs they want. Another could be that they are more willing to take risks, since they have taken a chance already in coming to Norway. Or it could be because they are able to see opportunities or new solutions because they are looking at things through different glasses.

Developing new products

Companies with a lot of foreign employees and which work with many international partners are also more innovative. Solheim’s research shows that this is the case both in terms of product innovation and process innovation.

The latter means finding new ways to do things, such as more effective workflows, better organisation, logistics and procedures.

But it is in product innovation that she found the biggest gains.

“Companies which have a lot of international partnerships are more likely to implement radical product innovation. This is when new products have the power to change an existing market or create an entirely new market”, she explains.

She mentions drones as an example of radical product innovation. In a short time, drones have become an indispensable tool in many fields, such as agriculture, the oil and gas industry and the film industry. 

“We need to have a high degree of innovation and international cooperation if we are to succeed, particularly since we are a small country on the outskirts of Europe. Using the skills and knowledge of immigrants could make it easier for us to succeed”, says Solheim.

Source:

Marte Cecilie Wilhelmsen Solheim: Innovation, space, and diversity. Doctoral Thesis, University of Stavanger (2017)

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Read the Norwegian version of this article at forskning.no

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