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How work culture explains Norwegian industrial success

If culture eats strategy for breakfast, the culture of the industrial worker – built on trust, cooperation and a flat organisational structure – may be the secret ingredient that makes the Norwegian process industry truly remarkable.Published 3 Feb 2023 (updated 29 Apr 2024) · 5 min read
Two workers standing in an industrial setting

There are two large-scale battery cell factories under construction in Norway. Many believe this is just the start of a Norwegian industrial battery adventure, spurred on by the EU’s ambition to build an independent battery industry.

How did Norway become such a hotspot for the battery industry? This can be explained in part by the country’s access to abundant, clean and affordable energy, which is ideal for power-intensive industries such as battery production. But that is only half the story, according Agnethe Rieber-Mohn, HR Director at Glencore Nikkelverk.

“As a high-cost country, the Norwegian process industry is at a relative disadvantage when it comes to wage costs. Therefore, we have been forced to become world leaders in productivity, quality, and competence, which is what has made Norwegian industry one of the cleanest and most efficient in the world,” she says.

Skilled workers for an efficient Norwegian process industry

Glencore Nikkelverk operates the largest nickel refinery in the Western world, located in Kristiansand in Southern Norway. It is part of the global enterprise Glencore, one of the world’s largest natural resource companies with mining activities and refineries worldwide.

Simply put, the Norwegian process industry wouldn’t have survived if the quality of our workers hadn’t been so high.

Agnethe Rieber-Mohn

HR Director, Glencore Nikkelverk

“Furthermore, Norwegian industry has a strong tradition of investing in the employee’s education and training. This results in a highly skilled and loyal workforce with a strong ability to deliver quality and contribute to continuous improvement of the production processes,” she says.

Director of Strategy and Communication Kåre-Bjarte Bjelland at Eramet Norway agrees that efficient and skilled workers are just as important as Norway’s abundance of clean energy.

“My experience is that Norwegian industry delivers well on efficiency. We achieve great results on what we call operational parameters – that is how much product we get out of our resources, machines, equipment, and facilities. In other words, we manage to make the most of our industrial capacity,” he explains.

Photo of a worker in one of Eramet's three processing plants in Norway
Eramet has three processing plants in Norway.

More trust and less management for a productive Norwegian process industry

Eramet Norway is owned by the global enterprise Eramet, which specialises in metallurgy and mining and runs three processing plants in Norway. With more than three decades of experience in various roles within the process industry, Kåre-Bjarte Bjelland is in a position to identify some of the reasons why Norwegian industry is so efficient.

“It’s not mainly because we have better or more efficient equipment and machinery. Nor is it about Norwegian workers necessarily being smarter or more hard-working than others. It has to do with a work culture focusing on individual engagement and motivation that makes the most of the skills, experience and knowledge of every worker,” he says.

“This is possible if you have an organisational culture where all employees appreciate how their own work contributes to a larger whole.”

In particular, the Norwegian culture of trust and independence helps to keep plants and factories running smoothly and efficiently.

“Our international owners, for example, react with disbelief when we explain that we don’t need to have management doing shift work. We run operations 24/7, but managers are only present during regular working hours. The rest of the time, the plant is run by autonomous worker teams,” he says.

The upshot is that Norwegian industry spends less resources on management and leadership. Compared to similar industrial plants abroad, our organisational chart is much simpler.

Kåre-Bjarte Bjelland

Director of Strategy and Communication, Eramet Norway

Agnethe Rieber-Mohn of Glencore concurs:

“Management and mid-tier leaders don’t spend a lot of time on overseeing work – their role is to help workers to do a good job, not to stand over their shoulder. Not only does this reduce management expenditures, but it also frees up time and resources to spend on developments and improvements.”

High employee involvement and low hierarchy for a profitable Norwegian work culture

The high degree of trust is accompanied by a high degree of equality and a low degree of hierarchy in all layers of Norwegian society.

“This is perhaps most evident in our meeting rooms. I’ve been in far too many meetings where the norm is to only let leaders and specialists speak, while everyone else is expected to only speak when spoken to. In Norway, the individual employee is encouraged – even expected – to contribute,” says Bjelland.

According to Rieber-Mohn, this egalitarian culture yields tangible benefits.

“Broad employee involvement, open communication and trust-based leadership give the employees a strong understanding and ownership in the business, increasing motivation and performance. It also has a tangible effect on efficiency,” she says.

“My experience is that many of the best suggestions for improvement come from those working on the factory floor. It makes sense: if you want to cut waste of resources and energy, your first port of call should be the ones running the machinery every day.”

For Bjelland, employee inclusion ensures that a company can make the most of all the experience and knowledge it possesses.

“In a typical industrial operation like ours, technical specialists and management make up anywhere between 10 and 30 per cent of our workforce,” he says.

“But if you make decisions on the assumption that this group, who spends most of its time sitting in offices, knows everything there is to know about equipment, functionality and work processes, you are making a mistake. That’s why a low hierarchy is beneficial: it ensures that all relevant knowledge and experience are included when making decisions.”

Norwegian process industry has a lot to offer the battery industry and other sustainable industries

Glencore Nikkelverk, as a refiner of essential battery materials such as nickel, cobalt and copper, is well equipped to supply the growing Norwegian and European battery value chain.

“The company exports globally – but of course we at Glencore Nikkelverk look forward to potentially supplying a Norwegian and European battery industry. We believe that our skilled workforce and work culture provide a high degree of innovation and adaptability, which will be important for developing the battery industry in Norway,” Rieber-Mohn says.

Norwegian workers are highly skilled, adaptable and ready to enter new industries.
Norwegian workers are highly skilled, adaptable and ready to enter new industries.

Meanwhile, the oil and gas industry will be winding down gradually. For Norway, this means a growing pool of highly skilled workers that can be retrained to work in the battery industry and other sustainable industries. This would not be the first time Norway has built on existing expertise to develop new successful industries.

According to Bjelland, Norway’s success in the offshore and gas industry is due in part to the incorporation of knowledge, skills and work culture developed in the smelting and maritime industries, among others.

“Looking ahead, I think we can build the industries of tomorrow on the shoulders of the industries we have today,” he says.

“Traditional industrial companies like Eramet Norway and Glencore Nikkelverk still have a lot to offer. Not only will we continue to increase value creation, but we will have an important role to play in the green transition, as our products are essential for the major transformation of the energy and transport sectors, among others,” he concludes.