There were undoubtedly many reasons for the caution in the past, some of them quite common and referred to in the text a bit further down.
In the beginning of 2012 we checked our compasses and started to conquer the executive education market of that huge neighbour of ours. Well, conquer might be a little bit exaggerated, but; shoot to the moon, the worst thing that can happen to you is that you fall upon a star! Also, last February yours truly started as the Director, Russia at Aalto EE. Before that I worked “from outside”, on a project basis with e.g. the issues related to Russia.
Some general issues about the relationship between Finland and Russia
Finns have always kept their distance from Russia – at least emotionally. We have approached Russians as opponents and adversaries, despite actively trading with them both now and in the past: Russia, in fact, surpassed Germany last year to become Finland’s second most important export country.
Customs and bureaucracy are among the perpetual challenges to boosting exports. I would even dare to make the claim, that myths and misconceptions may also be barriers to making gains in the Russian markets.
The recently founded Business Team for Russia is a positive step. Three prominent Russia experts (EK’s Russian functions, the Finnish-Russian Chamber of Commerce, and East Office) are jointly focussing their efforts on paving the way for companies to reach the Russian markets, and hopefully also to shatter myths related to conducting business in Russia.
The business cultures of our countries differ considerably, and confusion exists on both sides. The well-tailored, high-quality suit and name-brand watch worn by a Russian negotiator might irritate the Finnish engineer, who relies on expertise and the quality of his or her product. The well-cut suit might be the outfit only in St.Petersburg and Moscow together with a couple of other big cities. But let us consider the suit also as a metaphor for good manners; recently businesspeople dealing with Russia were asked what could be learned from Russians, and the answer was unanimously “good manners”! (Venla magazine 2/2013). There were other issues to be learned as well, among them respect for colleagues, willingness to learn and curiosity! Interesting!
The irritation on the Finnish side is possibly the result of not bothering to get acquainted with Russian culture, where people are greeted according to how they look (or how they behave), but are bid farewell based on their intelligence. The situation in Finland is practically the opposite, as here it is “intelligence” and expertise that are greeted right from the start.
Russians have a positive perception of Finnish products, and a Finnish product is often a guarantee of quality. This is a good start and can potentially open doors, particularly early on in the game, but above all, good personal relations with decision-makers as well as good negotiating skills and decisiveness will determine the outcome of a deal.
Russia is a land of opportunity for Finland, but I do hope that we take the time to update our information, give our preconceptions the acid test and hone our knowledge of Russia to get the best results!