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Business Strategy Review, 2002, Volume 13 Issue 2, pp 11-19

The Art of
Swedish Management
Julian Birkinshaw

some interesting questions for the world of business

Swedish management, as personified by and management. What are the secrets of his success?
England soccer coach Sven-Göran Can his approach to management be applied in other
Eriksson, is once again attracting world settings? And is his style something that is common
to other Swedish leaders?
attention. But what exactly is it? And can
it be made to work as successfully First, there are some common managerial traits –
outside the particular mix of Swedish exemplified by Eriksson – that can be seen in most
Swedish companies. And, equally important, the
culture and history?
Swedish approach to business is sufficiently impressive,
in terms of what it has achieved, that it is a model we
In the world of professional sport, the difference between can all learn from.
success and failure is razor-thin and it only takes one
bad result for a star player or coach to fall from grace. Sweden is an unusual country in many respects. It has
But the story of Sven-Göran Eriksson’s turnaround of only nine million inhabitants, spread over a country
the England soccer team is worth taking a look at, even that is larger in land mass than the UK. As recently as
if the England team’s performance in this summer’s the late 19th century it was primarily a farming
World Cup ends up falling short of expectations. economy. But it industrialised quickly through the
innovative genius of people like Alfred Nobel and Lars
Eriksson, for anyone who does not follow sport, Magnus Ericsson.
took an England team lying bottom of its World
Cup qualifying group and, 12 months later, brought Industrial companies such as Alfa Laval, Asea and
it out on top. He has restored national pride in the Ericsson sprang up and quickly established an
sport – largely through the 5-1 defeat of Germany – international presence in the Scandinavian region and
and has justified the Football Association’s Russia. Commercial success led to further economic
controversial decision to bring in a foreign coach rather growth and the “Swedish model” began to emerge –
than an Englishman. a social-democratic government committed to full
employment, generous social policies and powerful
But Eriksson’s success has also put the spotlight on labour unions (with surprisingly amicable connections
the broader implications of his style of management. to wealthy industrialists like the Wallenberg family).
He comes across as a rather unlikely leader – modest,
understated, a man of few words. But at the same All of this is relevant because it helps to explain the
time he is evidently very successful. And this raises Swedish way of working. The Swedes are a

Summer 2002
12 Julian Birkinshaw

surprisingly homogeneous group. There is a strong In Sweden I have called CEOs directly and got straight
work ethic. They have strongly held beliefs about through, not a secretary in sight.
equality. They feel they have to stick together in a big
unfriendly world. There is a strong desire to fit in and There are two other elements that are typically used
conform to the norms and expectations of those to characterise the Swedish culture. One is that Swedes
around them. are much more in touch with “feminine” values such
as nurturing, caring and supporting than more
Research has examined the ways that Sweden’s “masculine” societies like the US and the UK. You see
national culture differs from that of other countries. this in childcare, where fathers are encouraged to take
The first key attribute, which Sweden shares with six months paternity leave. And you also see it in team
Japan among others, is a strong collectivist culture – situations, where a manager (male or female) tries to
a belief in the importance understand and support employees.
Sweden has more of the group or the team
large companies per ahead of the individual. Swedish facts of life
head of population The UK and the US are the The final element of cultural make-up is the Swedes’
than any other opposite – they have a high level of tolerance of uncertainty – the ability to
country in the world highly individualistic ride the roller coaster of life without fear of crashing
culture where children or falling off. This is especially useful if you are a
learn from a young age to stand up for themselves, to football coach. In addition, this has a lot of important
seek out attention and to compete with their peers. consequences in the world of business because it makes
Swedes less resistant to change, more able to
In Sweden, by contrast, children are expected to be accommodate new ways of thinking and more tolerant
average (lagom in Swedish) and the school system of foreigners.
damps down any naturally competitive instincts they
may have. In Sweden there is a joke about a clothing It also manifests itself in the rather informal way of
size called “extra medium,” which is supposed to fit doing business in Sweden. When I moved to Sweden
the entire nation. from Canada to take up a new job, no employment
contract was offered – a handshake and a verbal
Agreeing to disagree agreement were sufficient, at least to the Swedish
A second attribute is a lack of hierarchy, or what employer.
academics have called power distance (the level of
inequality between individuals in society). One of the The Swedish national culture, then, is different in many
first meetings I attended in Sweden was a gathering important respects from what is the norm elsewhere
of a professor, other academics and a number of in Europe. As always, it is possible to pick out broad
doctoral students and staff. The professor was talking differences in national traits and we can speculate on
about something vaguely important – a new the reasons why they turned out that way. But the
programme that was being mooted. A graduate important question is whether this actually makes a
student answered back. “I disagree” was his opening difference – one way or the other – to effective
statement and he went on to put forward an alternative management. Does the cultural background of
point of view. Eriksson make a difference to how he leads, coaches
and manages? Does the fact that he is Swedish matter?
From my background in the Anglo-American world The answer is an unequivocal yes.
of academia, this was truly shocking – graduate
students do not challenge professors. But in Sweden it Consider a few facts about Sweden and Swedish
turned out to be the norm – and, indeed, it has obvious companies.
and important benefits over more hierarchical systems.
Sweden has more large companies per head of
Much the same level of informality and openness can population than any other country in the world.
be found in the boardrooms of Swedish companies. Many of them are still independent world leaders
Try to talk to a CEO in the UK or the US and you in their chosen sectors – Ericsson in mobile
have to get past a protective secretary and a PR minder. infrastructure, Sandvik in tooling, Electrolux in

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The Ar t of Swedish Management 13

white goods. Some of them, including Volvo cars Internet fever is energising its capital, from business
and Astra, have recently been bought up by to the arts”.
foreigners – a sure sign that they are valued overseas.
And, importantly, the Swedes often end up running Sweden also rates highly in business start-ups and
the merged company. ABB, a merger of Sweden’s entrepreneurship. Venture capital investment grew 200
Asea and Switzerland’s Brown Boveri, is per cent between 1995 and 1999, more than any other
headquartered in Zurich but all three CEOs since country in the world. Sweden also tops the table of
the merger have been Swedes. high-growth start-ups according to the Global
Entrepreneurship Monitor produced by London
Sweden has a long and impressive tradition of Business School.
industrial innovations. Sandvik was the first company
to commercialise Bessemer steel production. Lars Swedes are true globalists. In 1997 Jack Welch, GE’s
Magnus Ericsson invented the telephone switch. Such former chief executive, reflected: “We are trying
everyday items as the zipper, the safety match and desperately to hire more
dynamite were all invented by Swedish innovators. global people. There are ‘Pound for pound,
certain people who are more Sweden probably
More recently, Swedish companies have been comfortable in global has more good
responsible for a number of management environments. The Dutch, the managers than
innovations. The cellular manufacturing model was Swedes. A Swede is a global any other country’
pioneered by Volvo in its Kalmar factory. In the late traveller. Pound for pound,
1980s Electrolux and SKF were the first truly Sweden probably has more good managers than any
transnational companies in which foreign subsidiaries other country”.
were given global strategic roles. Scandinavian
companies also led the way in decentralising. IKEA is All Swedes learn English from a very young age and
an exemplar of the networked organisation – a web many spend a year in school in the UK or the US.
with no centre. Cable television, mostly from the US, is left in its
English-language form with subtitles (unlike in most
Wired up north of Europe where it is dubbed). The younger generation
Sweden has been labelled the most “future ready” is keen to work abroad, with London the number-one
country in the world in the IMD/WEF annual destination. Their appetite for new technologies and
competitiveness rankings. There is a highly new fashions is second to none.
sophisticated broadband infrastructure – enough to
put even the most wired parts of the UK to shame. No surprise, then, that Swedes make such effective
Seventy per cent of people have Internet access. Mobile global managers. Lars Nyberg is the CEO of NCR, a
telephone penetration is close to 100 percent. major US IT company. Anders Moberg was
headhunted from IKEA by US retailer Home Depot to
And after Silicon Valley, Stockholm (or rather Kista, run its international operations. Companies like IKEA,
a suburb north of Stockholm) is widely recognised as Tetrapak and Ericsson have been sending Swedes
one of the leading high-tech clusters in the world, right overseas to run their foreign affiliates for decades.
up there with Cambridge’s Silicon Fen. Over the last
couple of years, leading IT companies including Sweden’s economy has grown impressively over the
Microsoft, Nortel, Intel and Oracle have all put R&D last decade. Its average GDP growth of around three
investments into Stockholm as a way of tapping into per cent since 1997 puts it ahead of Germany, France
the latest thinking in the world of the mobile Internet. and the UK. The country’s revival is such that it is
easy to forget that its currency was devalued at the
Steve Ballmer, president of Microsoft, said in 2000: beginning of the 1990s and that it has had a social-
“I know no better place to base our mobile telephony democratic government for all but nine of the last 68
business. Stockholm is the centre of mobility”. And years. Sweden has reinvented itself without shedding
Newsweek ran a cover story in February 2000 called its long-term commitments to taxation and welfare
“Shining Stockholm” with the subheading “Sweden (Swedish corporate tax is set at 28 per cent and tax
is the most wired and wireless nation in Europe, and still accounts for 52.1 per cent of GDP).

Summer 2002
14 Julian Birkinshaw

Learning from Sweden far more accessible than the French or German models
The history of business is littered with ways of working and it is practised by people who speak English almost
that were picked up in one place and adopted overseas. as well as the English. I am not predicting a wave of
In the UK the dominant influence has been American. enthusiasm for Swedish management to match the
From the tools of scientific management in the pre- early 1980s, when all things Japanese were celebrated.
war years, through the creation of the multi-divisional Rather, the Swedish model – with Eriksson as its
organisation form, to the more recent obsessions with examplar – can be seen as a new way of making sense
re-engineering and value-based management, the of a very old approach to management: that you
influence of US gurus and US practices is omnipresent. should believe in and respect the ability of every
But there have been other influences as well. individual who works for you.

In the 1980s the west embraced Japanese management. The Swedish style of management
There were useful techniques such as just-in-time The Swedish style of management can be boiled down
manufacturing, quality circles to two elements – empowering and coaching.
The Swedes and constant improvement. And
have sometimes also rather more dubious Empowering is about delegating responsibility to the
been labelled practices such as company songs people who work for you, sharing decision making
the ‘Japanese and 250-year plans (Matsushita with them and appreciating their initiative.
of Europe’ has one of these). In the UK,
there has even been some Coaching is about making everyone feel part of the
influence from Germany and France – as the practices team, encouraging players to co-operate, keeping
of leading companies like Siemens, Vivendi and LVMH them informed and taking an interest in their
have been studied and applied. individual performance.

Swedish management comes with none of the baggage The trouble with empowering and coaching as key
of the German and French models. It is unthreatening. elements of a management philosophy is that both
It is polite. Think of Eriksson. And it is an approach terms are overworked to the point of cliché.
to management that is already relatively familiar, with
its emphasis on empowerment, teamwork and Management theories including the human relations
consensus-based decision making. school of the 1930s and the socio-technical movement
of the 1950s have emphasised the importance of
Indeed, the Swedish business culture shares some empowerment and coaching as ways of getting the
characteristics with that of the Japanese – the Swedes most out of your employees. It is a rare manager who
have sometimes been labelled the “Japanese of will openly admit to doing the opposite – to restricting
Europe”. Saving face is important and, rather than his or her employees access to information or ignoring
direct frontal attack, they prefer a more obtuse and their ideas.
subtle approach. For this reason, Swedes remain
largely immune to the quick-fix gurus who promise But the reality is that most managers neither empower
to cure all known organisational ills at one seminar. their employees nor coach them. Some think they do,
“New ideas are better stated in quite general and vague even if their employees know otherwise. And others
terms initially, in order to invite others into the implicitly adopt a rather different style. It is worth
process,” note Ingalill Holmberg and Staffan exploring this paradox in some detail.
Ãkerblom of the Stockholm School of Economics.
“Swedes are generally very suspicious of ready-made The definitive research on this subject is the doctoral
ideas or solutions. It is also a matter of ownership. If thesis work of Lena Zander, an academic at the
a Swede has not been involved in the generation Stockholm School of Economics. She looked at the
process, no one should take for granted that they will way managers relate to their subordinates (by asking
be involved in the implementation.” the subordinates) in 18 different countries. After
analysing the questionnaire returns of some 17,000
The Swedish model, in other words, affords us with a people, she was able to show that the one-on-one
new perspective on management and leadership. It is relationships bosses develop with their subordinates

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The Ar t of Swedish Management 15

differ significantly from country to country. So, for less keen on coaching and they dislike close
example, in the UK people tend to see coaching as an supervision intensely. In other words, they favour a
important aspect of the boss’ style, whereas for model that gives them a lot of freedom to do their
Germans it is more or less irrelevant. At the heart of work uninterrupted by their boss. They believe they
Zander’s analysis were three different models: should be given a particular objective to meet but
that it should be up to them to figure out how to
Anglo-American management. UK and US employees meet it. And they think the boss should be prepared
emphasise empowering and coaching. This helps to to take their advice on matters concerning their area
explain the clichéd use of these terms – it is typically of responsibility.
management gurus from these two countries who
emphasise them, often in the mistaken belief that they This is a very grown-up style of management. For the
represent a universal style of management. boss, it requires complete trust in his or her
subordinates – a sense that they have the skills they
For example, Tom Peters, the US management guru, need to carry out their job and a belief that they have
enthuses about the coaching style of leadership: the maturity to act in the interests of the company or
“Coaching is face-to-face leadership that pulls people the team when faced with difficult decisions.
together from diverse backgrounds, encourages them
to step up to responsibility and continued achievement, The boss even has to accept that sometimes the wrong
and treats them as full-scale partners. It is about really decisions will be made or that work will not be done
paying attention to people, really believing them, really as well as it might be because some learning only
involving them”. happens through mistakes.

Getting the balance right Örjan Sölvell, director of the Institute of International
But there is an inherent conflict in this style: Business in Stockholm, has commented that he prefers
empowering is about giving employees the space and not to give his employees
the skills to do things for themselves; coaching is about individual budgets. “I want people ‘I want people
taking a personal interest in employees, encouraging to make smart decisions for to make smart
them, and generally getting involved in their day-to- themselves,” he explained. “It is decisions for
day activities. And it is often difficult to get the balance up to them to figure out how much themselves’
right. Think about your own working environment. to spend. Some money is wasted,
When the boss comes over to ask you how things are but eventually they learn what is best for themselves,
going, is he or she coaching and motivating you or and for the rest of us.” By keeping everyone informed
checking up on you? The answer is probably a bit of about the financial state of the institute, he reasoned
both. But this means that empowerment is getting that his team of researchers would act responsibly.
compromised for the sake of coaching.
German management. Germans have a very different
And coaching also has problems of its own. While image of the boss-subordinate relationship than their
the term was picked up by the world of business British, American and Swedish counterparts. The boss,
from the world of sport, it is applied in a variety of in their view, should focus less on empowering and
ways. For some, coaching is about providing the should downplay coaching altogether. Instead, they
supporting skills and ideas to help the individual believe that they should receive frequent supervision
excel. To others it is just about setting appropriate and reviews of their work from their boss. They also
targets or even has a negative connotation. One don’t believe that their bosses should take an interest
colleague of mine was told that she would get some in their personal lives.
“coaching” from the chief executive, which turned
out to be a critique of her work. When coaching can These elements are consistent with most people’s
mean so many things, it is little wonder that it gets in crude stereotype of German management – rigid
the way of true empowerment. hierarchy, careful attention to detail, an impersonal
workplace. It also squares with the simplistic
Swedish management. Swedes (as well as other generalisations made about the all-too-frequent
Scandinavians) emphasise empowerment but they are defeats the England football team has met at the

Summer 2002
16 Julian Birkinshaw

What is your preferred management style?

For each of the questions, rate your answer on a scale where 1=completely disagree, 3=neutral, 5=completely
agree. Add up your total scores for Empowering and Coaching, and plot them on the graph below.

1. The boss should delegate responsibility to his employees ............................
1 2 3 4 5

2. The boss should avoid reviewing employees’

work too frequently............................................................................................................................... 1 2 3 4 5

3. Decision-making should be shared between the

boss and employees........................................................................................................................... 1 2 3 4 5

4. Employee initiative should be appreciated and

welcomed by the boss....................................................................................................................... 1 2 3 4 5

5. The boss should take advice from employees............................................................ 1 2 3 4 5

Total.................................................................................................................................................................... _____

1. The boss should encourage employees to co-operate, and
feel part of the team............................................................................................................................ 1 2 3 4 5

2. The boss should keep employees informed ................................................................

1 2 3 4 5

3. The boss should take an interest in the development

of employees’ performance and careers........................................................................ 1 2 3 4 5

4. The boss should take an interest in personal

issues facing employees................................................................................................................. 1 2 3 4 5

5. The boss should try to make employees feel

proud about their work...................................................................................................................... 1 2 3 4 5

Total.................................................................................................................................................................... _____




0 25


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The Ar t of Swedish Management 17

hands of the Germans, where English creativity and does not meddle in the details that his assistants
flair have yielded to Germanic efficiency and order. and his players can figure out better for themselves.
But remember that this is not idle speculation. It is He keeps his distance. But he also spends time with
careful social science research and these ratings are each player, identifying challenges and problems they
simply a summary of how Germans assess their own are facing and looking for ways to motivate and
preferences. It is also worth remembering that this develop them.
model – despite its impersonal, machine-like form
– also applies broadly to a number of other Of course the Swedish model has its own built-in
countries, including France, Switzerland and Japan, tensions. You need to give people the space to make
a group of countries, by the way, whose economic their own decisions but you also have to define clear
performance over the last 20 years has been at least boundaries beyond which they should not roam. You
as good as that of the UK or the US. need to give them the power to act. But if you give
them too much power without the necessary skills and
Empowerment and coaching, in other words, are not training, they can make expensive mistakes. However,
universally desirable attributes. Zander’s research if you can get the necessary balance in these areas, it
shows that in the UK and the US both are seen as is a very powerful model that frees up the creativity
positive, but in many countries there are other ways and talent of the entire workforce.
of working that are equally effective. And, of course,
these are not just national traits – there will be So if this is such an attractive model, why is it so rare
differences between companies in the same country elsewhere? There are a couple of reasons. First, it
and differences between managers in the same should be seen as a Swedish
company. Try rating your own preferred style using model because it is in You need to give
the questionnaire opposite. keeping with some of the people the space to
underlying cultural traits of make their own
Adapting the Swedish model the Swedish people. Swedes, decisions but you
While these different management models are all as noted earlier, are very good also have to define
clearly valid, they are not “pure” types. UK companies at coping with uncertainty. clear boundaries
can learn from the efficiency and order of the German And they are not obsessed beyond which they
and Japanese models. And they can also learn from with hierarchical position. should not roam
the Swedish model. The problem with the Anglo- These factors make it much
American model, as described earlier, is that the typical easier for the boss to let a subordinate take full
boss-subordinate relationship ends up being stuck in responsibility for an area of the business. In contrast,
the middle. The employee is not given the level of close the pure empowerment model is anathema to the
supervision that he might get in a German company. traditional UK manager who equates his or her
And he is not given the freedom he might get in a elevated position in the hierarchy with power and
Swedish company. superior knowledge.

Instead, the boss understands the logic of Pushing rocks uphill

empowerment, the need to give subordinates Applying the Swedish model in a traditional UK
responsibility for their own actions. But he or she has company is like pushing a rock up a hill – you can do
also learned about the importance of “coaching” the it if you push hard enough but one false step and the
team – spending time with them, developing them and rock will roll back and crush you.
taking an interest in their personal life. In trying to
balance the two, the manager ends up getting neither Think of some British business leaders of the last 20
right. And employees become confused by the mixed years – Lord Hanson, Lord Weinstock of GEC, or Sir
messages they are receiving. Richard Greenbury of Marks & Spencer. They ruled
their companies with an iron fist, using a combination
The Swedish model, in contrast, is internally of detailed knowledge of their businesses with careful
consistent. It is essentially about letting go. It applies and systematic control systems. And they generated
equally to relationships at home, at work and on the strong loyalty from those managers who appreciated
football pitch. And it is exemplified by Eriksson. He their command-and-control style.

Summer 2002
18 Julian Birkinshaw

As Lord Hanson remarked: “I believe very firmly in Individuals are then given free rein to deliver on their
the combination of carrot and stick. We make it crystal contract in whatever way they see fit. Call it
clear what the manager’s task is but don’t just leave it empowerment or call it entrepreneurship, the
to him or allow him to get on with it. We require him essence of the model is that success comes from a
to do it. This has a dramatic effect on the individual. high level of commitment to an agreed objective.
Possibly for the first time in his career, he senses the And the real beauty of it is that BP was once a
meaning of responsibility”. Hanson (the company) bastion of traditional British management, with its
grew rapidly on the back of this model but it worked deep hierarchy and lifetime job security. Even a
best when it was buying and splitting up undervalued leopard, it seems, can change its spots if the rewards
conglomerates or when trying to squeeze greater are great enough.
profitability out of badly managed businesses.
Managing fragility
But there is also an emerging style of management in The second reason why the Swedish-style
the UK that looks a lot more like the Swedish model. empowerment model is so difficult to pull off is that
Think of the Virgin group, which is now in a plethora it is inherently fragile. When everything is going well
of different businesses from airlines to financial it is easy for a manager to give employees more slack
services to cola drinks. Virgin has been called a and to let them make mistakes. But as soon as
branded venture capitalist. Richard Branson problems emerge, the knee-jerk reaction is to pull
encourages employees to experiment with any number control back to the centre.
of new business ideas, which he provides seed money
for. The company is flat, fast moving and Picture the following scenario. A subsidiary manager
entrepreneurial. Many ideas don’t work out. But a runs into a problem with a major local customer and
few – like Virgin Atlantic – more than make up for needs to spend all his time sorting it out. But his boss
the failures. demands that he flies back to HQ to update him on
the situation and then insists on weekly updates. Of
Another example is British Petroleum (BP), a rare course, the boss at HQ can’t solve the problem but he
example of a large, lumbering giant of a company that craves the security of at least being kept updated on
has radically transformed itself from within. At the what the problem is and how soon it will be fixed. In
heart of BP’s transformation is a style of management doing this, he actually makes it more difficult for the
that places responsibility for delivering results deep subsidiary manager to solve the problem. And even
down in the organisation. “Contracts” are set between worse, a by-product is that the subsidiary manager
the top executives, Sir John Browne and Rodney no longer feels empowered.
Chase, and those running BP’s business units.
Theatre offers another example of the power of
Cultural differences between countries
empowerment. Philip Slater, a US academic who
Individualism Power Uncertainty Masculinity became a novelist and playwright, observes that
Distance Avoidance
inexperienced playwrights often want to direct their
USA 91 Philippines 94 Japan 92 Japan 95 own plays. They are worried that others will not
understand their vision, so they try to control the entire
UK 89 France 68 France 86 Italy 70 process. “The result,” he explains, “is usually sterile
Italy 76 Italy 50 Italy 75 UK 66 and often disastrous. If the playwright’s vision comes
through in the writing, the director will see creative
Sweden 71 USA 40 Germany 65 Germany 66 ways of enhancing that vision – ways that the
France 70 Germany 35 USA 46 USA 62 playwright never dreamed of. And so will the actors,
designers, composers and so on.”
Germany 67 UK 35 UK 35 France 43

Japan 46 Sweden 31 Sweden 29 Sweden 5 Slater’s advice to playwriting students is not to set
stage directions in detail because they limit the
Venezuela12 Austria 11 Singapore 8
actors’ options. Good actors, he argues, have dozens
All scores are between 0 and 100. of ways of creating a desired effect – ways the
Source: Geert Hofstede, Culture’s Consequences, Sage (1980) playwright probably has not thought of – and will

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The Art of Swedish Management 19

choose the one that is most natural or appropriate. Resources

Geert Hofstede. Culture’s Consequences, Sage (1980)
The analogy is a powerful one. Effective managers, Fons Trompenaars and Charles Hampden-Turner.
like playwrights, create a vision and provide a text Riding the Waves of Culture, Nicholas Brearly (1998)
for people to follow. But once that is done, they stand Lena Zander. The Licence to Lead, Institute of
back and let their people interpret and deliver on the International Business: Stockholm. (1998)
vision. Too much micro-management limits people’s Tom Peters and Austin, Nancy. A Passion for
opportunity to add value and take ownership of their Excellence, Harper Collins (1985)
piece of work. Letting go is difficult to do. But as Philip Slater. “Leading yourself” in W Bennis, G
Eriksson and generations of Swedish managers have Spreitzer and T Cummings, The Future of Leadership,
shown, it lies at the heart of effective management. Jossey Bass (2001)

Julian Birkinshaw is associate professor of strategic and international management at London Business
School. He worked in Sweden for three-and-a-half years as an assistant professor at Stockholm School of
Economics and is a member of the advisory board of Invest in Sweden.

Summer 2002