Analysis: Why Nordea is no Agent Smith but Commander Data

Analysis: Why Nordea is no Agent Smith but Commander Data
Nordea's current headquarters in Stockholm. Photo: Jonas Ekströmer/TT
What can Star Trek and The Matrix teach us about the row over banking giant Nordea's move, asks Ruben Brunsveld.

Sweden is in uproar over Nordea's decision to move its HQ to Finland. How can a company that, in the words of the Swedish Prime Minister “owes its very existence to the Swedish taxpayers” move its HQ to another country, displacing hundreds of jobs and possibly destroying Stockholm's hope of being a major financial hub by 2020? The debate is an emotional one. Nordea is at best portrayed as an ungrateful child and at worst as a traitor of the national Swedish interest. In fact it is neither.

READ ALSO: Nordea moves headquarters from Sweden to Finland

In psychological terms the attribution of human traits, emotions or intentions to non-human entities (such as a financial institution) is called “anthropomorphism”. When a dog shows its teeth we assume it smiles; and when a cat doesn't react to our call we assume it's bored. Placing these kinds of human behaviours or emotions on our pets is a very recognizable and even logical thing to do. It is part of our human psychology and helps us to categorize and understand the world around us. We see it in branding, TV programmes, mascots and… in companies.

Companies are associated with a certain country or region due to their geographic location, history and branding. Nordea, which likes to profile itself as a 'Nordic' bank 'feels' nonetheless more Swedish than Norwegian or Finnish. The legal restructuring of 2017 made its Norwegian, Finnish and Danish subsidiaries into branches of the Swedish bank and the HQ was conveniently located in Stockholm 'Capital of Scandinavia'.

Moreover, the bank has survived previous financial crises through a bail out financed by the Swedish taxpayer. The disappointed body language of the Prime Minister and the other ministers at the press conference was very understandable. This was obviously “not done”. The Prime Minister was not angry, he was disappointed. He continued “as a thank you for the bail out, you move your HQ abroad”. And that is where the Prime Minister goes wrong.

In the legendary movie The Matrix, one of the main drivers of Agent Smith was a “disgust” toward humanity. But Agent Smith was a program. An Artificial Intelligence controlled by algorithms. And while an artificial intelligence could be programmed to simulate or even emulate human emotions, it could not spontaneously develop human emotions as a purpose in itself. To imply otherwise is an anthropomorphism or better said: fiction.

Now let's look at Commander Data. The legendary self-aware android, serving as second officer and COO on the Federation Starship USS Enterprise. Data has an open and accessible personality and is friends with everybody on the ship. Yet he does not understand (and continuously struggle with) the abstract concept of friendship. He is programmed to be loyal to the federation, but aware that his loyalty comes forth out of an algorithm which can easily be altered. His friendly demeanor is not more than an interface concealing his positronic brain which allows him to compute huge amounts of data in a small time. For all his best intentions to understand his fellow crew mates, he is not human and he knows it. But like the Prime Minister, they sometimes forget.

In the same way as Data is an integral part of the Enterprise crew, Nordea is a part of Swedish society. But a corporate citizen is not the same as a human one. It is not possible to place the same kind of expectations (such as national loyalty) on corporations as we do on our fellow man.

Does that mean we should not try to foster a culture of loyalty or even identity within our organizations? No. In this age of globalization and digitalization fostering an inclusive culture which allows individual staff members to influence and co-design the company's culture and identity is more important than ever.

But we can never mistake the loyalty of individual (or even the collective) employees of a company for loyalty of the organization itself. In the end, it's luckily still people who make the organization and not the other way around.

Despite Nordea's friendly smile and Swedish behaviour, we cannot say it “owed us” or “thanked us by moving its headquarters (cynically)”. It simply behaved as it was programmed to do: in the best interest of Nordea.

On the other hand, the financial entity Nordea could possibly learn a lesson from its Star Trek equivalent who is always looking for ways to improve:

“If being human is not simply a matter of being born flesh and blood, if it's simply a way of thinking, acting, and feeling, then I am hopeful that one day I will discover my own humanity. Until then, I will continue learning, changing, growing, and trying to become more than what I am.” – Lieutenant Commander Data

Ruben Brunsveld is head of culture and leadership at Enact Sustainable Strategies. His opinion piece was first published on LinkedIn.