Some time ago I chatted with a colleague from South Korea at a global corporate training session. We have kids that are about the same age so it was easy to find shared interests. We ended up comparing what could perhaps be called the knowledge culture of our respective countries (Sweden being the other one).
The comparison ended game, set, match to South Korea’s favor. Simply put, the Korean students spend their nights doing homework while the Swedish students spend their nights playing World of Warcraft (at least the boys); South Korea is one of the top nations in the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment regarding science whereas Sweden ends up close to an unimpressive OECD average in the same tests . (Interestingly enough Sweden’s neighbour Finland is the world’s #1 in this comparison.)
So are the Koreans, the Japanese (another top performer) or the Finns going to eat our lunch in the future?
I started thinking about this question having talked with my Korean friend. I forgot about it for a while but it came back to me when I learned that the Spotify application that I wrote about in my previous post was actually developed by a Swedish team. It struck me that perhaps we get to eat our lunches after all. This is what I think: It is not enough to be in tune with the theories; you also need to be in tune with the times to create great products. I even assert that too much theory may dull your creativity and not leave much time to feel the vibes of the world (i.e. the market).
I also think that a healthy lack of respect for authorities and established “truths” may to some extent compensate for wanting science skills. And we have a fair amount of that around here (some parents would say too much). Sometimes this translates to a lack of respect for the law as in the case of the (also Swedish) phenomenon of Pirate Bay. Sometimes it just translates to challenging old theories and truths and to bringing out new products such as Spotify or Skype to the market. Sure enough you need a couple of propeller-heads with good grades to design a great product but the real (anticipated) success of Spotify is probably more based on the fact that they have been able to sign on most of the big record labels than its smart streaming protocol.
The tough question is: Should I teach my children to show even less respect than they already do?
 PISA 2006 results.
By the way, Silicon Valley, where I went for my training, is probably still the best of two worlds: a healthy lack of respect and excellent universities where you can get all the theoretical knowledge that you can ever ask for.