The Legacy of Geert Hofstede

Cross-cultural management studies provides a critical voice within the social sciences, or at least it should do. Since the inception of this sub-field of management, it has sometimes fought to be heard within the very conservative field of management studies. The assumption may still remain among many of our more mainstreams colleagues that management practices and principles are more or less universally applicable throughout the world, with perhaps a few tweaks here and there to cater for the quirks of managers and staffs in far-flung parts of the world. Geert Hofstede was the first management scholar who not only challenged that assumption, but got himself heard among a barrage of competing theories of comparative and international management.

He did this mainly by keeping it simple, very simple. Not only was the concept of comparing nations on the basis of cultural dimensions easy to grasp, limiting the number of dimensions to four and then five and then six was easy to remember. Hofstede, in 2011, justified this, in contradistinction to the 18 dimensions of the GLOBE study, by stating that ‘There is an epistemological reason why the number of meaningful dimensions will always be small. Dimensions should not be reified. They do not “exist” in a tangible sense. They are constructs: if they exist, it is in our minds…. They should help us in understanding and handling the complex reality of our social world. But human minds have a limited capacity for processing information, and therefore dimensional models that are too complex will not be experienced as useful’ (p. 21, a view also expressed in a previous work in 2006).

This simplicity came back to bite him, when later, after his theory became more mainstream, critics began to challenge his assumptions and methods. But this did not matter, as his achievement had already been registered. It helped considerably in launching an important sub-field of study, cross-cultural management studies.

So easy was his theory to teach, that it became integrated into management curricula. But more importantly, it set the scene for a critical appraisal of management theory and practice around the world.

Hofstede’s theory has persisted over several decades, most probably because of its simplicity and the complicity of management studies with management consultancy and its love of sound bites: the theory is not only easy to teach, it is easy to sell. Yet this is exactly what came back to bite. Human society is complex and its study is infinitely nuanced. The methods and theories of positivism provide a number of important insights within comparative theory but often fail to comprehend and explain the dynamics, messiness and sheer humanness of global society. In critical management circles, the positivism that Hofstede’s theory was developed within is not seen as particularly critical. Yet at the time, and even now, Hofstede’s work led to a major challenge to existing management theories. One of his most significant contributions asked the question ‘Do American theories apply abroad?’ In 1980, Hofstede was able to ask this question, not in a speculative way, but by laying out the evidence from his cross-national study within IBM.

Yet because of its simplicity, there are of course limitations to what questions this work can address. Sometimes Hofstede had been seen to overstep the mark on this, particularly in his descriptive extrapolations from very limited questionnaire items for some of his dimensions of what, for example, a weak uncertainly versus strong uncertainty avoidance culture would look like. His empirical base and methods have of course been challenged, and appear to present an easy target. Yet this does not take away his achievement.

Hofstede set the scene for a critical sub-discipline of a very conservative management studies by challenging ethnocentricism and providing the basis for a more inclusive and non-judgemental discipline. He also laid the conditions for this sub-discipline to be more fully integrated into the mainstream. Unfortunately things do not appear to have worked out quite like this. This is because within his work the seeds of a much different outcome were present. Along the way, this critical nature has mostly been lost to a sub-discipline that rather than being critical and innovating mostly follows in the footsteps of its parent disciplines. Even when critical voices appear within cross-cultural management studies to challenge the status quo, and the roots of international business, it is often based on theories such as Postcolonial Theory, latterly borrowed from the wider social sciences where it has been criticised several decade before and has had its day.

Hofstede’s was a fresh voice in the 1980s. There are very few fresh voices within our discipline today. The countless imitators and regurgitaters of Hofstede’s work are far more common, and help to consolidate the conservative nature of our work. Is this Hofstede’s legacy? Should not his legacy be a new generation of critical social scientists who innovate, rather than recycle his work. Should not the critical voices within our discipline be leaders in the social sciences rather than followers of outdated theories? If Hofstede could cut it within a positivist framework, surely there are opportunities within other paradigms regarded today as far more critical and insightful into human interaction? Hofstede, in 2001, certainly expressed concern with studies that replicate and extend his study, ‘that they are caught up in the straitjacket of my model, and therefore unlikely to make basic new contributions’. (P. 15)

Today, comparing national cultures based on a limited number of value or other dimensions is uninteresting. Using Hofstede’s cultural dimensions as independent variables is not only unimaginative but a poor reflection of reality.

Hofstede provided an answer to one of the big questions of the day, are management principles and practices universally application? And if not why not? The limits of his theory prevented him asking other questions, perhaps not because of his being unaware of such questions, but because his theory could not answer those questions. It could answer a question such as if an American firm set up a subsidiary in the Netherlands, would their management practices be appropriate there? An answer to this question would be descriptive, but not evaluative. For example, Hofstede’s theory could tell you that industrial democratic values would be different in the Netherlands because Power Distance is reported to be lower than in the United States. This could raise an issue about the appropriateness of top-down decision making in the US Dutch subsidiary. But, the theory would be no help as to what to do about it. This would constitute a value judgement. Does the US parent impose its top-down management practices, or adapt to a more democratic organisational decision-making? These are questions that international managers may face, which cannot be directly answered by Hofstede theory, because it is not designed to answer such questions of organisational ethicality across national cultures. Theories within a positivist paradigm are not normally equipped to answer the question, what should we do? Least of all are they equipped to answer value questions about the broader global context within which international business operates and international managers go about their work.

Theorists, such as Flyvbjerg have argued that social science should stop trying to mimic the physical sciences. It should build on its strengths in ‘…contributing to society’s capacity for value-rational deliberation and action’ (p. 167) The criticism applies more than ever to positivism, within which Hofstede built his theory. Not because it is ‘wrong’ but because it cannot answer the types of value-rational questions that need to be asked. The straightjacket is unlikely to be Hofstede’s theory, but the positivist paradigm within which he set his work, and the lack of imagination on the part of many of our colleagues to move out of this paradigm and to move on to answering different types of questions.

In his later work he spoke about his theory as a ‘paradigm’. Just because an empirically-based theory is influential does not mean it constitutes a new paradigm in the social sciences. This is by no means a criticism of his work, but an observation. A bar to future innovation in our field may well be a paradigmatic constraint. My argument here, simply, is that I do not think the constraint is Hofstede’s theory.

Well aware of the limitations of his work, in 2002, Hofstede tells us:

In the first session of a new student class, I used to write big: CULTURE DOESN’T EXIST. In the same way values don’t exist, dimensions don’t exist. They are constructs, which have to prove their usefulness by their ability to explain and predict behavior. The moment they stop doing that we should be prepared to drop them, or trade them for something better. (p. 1360)

Hofstede’s constructs certainly proved useful, laid the foundations of a critical sub-discipline, but one that over time became frozen, not because of Hofstede’s work directly but by the way his theory was, after a while, so readily adopted. Hofstede was concerned about this. He wrote, in 2001, ‘In fact, this extensive use has its disadvantages. Some people have tried to imitate my approach cheaply for commercial purposes. Some carry the concepts further than I consider wise. At times my supporters worry me more than my critics.’ ( p. 73).

Hofstede’s achievement is difficult to overlook. It seems apt to include, as testament, the quote from Chapman’s appraisal in 1997, which Hofstede, in 2002, included at the end of his reply to McSweeney’s criticisms.

. . . Hofstede’s work became a dominant influence and set a fruitful agenda. There is perhaps no other contemporary framework in the general field of ‘culture and business’ that is so general, so broad, so alluring, and so inviting to argument and fruitful disagreement. . . . Second, although Hofstede’s work invites criticism on many levels, one often finds that Hofstede, in self-criticism, has been there first. Third, although Hofstede’s work is based on a questionnaire drawn from social psychology that was not expressly designed for the purpose to which it was later put, Hofstede brings to his discussion such a wealth of expertise and erudition from outside the questionnaire that many criticisms of “narrowness” are withered on the tongue.

Hofstede’s work is used and admired at a very high level of generalization. Those who take country scores in the various dimensions as given realities, informing or confirming other research, do not typically inquire into the detail of the procedures through which specific empirical data were transmuted into generalization. Hofstede, of course, provides all the background one could wish for about these procedures, and that is another reason for admiring his work.(p.18–19)

For cross-cultural management studies it is now time to move on, past an unquestioning use and regurgitation of his work, past the criticisms of his theory that no longer seem relevant, and on to the next set of questions that a critical scholarship can begin to answer. Hofstede set the agenda for a critical cross-cultural management studies, which challenged existing theory, questioned the accepted wisdom of universality in management studies. This is the legacy for which he should be remembered.

Professor Geert Hofstede died on 12 February 2020 at the age of 91. He was a keen supporter of International Journal of Cross Cultural Management from its inception when he eagerly agreed to be on our editorial board and to contribute a well received article to our first issue. His support, which he has offered over the years, will be greatly missed.

A version of this post will appear as the editorial in the April, 2020 issue of International Journal of Cross Cultural Management (sagepub.com)

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