Saturday, 23 January 2010

The man who put culture on the management map

The man who put culture on the management map: Tilburg University said farewell to Geert Hofstede

Dr. Huibert de Man, Maastricht School of Management

January 2010

With a small symposium on January 21, Tilburg University said farewell to Geert Hofstede, the renowned researcher of national management cultures. Four lectures gave a balanced view of his contribution to theory building in the field of national and regional cultural differences in organizations and to the practice of cross-cultural management.

For someone like me, who is interested in the development of cross cultural management theory, and tries to apply theories of culture in management education and management training, this symposium provided a useful and stimulating view of themes and issues in the field of comparative management research. Here I give some of my personal reflections.

Arndt Sorge used the idea of map-making to put Hofstede’s werk in perspective. A map is not a copy of reality, it is a specific representation developed for certain purposes. There is no best map, there are only adequate ones, as Sorge showed. Maps of the earth should reproduce true angles if you want to use them in aviation. Angles are more important when you fly than distances, so distances may be a little bit less realistic on aviation maps. So what Hofstede did was create a certain type of map, and this map, like any map, has its limitations. The idea of cultural distance inherent in Hofstede’s maps, for example, can easily be misinterpreted. People can be familiar with distant cultures and that is easily forgotten. And to make the concept really meaningful, it is often necessary to disaggregate the concept into the aspects that make up distances in particular situations. In this type of comment Sorge showed his own preference for qualitative in-depth case-studies. The large scale surveys on which Hofstede’s work is based, are not exactly his own style. Yet, he advises qualitative researchers to inspect Hofstede’s dimensions first before interpreting specific situations and their cultural aspects. If you observe differences in behaviour between German and Dutch managers, inspection of the maps can help you avoid the stereotypical and probably wrong conclusion that Germans are more authoritarian. What you have observed is probably the consequence of higher masculinity and uncertainty avoidance.

A number of theoretical discussions are relevant to the critical appraisal of Hofstede’s work, as Sorge showed in his presentation, like institutionalist versus the cultural explanations and the specificity of values to social domains and life phases. Such discussions put Hofstede’s maps and their meaning in perspective. Sorge’s conclusion – maybe this should not surprise us in the context of a festive ceremony – was that of all the maps available Hofstede’s was still the best, since, unlike alternatives, it is embedded in solid theory from sociology and cultural anthropology and is based on an impressive database of real and comparable managers, differing only on the variable of nationality. Sorge mentioned the fact that some scientific journals are now hesitant to accept publications that are still using the old Hofstede map, since there are some newer maps available, like the results of the GLOBE research and the Schwartz value survey.

This lecture was followed by a very well-delivered and interesting presentation by Marieke de Mooij. She has been working in the field of advertising, marketing and consumer behaviour for many years, using Hofstede’s dimensions to explain and predict differences in buying behaviour and effectiveness of advertising. Quite convincingly she showed a number of graphs depicting relationships between buying behaviour across countries and Hofstede’s dimensions. The correlations were impressively high. Her major argument is that most marketing and advertising methods are based on Western (mainly North-American) images of human motivation and decision-making. It is about the individual making buying decisions in isolation, on the basis of motives that are believed to be universal, like the American type of individual happiness that is supposed to be a universal human value, which it is not, at least not if we interpret ‘happiness’ in the American way. A number of videos of highly informative and amusing commercials provided qualitative content for what her statistical analyses suggested: the Hofstede dimensions matter when you want to sell your goods in different cultures. The variable of collectivism-individualism, for example was shown through a Japanese commercial involving an ‘extended family’ of cats, which was contrasted by a Western video of a lonely, self-actualizing (my interpretation) solitary animal. De Mooij illustrated very well what the previous speaker had meant by the complementarity of quantitative survey research and qualitative, interpretative work. In her presentation, like in her books, the two approaches work in a complementary way: the qualitative data make sure that we know what phenomena we are talking about and the quantitative analyses offer a check on the existence of causal relationships across wider samples.

This balance between qualitative depth and quantitative generalization was lacking from the third presentation in the symposium, by Mark Peterson who presented work in progress in the field of regional differences. The basic idea behind this work is the obvious fact that within countries there are regions with distinct cultures, often connected to linguistic or ethnic differences. Mapping these differences in a way that resembles the country studies by Hofstede is the work of a network of researchers of which Peterson is part. In his presentation this researcher showed many examples of analyses in different countries and the dimensions on which regions differ. Given the inductive style and data-oriented focus of this work, it leads to many potentially interesting findings, which are difficult to interpret however in terms of theoretical significance and practical relevance. The presentation was probably more interesting for fellow researchers struggling with comparable data sets than for someone with a broad interest in cultural phenomena in management.

Much more stimulating, and sometimes even irritating, was the presentation by Evert van de Vliert. His research starts from a bold hypothesis: cultural differences are a response to climatic conditions and wealth (or poverty). He divides the world in roughly four quadrants: harsh climate and poor, harsh climate and rich, temperate climate and poor, temperate climate and rich. Using the dimensions of power distance and uncertainty avoidance, Van de Vliert show that ‘harsh and poor’ corresponds to high power distance and collectivist countries, whereas the harsh and rich climate have produced low power distance individualist countries. The temperate and poor countries have less extreme values on power distance and collectivism/individualism. There is also a strong correlation between the climates and uncertainty avoidance: high uncertainty avoidance, i.e. a control mentality, can be found in countries with low wealth and harsh climatic conditions. Van de Vliert also showed other relations which I will not repeat here, but altogether he provided a convincing image which shows that Hofstede’s country level data are at least consistent with he climate-wealth explanation of the origin of cultural differences. Whether or not these explanations are consistent with the actual historical development of cultures, which also involves processes in immigration, imitation and so on, can of course not be decided on the basis of the statistical analysis alone. Based on a straightforward functionalist image of culture, Van de Vliert’s interpretations share the limitations of this style of theorizing, and no explicit attempts were made, at least not in his presentation, to address issues that could be put forward on the basis of constructivist and other alternative frames of cultural analyses. To me it remained an intelligent and playful exercise in data analysis, having as its most important merit that it stimulates discussion.

This symposium convinced me of the lasting value of Hofstede’s work, in spite of the doubts I have about the way it is often being used in practice. Managers and trainers often confuse Hofstede’s maps with the landscape, leading to stereotypical images of cultures and even individual managers: ‘he behaves like that because he is Chinese and the Chinese are high on the dimension of power distance’. I have given other examples in previous blogs on this website.

Sorge’s introduction about map making made it clear to me that we must not blame the map makers for the way travellers use maps. Both Sorge’s methodological considerations and Mooij’s intelligent application of the framework showed the need to combine Hofstede’s maps with qualitative material to understand what culture means in specific contexts and how people use culture in specific situations. The combination of continued research on the quantitative front of inductive map making, exemplified in Peterson’s work, qualitative work and theoretical debate is needed to produce relevant insight into culture and its consequences.