Geert Hofstede's ideas about cultural dimensions were so outrageous that his manuscript was refused by sixteen publishers. But he persisted, and eventually the book Culture's Consequences appeared in 1980. The rest is history.
His theory, once considered anathema among scholars, has now become mainstream. For years he stood in the top of most cited European scholars, alongside Immanuel Kant, Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud.
Hofstede was originally a mechanical engineer. He studied engineering in Delft and worked in three Dutch industrial companies. But he was not only interested in how products are made, but also how people are made. He soon became a personnel manager and turned his attention towards the people. He realised that every technical process also has a social component. He started his part-time doctoral study in social psychology at Groningen that ultimately landed him a job with IBM International.
At IBM, Hofstede was responsible for personnel research. He started analyzing company-wide opinion survey data that were collected from IBM employees across over 50 countries. He found that the differences in employee responses were not so much related to their position, experience, or gender, but rather the differences ran along national lines.
Hofstede took a sabbatical and did a follow-up research among international MBA students at a management school in Lausanne. The responses again revealed the same cross-national patterns. Back at IBM, Hofstede suggested turning it into a research project, but his manager declined. He then quit his well-paid IBM job, and embarked on his pioneering journey that yielded the book Culture's Consequences.
In the book, Hofstede compared cultural differences between countries on the basis of his four dimensions: power distance, uncertainty avoidance, individualism, and masculinity. Each country was positioned with regard to other countries through a score on each dimension. The score provided a rough outline about the culture of a country.
The strength of his book was that it was strongly embedded in literature. Hofstede was intellectually capable of linking different disciplines, such as anthropology, sociology, economics and political science. Another strength was the explanatory correlations that could be found between his scores and other social factors, such as education and well-being. In later studies, his dimension scores were mapped for 76 countries.
Hofstede traveled around the world with his wife and four children to do his research. He later reflected, "We don't care much for comfortable jobs or salaries. I deny that I ever had a career; I have a work history."
He even worked incognito as a factory worker to know what it's like to be treated as a worker and what an organisation looks like from below. He realised that managers are much less important than they think. He became critical about the American way of doing business. In his own words, "It is corruption if a top manager gives himself a salary that is 100 times higher than that of his employees."
Hofstede also worked on organisational culture and leadership. He saw leadership as a social process that is related to circumstances. He was interested to learn how a culture defines a leader. In his view, a leader is a cultural hero and who is a hero depends on the culture.
Hofstede was affiliated with the universities of Maastricht and Tilburg as an emeritus professor. In 2010, a popular edition of his book Cultures and Organisations: Software of the Mind was released where the dimensions were extended to six.
Hofstede dimensions are enormously valuable and used extensively to indicate cultural differences. His model acts like a compass that helps us to navigate successfully in a more globalised world.
Professor Hofstede left a legacy that will remain. He will be dearly missed!
Mohammad Zainuddin, is an accredited lecturer in intercultural management by the Hofstede Insights, Helsinki, Finland.