By Gert Jan Hofstede
Geert Hofstede passed away
Geert Hofstede passed away on 12 February 2020, at the age of 91 years. He was ready to go, and surrounded by his family.
Geert is one of the scholars from the 20th century whose work will endure. It is being used by tens of thousands of students and professionals across the world. In this age of a shrinking planet, cross-cultural understanding is important for survival, as he says with understatement.
Geert's early career
As a son, co-author and user of his work, I have a privileged perspective. I remember his days in the textile industry in the nineteen sixties. Trained as an electrical engineer, he turned towards the people. As a personnel manager, he carried out fieldwork there. It resulted in a PhD thesis “The game of budget control” (1967 – it fetches 900 citations in Google Scholar). It was only afterwards that he joined the Personnel Research department of IBM international. There, it was by sheer vision and gumption that he realised the data’s importance, obtained unpaid leave, and embarked on his pioneering journey.
The pioneering IBM project
Under Geert's impulse, IBM collected opinion survey data from across over 50 countries. They were about mundane matters such as salary, tenure, working relationships. What Geert discovered is that it did not matter much whether a respondent was white- or blue- collar, male or female, new or ancient. What did matter was from which country they came.
Geert turns to culture
He got a job at a management school in Lausanne and repeated his surveys on the international MBA students there. It yielded the same cross-national patterns. He then put in almost ten years of study. At their end, he offered his fat manuscript to sixteen publishers, who all refused it. Then he tried Sage, and got another refusal letter, followed from an acceptance letter from the highest boss – a woman. She came up with the catchy title “Culture’s Consequences” (1980).
The rest is history
The story of Geert's work on culture confirms how true Thomas Kuhn’s ideas about the structure of scientific revolutions are: Geerts theories, once anathema, are now mainstream or even 'old school'. The developments also confirm some of Geerts own findings: in societies that have a ‘market’ structure (in Geert’s jargon: individualistic, egalitarian, masculine, short-term oriented, indulgent cultures), fighting about Hofstede’s merits and staking grand claims is now a favourite pastime for some. My opinion on this is that reading his works is a better way of spending one’s time.
All in all, Geert’s story is one of remarkable perseverance, acuity of vision, cross-disciplinary endeavour and serendipity.
Fortunately, many others have thought to extend or build upon his work. This is how it should be. We need to move on in our 21th century – but Geert’s messages should be in our backpacks.
Readers of this blog are probably familiar with his work; if not, they can browse this web site www.geerthofstede.com.