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Challenging the culture guides taught in business schools

While Hofstede’s original work has laid the foundation for cross-cultural and business communication, could it time for something new?

Collective Culture vs. the Individual

In business schools around the world, students are studying Geert Hofstede’s six (as of 2010) cultural dimensions. I was one of those enthralled students, gushing over the depth and conviction of his theses. I smiled and whispered to myself, Yes! Someone gets it… culture is all-important in business. But recently, after chatting with a former B-school professor, I brazenly mentioned it’s time for a “cultural studies re-vamp” in business education. You could have heard crickets chirping, as if I’d just committed the largest case of blasphemy this side of the Holy Land.

In case you aren’t familiar, here’s a brief introduction to Human and Organizational Development 101: Hofstede conducted a worldwide survey of IBM employees in the 1960s and 1970s. He discovered that cultural values could be analyzed on six (originally only four) cultural dimensions: Power Distance Index (PDI), Individualism (IDV), Uncertainty Avoidance Index (UAI), Masculinity (MAS), Long Term Orientation (LTO) and finally Indulgence vs. Self-Restraint. The scores are relative, society to society, and merely serve as constructs. While the dimensions scores do not predict future behavior, they serve to explain an the undergirding effect culture has on members of a society.

While his research was groundbreaking, is this really the universal “truth” we should be following as THE culture guide?

What is culture?

For starters, many agree that culture, in the general sense, is the set of behaviors, beliefs and attributes distinctive of a group. I believe culture is so much more than this. It’s a collection of arts, language, knowledge, mannerisms, prejudices, experiences, tastes, morals, and desires. But is what makes up culture black and white? Is culture dynamic or static? Is it something that one is only born with?

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The idea of subculture mitigates this definition conundrum, but raises a whole new set of questions. Is subculture as important as national culture, corporate culture or even family culture? These are all questions that must be answered on some level to conduct business on a global scale. While there may be different answers for each of these questions, it’s far more important to realize that culture is adaptive and is constantly in flux.

Is the sum greater than its parts?

We know what culture is and how it relates to groups, but how does it relate to individuals? In all of the aforementioned definitions, culture is the relationship of an individual to the group. In business, we often stage negotiations and initial meetings based on national cultures and, sadly enough, preconceived notions. But, is the individual culture more important that the group culture? Ultimately it comes down to what our goal is in business. I recently heard a fabulous saleswoman speak on the evolution of the marketplace. No longer are we selling B-2-B, now it’s P-2-P, people-to-people. As such, we must change our frame of reference and focus on the individual before us.

Or is the world in fact getting smaller? We hear, and see, time and time again how the world is shrinking. From Guiness in Africa to Starbucks in Europe to Outback Steakhouse in China, globalization is ever-present. This international brand presence would seem to indicate on some level an emerging “world culture” that we should be aware of. Some characteristics would include international efficiency, use of technology, and a shared common language (revenue!). In this case, how valid are the national cultures of societies? Wouldn’t the collective cultures paint a more accurate picture?

Key Takeaways

While Hofstede made valuable contributions to culture studies in global business, some improvements can be made.
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  • In this millennium, we can’t over look what many have dubbed “The Melting Pot effect” and multiculturalism – the blending and mixing of multiple cultures.
  • In business, we should factor in corporate culture as it pertains to the individual.
  • While P2P is great in long-term business relationships, use Hofstede’s generic national cultural definitions sparingly and only as a starting point for understanding.

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Written By

Monica Moffitt, founder and Principal Cultural Consultant at Tianfen Consulting, Inc., has traveled the world and enjoys linguistics and all things culture. Having split her career between project management and business analytics, Monica merges logic, fluency in Chinese and creativity in her new role as cultural consultant. She received a Bachelor of Arts in East Asian Studies/Chinese from Vanderbilt University and a Master of Business Administration (International Management and Marketing) from University of Texas at Dallas.

3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. AdLawGuy

    June 18, 2012 at 1:25 pm

    @Hoeferle Congrats on the German Embassy website mention!

    • Hoeferle

      June 18, 2012 at 1:25 pm

      @AdLawGuy thanks!

  2. diversityreport

    July 17, 2012 at 2:12 pm

    I agree that we are, or should be, in a post-Hofstede phase.  While he remains relevant, I find myself increasingly minimizing what use of his work, placing it tangentially and augmenting it with sub-group analyses using history, arts & cultural expressions.  

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