Hofstede and IBM: the Beginning of Significant Cross-Cultural Research

If you looked at Geert Hofstede‘s life, there was nothing particularly remarkable that might make you imagine he’d one day be at the forefront of cross-cultural research.

The Dutch researcher called the Netherlands home. He lived and studied there, after which he entered the military.

He became a management trainer at IBM, as well as the manager of staff research. It was in the latter role that he became entrenched in systematic research which would later hone in on the field of cross-cultural studies.

International Employee Opinion Research Program

In his role as manager of staff research, IBM’s International Employee Opinion Research Program became Hofstede’s brainchild.

Hofstede and his colleagues gathered and analyzed over 116,000 survey questionnaires over six years. The questionnaires were collected from 72 countries and involved 183 questions about the work environment, completed by IBM employees.

Providing a number of options, questionnaires asked employees to choose which option was the most important to them.

An example:

Which is most important to you?

  1. A job that allows personal/family time
  2. Challenging work that provides a sense of accomplishment
  3. Freedom to adapt your approach to work

Employees could choose their preference and, although the word “culture” wasn’t used in any context by IBM staff, and they weren’t charged with researching cross-cultural differences, nevertheless, the data revealed various patterns of cultural opinion and behavior.

Still, no cultural opinions were drawn from the data at the time.

Hofstede’s Findings

Taking a sabbatical from IBM, Hofstede taught at the IMD in Switzerland. It was there that he was allowed the time and academic engagement to analyze the IBM research.

He found that nationality could account for the behavioral differences resultant in the survey.

In order to test his theory, he questioned folks from various countries who didn’t work for IBM.

It became clear that cultural differences were there. 

The value of Hofstede’s research was lost on many for a while…it was lost even on him.

He had no idea what a significant gold mine he’d come across, from the standpoint of international business.

At the time, economic success was not dependent on cultural sensitivities. The United States was the number one unchallenged economic power.

As to the matter, Hofstede said:

“In the 1970s I was living in Brussels when I started developing my ideas of culture and I approached the European Commission about this, but found myself initially directed to an official who was responsible for museums! Such was their idea of culture!”

But all this changed in the ‘80s and beyond – a period which we’ll talk more about next week.

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