Business organisations and their environments: Culture
Business organisations and their environments: Culture

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Business organisations and their environments: Culture

Activity 10: Critical reflections on Hofstede

Allow 60 minutes for this activity.

You have spent most of this course working with Hofstede's ideas. He is one of the pioneers of the study of national culture and its impact on organisations, and his work has been very influential.

My aim so far has been to help you understand Hofstede's cultural dimensions and to become familiar with how they can be used to analyse one of the main environments within which organisations operate. National culture is also one of the factors which influence the way organisations evolve.

However, I will finish the week by taking a critical look at Hofstede's work. It is tempting to get drawn in by Hofstede's way of thinking. But his work does raise some questions and this activity is about a critique of Hofstede's ideas. The following task will help you to begin the process of criticising those ideas.

Task A: Listening to a discussion between Kristen Reid and Proches Ngatuni

Figure 2
Figure 2

This task involves listening to Kristen Reid (lecturer in work-based learning) and Proches Ngatuni (Visiting International Teaching Fellow, OU Tanzania) discussing Hofstede's theory with reference to their national cultural backgrounds (the USA and Tanzania, respectively). As you listen to the audio linked below, pay attention to how they are using Hofstede's ideas to understand their experience. To what extent do you think they are in agreement with those ideas?

Click play to listen (13 minutes).

Download this audio clip.Audio player: Discussion between Kristen Reid and Proches Ngatuni
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Transcript: Discussion between Kristen Reid and Proches Ngatuni

Kristen Reid:
We are going to be talking about Hofstede’s cultural dimension scores as it applies to our own experiences in the States and in Tanzania. I can actually see how the scores relate to my own experiences, particularly the ones on individualism and power distance. He gave a 91 on individualism for the United States and attributed that to a more individualistic attitude more self reliance among working people and, you know, I’d say that, that definitely applies to a country that’s renowned for rugged individualism, a hands-off, laissez-faire approach to, government interfering in business and people in the US often value individualism in their work, that they want their success and performance to be judged on what they do individually and, in fact, some people even say that Americans are workaholics and I know I, myself kind of fall into that same category. Did you see anything in the individualism scores he gave for East Africa relating to your own experiences in Tanzania, Proches?
Proches Ngatuni:
Oh yes, Hofstede gave a much lower score for individualism for the East African region to which Tanzania belongs.
Kristen Reid:
What was that score?
Proches Ngatuni:
The score was about 27. Now this may relate to Tanzania, especially taking into account the fact that most families, most societies in Tanzania are heavily grouped
Kristen Reid:
Uhum.
Proches Ngatuni:
… in family networks, which might also apply in the United States but the difference here is the interdependence …
Kristen Reid:
Mmm.
Proches Ngatuni:
… between individuals and families and also to the community to which they belong.
Kristen Reid:
Well, yeah, there is that too. You know, I notice that Hofstede related his ideas on culture to more than just employee performance, that there was, kind of, this family dimension to it and American families, I would say in general, tend to be nuclear so they are probably a little bit smaller, not as extended, but I think it’s important to notice or to know that the US is a very diverse country and, while there is a focus on nuclear families, in kind of this general sense as being the strongest family unit, there are many ethnic groups, for example, Mexican American and Hispanic populations, many of our Asian populations and definitely African American groups. They have a large, extended kith and kin network and so there’s really a large diversity, a wide diversity across the country, you know, whether you look at the East Coast versus the West Coast or whether you look North or South or at different parts of the country, there’ll be a lot more cultural difference than what’s reflected in just a single score for the United States.
Proches Ngatuni:
Tanzania too has over 120 ethnic groups and these will also include Asian population but what is more important here is that there is interdependence. So, for example, when I work, all the decisions that I make, I have to take into account, er, the effect my decision will have on the extended family and to my community as well. So in these cases people will judge organisations in terms of how such organisation, er, respects this kind of connection between an individual and his or her, er, family and the community. I’ll give you an example here. If one wants to judge an organisation for which he or she wants to work for, he will probably look at, um, to what extent some of the social policies of that organisation extends to individuals’ extended family and such benefits include like medical benefits, the more help an individual gets from an organisation the better. [And within an?] organisation this extended family, er, this, er, social grouping affect the way they interact within the organisation too. They want people working as a team but it’s more to protect their interests, than to achieve better results.
Kristen Reid:
That’s pretty interesting comparing that to the United States. this idea of health insurance benefits – I know it’s, um, it’s become a pretty hot topic in the United States. The health insurance in the United States is a little tricky because not everybody has health insurance and so the idea that, people in your country would want their health insurance to extend to their extended family or to, to cover their extended family. I mean, I wouldn’t even think most people in the States would even think about that. They, you know, if they were happy that they were covered and you know, their immediate family was covered that they would be happy with that. So I, I think that that’s pretty interesting that, that, um, you find that in Tanzania. Um, let’s see, you know I’d say too that the United States is developing what Hofstede might call, um, collectivism in the way that people do business. Um, there’s definitely an increasing trend in team working. Um, for example, one of my jobs that I had, I had this dotted line accountability to two different managers and I was working as a team leader where my individual performance was, in part, based on the success of, um, and performance of the team and, um, I know that, that that kind of working where you, you depend on, um, other people and partners for your performance, for actually being successful in your work is something that, that’s going on in the US. Have you seen any changes in the way you do business and the way people work in Tanzania?
Proches Ngatuni:
Well yes there is the so-called, er, what’s called “African Socialism” which is built, er, on the assumptions of family, [??] and society. So this notion is, um, built within the families and within the schooling system and including the religious teachings. But it is important also to note that over the recent years Tanzania’s economy is moving fast towards market economy. And in this case the role of private sector is becoming more and more highlighted and with it more and more [new practices?] brought in. For example people who are working in [international?] organisations are more likely to develop individualistic attitudes. More people now strive for individual achievement. The public sector also has introduced, um, new performance management practices which also encourage individual achievement rather than collective achievements that we are used to.
Kristen Reid:
I see. Well I know that Hofstede and other scholars have looked at many different employee populations and, er, what they are looking for is to see how their scoring system applies to a wide range of different groups of people and, from that, what I gather is that there’s kind of been this running trend of, er, scores so that it’s, it’s very consistent across different groups and, um, and different, um, different areas. And, again, you know, I can see how the power distance, er, score that they give for the United States which is a 40, bears some relationship to, to US business practices. Um, in fact, as people work more in teams I think the power score will actually decrease because there will be this more cooperative culture, more equality among social groups and, certainly in my experience, um, it’s been perfectly acceptable and often encouraged to participate in the decision making, of the leadership and so people might find that they have more control and autonomy, um, to make decisions in their everyday business practices in their work place for example. And have you seen any kinds of changes going on in Tanzania?
Proches Ngatuni:
Oh yes, as I said before, um, the country developed, er, a kind of centrally managed economy where power was concentrated on the top management ranks. So you find that top management is expected to make most of the decisions and take responsibility for them. On the other hand you find that top management is not willing, doesn’t feel comfortable to delegate their authority because they know when it comes to taking responsibility, um, or being accountable for the decisions they take, it’s them and not their subordinates.
Kristen Reid:
Uhu, that’s interesting.
Proches Ngatuni:
Which is something different from what you have explained as, er, in relation to the United States. [But I will say there have been foreign economic influence of the 90s??]. There is an increased presence of, er, global companies and this brings in new management practices. And these management practices also permeate into public sector so everything is changing all the time. It is my good guess that the power distance score that Hofstede gave to East African region would be much lower today than it was when the research was conducted.
Kristen Reid:
Uhuh, uhuh, I think I agree with you there.
Proches Ngatuni:
And I think in the coming decade or so the difference in power distance score between Tanzania and United States might even become more blurred.
Kristen Reid:
Yes, I think, I think I agree with you there. You know it would be interesting to see how Hofstede’s scores change as globalisation really takes root in the world. Um, you know you might find some blurring and, um, sharing of cultural values across, um, a number of countries and so there really might be this kind of evening out in 10 years time and, you know, I suppose the research is good, um, to give us kind of a basic idea of cultural values and an understanding of how, um, different nations may behave differently in business and so forth but there does seem to be this trend toward a more global perspective. Do you see that at all in, in Tanzania?
Proches Ngatuni:
Oh yes, Tanzania is also part of the global culture. And, um, as time goes by I think, um, the [economy ??] is becoming more exposed to global business [?] so, um, [pause], so, um, we must [??] many companies are opening up, do business with them, you know, global companies, er, we have, er, heavy presence of, er, Chinese companies, Indian companies, Western companies, um, and all these companies come with new management practices, as I said before and so what we think is important here is that, er, in order to enhance communication …
Kristen Reid:
Right. Right.
Proches Ngatuni:
… um, across cultural environments, organisations, especially global organisations need to have in place [?] different ways of recognising and managing potential impacts of , er, cultural differences that way, I think, an organisation will be more successful across cultures.
Kristen Reid:
So I think that really, um, the, the main point here is that businesses will, um, will need to kind of account for this globalisation, as you say, in that, um, there really may be kind of this new emerging way of doing business and I think students will be able to see that when they study globalisation later on in the course. So, er, thank you very much for talking with me today. I think, I think this has been kind of an interesting conversation so thank you, Proches.
Proches Ngatuni:
It has been my pleasure. Thank you.
Kristen Reid:
Thanks. Okay. Goodbye.
End transcript: Discussion between Kristen Reid and Proches Ngatuni
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Task B: Questioning Hofstede's arguments

Thinking critically about theories is an important academic skill – but not always an easy one. Like many things, most people get better at it with practice. One way of developing the skill is to get into the habit of asking questions about the theories and ideas that you come across.

I am going to ask you to respond to some questions which may help you think critically about Hofstede. Write a short response to each of the following questions. You may find it helpful to consult the notes you have made throughout the course as you do this:

  1. What do you think about making generalisations about national culture?
  2. Have you seen cultural norms in your national culture that seem to be different from those that Hofstede finds?
  3. Do you think Hofstede takes account of gender differences?
  4. Do you think that Hofstede is right to argue that organisations should take national culture as a given?

Discussion

My thoughts about the questions were as follows:

  1. It seems to me that there are dangers about making generalisations about national culture. I thought about the fact that Hofstede groups Tanzania with other countries in East Africa. I did wonder that this approach might gloss over what could be important differences between countries. I was also reminded of work by Williamson (2002) – which you would not be expected to know. Williamson highlights the danger of assuming cultural uniformity, and of seeing individuals' values and behaviour as being wholly determined by their cultural background; we cannot predict individuals' values and behaviour merely from data about their culture. Overall I thought it is sensible to question the notion of national cultures – does it really do justice to the rich cultural mix that can be experienced in many places in a country like the UK, for example? I also thought back to the idea of layers of culture and wondered how far Hofstede took account of this.

  2. There appear to be some cultural norms in the UK that do not seem to fit with what Hofstede argues. Of course, these will reflect my perceptions. I am not at all convinced, for example, that change is likely to be easy in the UK because of the low long-term orientation. Your perceptions are likely to have led to different examples.

  3. I was reminded that a common criticism of Hofstede's analysis is that it is gendered – he makes assumptions about masculine and feminine qualities, and focuses mainly on masculine aspects of culture.

  4. It may be overstating the case to say that Hofstede is wrong to see national culture as a given that organisations have to work within. But it is valid, I think, to question this view. There may be more of a two-way process than Hofstede seems to acknowledge. It may well be possible for organisations to influence national culture. One example is a multinational corporation like McDonalds. Its menus do reflect different national tastes (which may be influenced by national culture), but the company's fast-food ethos and working practices could, in turn, have an effect on the national culture of the countries in which it operates. In other words, McDonalds could be influencing prevailing norms and values.

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