Geert Hofstede in memoriam

Geert Hofstede, who died on 12 February 2020, was renowned worldwide for his work on cultural dimensions and for his pioneering work on national cultures and organizational cultures. The six dimensions have become widely known, power distance, individualism vs. collectivism, uncertainty avoidance, masculinity vs. femininity, indulgence vs. restraint, and long-term orientation. His seminal books, Culture’s consequences (1980, 2nd ed. 2001) and Cultures and organizations: Software of the Mind (1991, 3rd ed. 2010). His work has yielded important insights and uses in many disciplines, from organization to psychology, business studies to linguistics, cultural studies to management and marketing.

Geert Hofstede was also influential in our own transdisciplinary network. The ICLHE Association aims at integrating insights at the interface between disciplines and language, and it owes its existence to the phenomenon of content-driven courses and degree programmes in higher education through the medium of an additional language. Hofstede was the educational innovator who had the vision in 1985 to start a programme in international management through the medium of other languages. His original idea was that Dutch students would learn through English and either French or German. The programme that began at Maastricht University in 1987 involved students following courses first in Dutch, then in English in Maastricht and in French at the Université de Liège and German at the Rheinisch-Westfälische Technische Hochschule Aachen (RWTH Aachen University). For various reasons this innovative quadrilingual programme became limited fairly quickly to just English. Hofstede’s progamme, which was one of the first to offer English-medium instruction at bachelor’s level, turned out to be a major success and served as a model for other programmes, not just at Maastricht but at other universities in the Netherlands, Europe and elsewhere. Geert Hofstede can be seen as a pioneer for the ICLHE Association and for English-medium instruction at universities.

Geert Hofstede’s major research work was conducted during his employment at IBM where he founded the Personnel Research Department. This enabled him to conduct his comparative research in the company among many sales departments where the jobs were identical, but the national cultures differed. For several years in the 1970s and 1980s he taught at IMEDE (now IMD) in Lausanne and also at INSEAD (Fontainebleau). One of his experiences from this time was when he taught an identical course in French and in English. He noticed that some English native speakers opted for the French course while some French native speakers took the opposite option. He related how organizational culture can interact with national culture, in that the English speakers on the French course behaved and responded more like French speakers while the opposite occurred with French speakers on the English programme.[1] He observed that the language of instruction does have an effect on participants’ behavior, which is relevant for any institution offering programmes in additional languages.

ICLHE was delighted that Geert Hofstede gave the opening plenary at the first ICLHE conference in 2003, entitled “Culture and language”. It is worth reminding ourselves of some of the key points he made – they are still valid. He urged interdisciplinary collaboration because “scientists of different corridors of the university rarely talk to each other.” He concluded with the need to start by understanding our own cultural values “because those are the ones we always carry with us, wherever we go in the world.” Then we may be able to recognize “the values of others without immediately talking in terms of good and evil.”

In 2013 Geert Hofstede visited ICLHE for the last time when he gave a warmly received after-dinner speech “Seven deadly sins of the multicultural world”.

ICLHE will remember Geert Hofstede warmly, appreciating the ground-breaking work of this innovative pioneer and his continuing influence on our burgeoning field. We are indebted to him and thank him deeply. Our condolences to his wife Maaike and his family.

Bob Wilkinson
16 February 2020


[1] I don’t think Hofstede wrote up an account of these experiences.

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