Culture for companies: Insights from the Geert Hofstede Chair

Is Limburg so different from Brabant, or Groningen? And how do these Dutch regions differ from their German neighbours, such as Lower Saxony or North-Rhine Westphalia? These are some of the key research interests of Professor Mark Peterson, the first holder of the Geert Hofstede Chair on Cultural Diversity at the Maastricht University School of Business and Economics (SBE).

Cultural characteristics

“Before I took up this chair, I was focusing on whole nations”, says Peterson. “Since then, I’ve started focusing on regions within nations. For example, we’re looking at differences among the provinces and Bundesländer as well as between the Netherlands and Germany. What we find is that there are a couple of regional differences that matter a great deal. For example, parts of southern Germany and the southern Netherlands that share a Catholic heritage have a shared, distinctive quality. On the other hand, those regions also have typical characteristics that make them as a whole ‘typically Dutch’ or ‘typically German’.”

Peterson, originally from the United States, has been getting to know what’s typically Dutch first-hand since taking up the Geert Hofstede Chair in mid-2006. This he combines with his work as professor of International Management at Florida Atlantic University. Over the years, he has published over 100 articles in major international management journals. Together with Mikael Søndergaard, he also runs a regular PhD master class called Global and Cross-Cultural Management, which is attended by hand-picked participants from all corners of the world. This is typically held at the Aarhus School of Business in Denmark, but Peterson also brought it to Maastricht in 2009. And in between all this, he has managed to find time for his latest book – a revised edition of the seminal Handbook of organizational culture and climate, co-edited with Neal Ashkanasy and Celeste Wilderom – which is set to appear in December 2010.

Hofstede legacy

Peterson holds the SBE-sponsored Geert Hofstede Chair on Cultural Diversity. Its namesake, of course, is Maastricht’s own emeritus professor, the organisational sociologist Geert Hofstede. The leading Dutch author in the Social Science Citation Index for more than 20 years, Hofstede’s work on the interaction between national and organisational cultures remains highly influential all over the world. Peterson: “It provides a source of support for the kind of projects that I do. It’s nice to be associated with Professor Hofstede; he’s extremely important for intercultural management. And of course, it does open other doors: I do get some invitations now that I wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.”

In turn, the chair is supported by the Geert Hofstede Fund . Launched by SBE in October 2010, the fund was created to bring people from different cultures together to develop a deeper understanding of one another and of how culture influences who we are, as well as to support research dedicated to exploring how organisations can use cultural differences to create value. The fund’s activities are designed to build a network of people who are committed to responsible international citizenship. It also provides grants for bachelor’s, master’s and PhD students to study economics and business in Maastricht in an international, multicultural environment.

Regional differences are not Peterson’s only research topic. He also focuses on questions like: How do culture and international relations affect the management of organisations? How do intercultural relationships among diverse team members function? Crucially, his work has many practical applications. Imagine you want to transfer your best business practices from DSM or Vodafone in the Netherlands to, say, Japan. “It’s important to keep in mind that the transfer of best practices may be affected by cultural differences. Transfer best practices by all means, but at the same time make sure you learn from other parts of the world. Our comparative insights give clues for how to modify training, for example, to fit employees from different cultures. Managers need to be aware of and understand the forces that work within nations and regions, but also inter-team relationships: how do teams from different countries work together? If there are significant cultural differences in communication style, the facilitator needs to know how to manage them.”

Working together

Another of Peterson’s tips: work closely with universities. Rather than only employing consultants, he suggests that organisations should work more closely with academics, who serve as reservoirs of all the latest literature. “Having in-house people who work with universities is the best way to do this; these people will be able to transfer the academic literature into best practices.” And when it comes to the top two tiers of management: “Large, international organisations should be hiring people with research master’s degrees or even PhDs, who can serve as continuing links to university information sources.”

What Peterson warns against, however, is the recent trend of trying to ‘engineer’ diversity purely for diversity’s sake. The key, he says, is to focus on the skills that individuals bring to the table. “Bring people together based on skills rather than trying to create an artificially diverse team. Skills should come before culture, unless you’re dealing with a specifically intercultural business problem or want to make an exception for development purposes. In other words, don’t be diverse for the diversity – it always takes extra effort to manage diversity. But do learn how to manage diversity well, because bringing people together who have the best and most essential skills often necessarily means bringing together a diverse group.”

Both the Geert Hofstede Fund and Professor Peterson’s Global and Cross-Cultural Management master class are committed to furthering the education and training of students from all over the world. They also welcome businesses that are keen to get involved – for example, through sponsoring scholarships and research – and reap the mutual rewards. Please contact Leann Poeth, (email for more information.


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