The Cultural Impact of Information Systems-Through the Eyes of Hofstede-A Critical Journey

Article excerpt


"Undoubtedly, the most significant cross-cultural study of work-related values is the one carried out by Hofstede" (Bhagat & McQuaid, 1982)

Much interest has been placed on culture in business in the last two decades, and with growing national diversity in today's business, culture remains an important dimension. The study of the field began in earnest with the work of Hofstede with his landmark study of IBM (Hofstede 1980), and with Peters and Waterman who started the organisation culture sensation with "In Search of Excellence" (Peters & Waterman 1982). Preceding these studies however, was the work of Bartels (1967) who was one of the first to relate the importance of culture, illustrating the concept in decision-making and business ethics. Bartels identifies several criteria for the identification of cultural differences, including:

* Law;

* Respect for individuality;

* Nature of Power and Authority;

* Rights of Property;

* Concept of Deity;

* Relation of Individual to State;

* National Identity and Loyalty;

* Values, Customs and Mores;

Culture is important for many aspects of business life especially with regard to the design, development and management of Information Systems (IS) protocols and infrastructure (Myers and Tan 2002). Kumar and Bjom-Andersen (1990) claim that design and management choices in IS are the result of individual values, and these values are a product of socio-cultural background:

The designers' values are the product of the professional, social, and organizational context within which they are held, and of the individual's background and education. Accordingly, their design choices are strongly influenced by their socio-cultural environment (Kumar and Bjorn-Anderson 1990, p. 530)

Straub, Loch, Evaristo, Karahanna and Strite (2002, p. 13) discuss the clear lack of cross-cultural attention that has been paid to IS: "Despite its universally recognized importance, the effect of cultural factors on IT outcomes has received limited attention from information systems (IS) researchers. As a result cross-cultural information systems research, in general, remains in a state of infancy".

When people interface with information technology through IS, human cultural values must be taken into consideration. Cross-cultural research has had most value therefore when it has been able to provide substance to modern management practices and techniques dealing with IS. Many cross-cultural researchers, including Hofstede, have been criticised for not providing this valuable guiding intelligence. Michael and College (1997) state that literature tends to lack specificity and is expressed in broad behavioural terms. This paper concentrates on the research provided by Hofstede, not on its applicability, and brings this area of study into the arena of information systems proving IS scholars additional insight.

What is Culture?

We begin our discussion on culture with a definition. The quantity of cultural definitions expounded by learned researchers are too numerous to count, each one having a relevant claim to a meaningful understanding of the terms of culture. Olie discusses over 164 different definitions for culture collected up until 1951 (1995, p. 128). Hofstede himself also provides equivocal definitions. "A collective programming of the mind which distinguishes one group from another" (Hofstede, 1980, p. 25). "Mental programming ... patterns of thinking and feeling and potential acting" (Hofstede 1991a, p. 4).

A key term in these definitions is the word 'programming'. Culture is not something that is easily acquired it is a slow process of growing into a society. It includes:

* learning values (dominant beliefs and attitudes),

* partaking of rituals (collective activities),

* modelling against heroes (role models), and

* understanding symbols (myths, legends, dress, jargon, lingo. …


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