Cultural Competence

What is Cultural Competence?

Core competence is a factor that cannot be easily replicated and gives the business a competitive advantage in delivering their product or service to customers. Core competencies are how a business does something.

Cultural Competence is the lens through which opportunities are identified and evaluated. Cultural competencies are how a business figures out what to do. [1]


Every business, no matter the size, has cultural competencies.

  • Cultural competencies are a reflection of the founders’ personalities. It’s no coincidence that Google was started and led by Ph.Ds, Apple by a designer-perfectionist, and Amazon by a quant from a hedge fund.
  • Cultural competencies are directionally set as you go from 0-20 people. If you achieve product-market fit, you will only deepen your cultural competencies. You can inject new culture via new (strong) leadership, but the existing leadership has to be receptive. The larger the organization, the harder this is.
  • Product market fit is easier to achieve if you work with your cultural competencies, not against them. Often times when a company builds the wrong product, the market they are pursuing does not align with their cultural competencies.
  • If you understand your cultural competencies, filtering potential opportunities becomes much easier. Be honest about whether or not the market you are pursuing can be won given your cultural competencies.
  • Don’t emulate another company’s cultural competencies, as many do against Apple. Pursue a market through your own cultural competencies to create a differentiated (and more successful) offering, as Amazon has done with Kindle Fire.

How do Cultural Competencies develop?

Cultural competencies are an emergent property of people in an organization. It starts with founders who pursue ideas and markets they understand. If they get traction, they hire a team that thinks about the opportunity similarly (belief in the vision). If they achieve product market fit, they hire more people. These people then pursue scaling a business in the way that has worked best thus far, reinforcing the cultural competencies and world view. This yields more revenue, which results in more people hired to support that core business. At each iteration, the new hires cause a deepening of existing cultural competencies.

An example: Amazon vs. Google

Amazon and Google share core competencies. They’re focused on large data problems, machine learning, exploiting massive infrastructure, experiment driven monetization, and more. They have non-overlapping core competencies, as well. Amazon has phenomenal customer support and logistics, while Google has deep expertise in search and performance-based advertising.

Given their similar core competencies, no one should be surprised that Google and Amazon both pursue the smartphone and tablet markets. However, their approaches are dramatically different because of their different cultural competencies.

Google’s cultural competence sees the world as signal and noise that must be filtered. A minority of the signal is commercially useful, and Google monetizes the shit out of it. This is how they manage to make money on search, email, and maps when few others can.

Amazon’s cultural competence sees the world as a series of transactions on which it can build a platform. Amazon pursues opportunities that will facilitate repeated transactions and then builds the platform to own all of these transactions. The Kindle was made to drive the sale of digital books. Free Shipping and Amazon Prime are levers to drive more sales on Amazon. It’s all about increasing and owning transactions.

How Cultural Competence Skews Perspective

For Google, Android is the key to owning mobile search and ads. Google’s cultural competence perceives Android as a moat for Google’s castle — search and ads. For Amazon, Android is about selling more video content, pushing Amazon Prime (which results in more sales on, and the Amazon Android Market (a digital goods store). Amazon’s cultural competence sees Android as a platform to enable more commerce and monetize directly.

Same platform, yet dramatically different perspectives, and ultimately different ways to extract value out of the ecosystem.

How Cultural Competence Impacts Product Success

It is not a surprise that Google makes a small amount of money directly from Android. Google’s cultural competence does not align with what the market demands from a direct monetization product — Google Wallet, Checkout, and the Play Market are examples of how Google fails because their cultural competence prevents them from building the right product.

For example, Google has rich analytics in the Android Developer Console and has search baked into the core Android experience. Given their cultural competence, it makes sense Google would prioritize these features. At the same time, the platform has no subscription billing and has yet to create a seamless integration of apps and content, 9 years after iTunes revolutionized digital content delivery. Google’s cultural lens has led them to either build the wrong product or be unable to come to a decision about what the right product is for a direct monetization market.

Meanwhile, Amazon has had no problem defining a transaction platform because of their cultural competence, and they execute on this market opportunity efficiently because their core competence is building transaction based products. Amazon has demonstrated this in multiple markets.[2]

Google’s lack of direct monetization from Android is not a surprise. Apple’s lack of monetization via iAds is not a surprise. Amazon’s lack of monetization through auctions is not a surprise. [3]


Thanks to Elad GilCurtis Spencer, Aditya KoolwalDan Siroker and Yin Yin Wu for reading drafts and providing input.


1 – I just created the term “cultural competence” to apply to something that people have talked about informally for a long time, so the definition will likely evolve. The concept itself has been floating around in lots of brains for a long time. Edit: Turns out it’s been used in the HR world to mean something different (see comments below). So the definition in this post is more of a “secondary definition” than an “invention”

2 – Another Amazon vs Google example
Hosting platforms are another great example of how cultural competence skews outcomes. Amazon looked at Amazon Web Services the way they look at their retail site. Find the simplest set of things people will buy, then broadening out to related offerings. They manage inventory, demand, and have efficient pricing. Amazon figured out what developers wanted (S3 and EC2), sold it to them, and then expanded the offerings.

Google’s cultural lens skewed their perspective towards thinking that what developers want is the most efficient way to manage large amounts of data and not worry about scaling. Most businesses don’t have Google scale problems and don’t want Google’s internal platform approach to manage their non-Google problems. They need something that works with existing (open source) systems and leaves them the freedom to customize infrastructure. Google tried to apply it’s cultural lens to a market, rather than find a market where it’s cultural competence would give it a competitive advantage.

Hosting is fundamentally a retail problem, not a signal vs. noise problem. Amazon Web Services does $1 Billion in revenue and Google has been tweaking App Engine for years. This is a prime example of how to filter opportunities and pursue ones that align with your cultural competence.

3 – Examples of Cultural Competence Failure
Companies that have a strong cultural lens will stay focused and thrive. Those that dilute their cultural competence die because they lose a very important filter for which ideas to pursue and how. Companies that try to build outside their cultural competence tend to fail as well.

  • Apple – Apple’s cultural competence is finding large industries full of geeky products and Apple’s core competence is building simple, cool status symbols in their place. Laptops, desktops, phones, and music players are all examples. Ping (their music social network), MobileMe, Pages/Keynote/Numbers, and iTunes are great examples of where if the product succeeds by piggybacking on their hardware business, not because it’s a great in its own right.
  • Facebook – Facebook’s cultural competencies lie in identifying opportunities to enable sharing. Every software, app, or platform upgrade is about fostering more connections and data flow between people. Facebook sees markets as an opportunity to get users to share more, find out more about their friends/connections, and elicit relationships (family, friends, worked with, who likes whom) that were previously unknown. When they try to extend this into another area, like daily deals, they don’t do well. Daily deals are not about the relationships between peers, they’re mostly about Facebook’s relationships with merchants.
  • eBay – has core competencies in peer-to-peer transactions (sometimes with goods changing hands). eBay’s cultural competence is around bringing groups of people together into a marketplace and getting them to trust each other and the marketplace. When they diverged from this (Skype, StumbleUpon) they failed. When Skype and StumbleUpon spun out from this cultural lens, they thrived. When eBay applied their cultural competence to Paypal, it worked beautifully because Paypal is fundamentally a trust network.
  • HP – has core competencies in manufacturing, distribution, and enterprise sales. What is their cultural lens? How does HP decide what opportunities to pursue and how to leverage its core competencies? They’ve floundered on this for quite some time.
  • Microsoft – has core competencies around desktop software, business applications, and selling through enterprise distribution channels. Their cultural competence has always been finding ways to make businesses more efficient with their PCs. They make a healthy profit in their servers and tools division since this aligns nicely with their cultural lens. Every time they stray away from this cultural competence, they struggle. Signal vs Noise businesses (Bing) burn cash and Entertainment (Zune, Xbox) operates at break even.

9 thoughts on “Cultural Competence

  1. Great write-up. So could we imply here that a proven ‘cultural competence’ is only relevant to the decision makers/sake holders in the organization? Is the buy-in of the individuals in the organization important?

    1. It’s relevant to everyone because it fundamentally influences which opportunities are pursued and how. Cultural competencies shape the organization and gets baked into processes, metrics, customer support, and many other places implicitly. The result is that individuals in the organization are usually hired to reinforce these cultural competencies.

      If an organization wants to change its cultural competencies, this has to come top down — doing it bottom up is too hard. It’s part of the reason big companies get disrupted, and often by their own employees. For example, Facebook is basically run by former Googlers today. A lot of them made the move from junior or middle management to middle and senior management. They saw Google’s cultural competencies were not set up to succeed in that market (Orkut missed the boat). It’s too hard to re-define cultural competences bottom up, so they left to go work at Facebook where the cultural competence aligned much better with what the social networking market demanded.

      1. so a successful leader not only has a winning cultural competence, but also ability to maintain this in the org at scale. Realize this is beyond the point of the article, but thinking about the practical application of this….very fascinating.

  2. I like your explanation and definitions a lot. The only comment I have for you is that the term ‘cultural competence’ has been used for quite awhile now in the HR world to define an employee’s notion of diversity and dealing with differences. Your Appendix 1 says you invented the term, maybe you’ve actually just “redefined” it from a previous usage, but the term itself has been around for at least 15 years as related to Diversity Training.

  3. Very interesting insights on the impact of an organization’s cultural competence – a reflection of the founders’ vision. Having consulted with many organizations on their strategic communications efforts, I think this is right on point. FYI – “Cultural competence” is also used extensively in education to refer to the ability of teachers and administrators to respect, value and engage students of different cultures. My blog post on connecting with student culture discusses this a bit: My latest book highlights examples of cultural competence around the world, as educators and community leaders effectively engage students and families of varying cultures

  4. Reblogged this on thegirlylaws and commented:
    Cultural competence is an extremely necessary skill to master in the field of public health. However, I do not work directly with a specific population – but my work still involves teens. This population is considered an “at-risk” or “vulnerable” population where certain measures must be taken to ensure adequate services are provided in that area. My role at NARAL is to provide evaluation and administrative support to research and development teams. Whatever job is being done, a solid and concrete definition of cultural competency must be understood. I have decided to reblog this excellent piece on cultural competency.


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