What is Cultural Competence & How is it Measured?

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What is Cultural competence? A definition of the term and description of how to assess it at the individual and organizational levels is offered. This article also offers a unique approach to designing and developing high impact diversity education. It utilizes a cultural competence framework. A What is Cultural Competence? video is included.

Cultural competence has a solid representation in healthcare diversity education, but only recently have diversity professionals in other sectors discovered its value. This article summarizes a unique approach to high impact diversity education that utilizes a cultural competence framework.

Most diversity professionals overemphasize awareness raising training in their work because they lack the depth of understanding needed to design, develop, and implement high impact cultural diversity education programs.

Some diversity trainers focus on ‘valuing diversity,” which emphasizes appreciation for the ways in which cultural differences can create value in organizations.  While this approach is a step up from ‘awareness training,” it still lacks the impact needed to build knowledge and skills.

Academic courses on diversity tend to understandably focus on the knowledge component. Offering learners scholarly insights into diversity and inclusion can bring their personal values and beliefs to surface. A good instructor will also cover the awareness and attitude components by providing exercises that drive home the major points made in the scholarly works. The problem is that the skills required to negotiate differences are too often left out of the mix. Even in a good intercultural communication course, so much theory may be presented that the course does not transfer to the students’ community or the workplace in any practical way.

Primarily focusing on skills training is inadequate as well. Again, lack of awareness about personal biases and little understanding of how personal diversity related beliefs and values will make it difficult to use the skills with insight. The result is that our efforts to connect with people of other cultures are not viewed as credible. All four components awareness, attitude, knowledge, and skills work hand in glove.

A cultural competence approach to diversity education offers professionals a way to consider all four components.

What is Cultural Competence?

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Cultural competence refers to an ability to successfully negotiate cross-cultural differences in order to accomplish practical goals.[1] The goal may be selfish, as in dating someone who speaks a different language, socially responsible, as in trying to create a more inclusive society, or collaborative, as in working as a member on a cross cultural team. Cultural competence has four major components: Awareness, attitude, knowledge, and skills.[2]

Awareness: It is important to examine diversity-related values and beliefs in order to recognize any deep-seated prejudices and stereotypes that can create barriers for learning and personal development. Many of us have blind spots when it comes to our beliefs and values; diversity education can be useful for uncovering them.

Attitude: Values and beliefs impact cross-cultural effectiveness because they convey the extent to which we are open to differing views and opinions. The stronger we feel about our beliefs and values, the more likely we will react emotionally when they collide with cultural differences. For example, people of color and white Americans tend to have different values and beliefs about diversity and equality; the differences are, in part, the result of uniquely different exposure to oppression and discrimination.

Knowledge: The more knowledge we have about people of different cultures, the more likely we are able to avoid stepping on cross-cultural toes. Knowing how culture impacts problem solving, managing people, asking for help, etc. can keep us connected in cross-cultural interactions.

Skills: One can have the ‘right” attitude, considerable self awareness, and a lot of knowledge about cultural differences, yet still lack the ability to effectively manage differences. If we have not learned skills or have had little opportunity to practice, our knowledge and awareness are insufficient to avoid and manage cross-cultural landmines.

Focusing on cultural competency not only raises awareness about why learning to manage differences can pay off for everyone, but also takes the primary focus off social engineering and squarely places it where it rightfully belongs–on making people more competent in their cross-cultural interactions. In an organization, this means finding ways to close competency gaps so that people can work more productively together.

Cultural competence enables people to work more effectively in a culturally diversity organizations. Individuals and organizations can be culturally competent. A culturally competent healthcare organization, for example, offers an appropriate mix of the following:

  • A culturally diverse staff that reflects the communities served,
  • Training for providers about the culture and language of the people they serve,
  • Signage and instructional literature in the clients’ language(s) and consistent with their cultural norms,
  • Culturally specific healthcare settings.
  • Inclusive policies and procedures,
  • Fairness in retention and promotion,
  • Affinity groups.

On the individual level, cultural competence offers:

  • Providers or translators who speak the clients’ language(s),
  • Cross-cultural skills,
  • An ability to recover from inevitable cultural collisions,
  • Inclusive decision making,
  • Considerable knowledge about cross cultural differences,
  • Cross cultural communications skills,
  • Diversity management skills,
  • Inclusive beliefs and values,
  • Awareness of personal biases and stereotypes,
  • Leadership commitment.

Notice that at the organizational level, practices such as inclusive policies and retention, are included in cultural competence. Cultural competence reduces inequities in promotion, retention, service delivery, healthcare delivery, and health risks, as well as protects organizations legally.

Beyond healthcare, cultural competence can lead to reductions in the number of cultural collisions that occur and the impact of those that inevitably surface. Increasing cultural competence supports a productive, collegial workplace, which provides both legal protection and a more competitive, innovation environment.

How is Cultural Competence Assessed?

The goal of assessment is to identify what members of an organization need to know in order to work more effectively together. It would be great to get them to really like each other and overcome their biases, but the reality is that you can only expect them to learn the rules for how to work together productively.

The advantage of using a cultural competence approach is that you can identify the cultural competence gaps that need targeting in the design and development of a diversity education program. The Organizational Inclusion Assessmentâ„¢ (OIA) is an example of an approach to cultural competence assessment. It is based on the assumption that as cultural competence increases, an organization becomes more inclusion. Another assumption is that each organization goes through a set of developmental stages towards inclusion. The assessment relies on a triangulated approach that utilizes archival, interview, and survey assessments. The results of the different instruments converge to identify cultural competence gaps.

The OIA has been used in organizations across sectors. In each case, collecting data involves (a) looking over existing documentation (archival), such as policies and procedures, (b) interviewing key individual informants, (c) conducting focus group interviews with different identity groups, and (d) conducting an organization wide survey. Whereas the first three are qualitative, the survey provides quantitative data.

Making Sense Out of Cultural Competence Assessment Data

Data from the survey typically show that the different identify groups do not place their organization in the same cultural competence stage. Gay and lesbian members of an organization, for example, commonly have an average survey score that places the organization in a low cultural competence stage. In contrast, managers and supervisors typically place the organization in higher cultural competence stages. European American tend to have a more favorable view of the organization compared to Historically Excluded Groups (HEGs). How do you make sense out of divergent group results?

This is when the interview data are invaluable. The first step is to systematically develop themes from both the key informant and focus group data. Then each theme is categorized into one of the cultural competence components. What emerges is a distribution of themes across cultural competence components. The more themes associated with a component, the more action it has. Of course, a high frequency of themes indicates areas of improvement or cultural competence gaps. More often than not, more than one component emerges as a target for diversity education. The themes also uncover the source of the differences in points of view about the organization’s stage. The GLBT group may perceive the organization as slow to include them as a group in comparison with other groups, for example. You also have a lot of rich information that can be used as anecdotes and examples when supporting your results.

Since data have been collected from multiple sources, it is possible to see the degree of consistency across the different methods of inquiry. Is a similar story being told across the focus group and key informant interviews? Do the survey results reinforce the interview findings? Are people of color viewing the problem consistently? If you find a consistent and complementary pattern across data gathering methods, you can be more confident in the conclusions you draw. If there are inconsistencies that are not easy to explain, you can rely on the themes  from cultural competence gap analysis to do the work for you. Simply target the competency gaps for diversity education and use examples from prominent themes for insights into content and format (e.g., policy change, diversity training, online information, etc.).

A recent set of data from an organization showed that the attitudes and skills cultural competence components represented the highest frequency of themes. This explained why the organization was in the middle cultural competence stage.

The next step is to translate the results into a diversity education program. While this is beyond the scope of this paper, let it suffice to say here that you target the prominent cultural competence gaps. You will not necessarily utilize diversity training. Sometimes changing policies and procedures, implementing additional ones, or making certain that current policies are followed can make a huge difference in promoting inclusion.


What is cultural competence? This article defined the term and described how incorporating it in diversity education design, development, and implementation adds value. Diversity professionals can take the guess work out of what to concentrate on in making an organization more inclusive and productive. More importantly, it gets the work beyond awareness-sensitivity training. Assessment is the key to make this happen.

what is cultural competence certification

If you like this article, you can learn more about cultural competence in other articles on this site. You will also find value in learning more about the cultural diversity professional course. Check it out at http://dtui.com/diversity-certification.

About the author:

DTUI.com is a full service cultural diversity consulting firm that also certifies cultural diversity professionals. The company has offices in the United States, Europe, and Asia. Let more about the organization at http://www.dtui.com.

[1] From Billy Vaughn (2007) High Impact Cultural Competence Consulting & Training. DTUI Publications Division, San Francisco, CA. 94105, 415-692-0121, admin@dtui.com.

[2] Our definition of cultural competence is based, in part, on Paul Pedersen’s (1997) characterization of multicultural counseling competence. What is cultural competence?

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