core competency (core competencies)

What are core competencies?

For any organization, its core competency refers to the capabilities, knowledge, skills and resources that constitute its "defining strength." A company's core competency is distinct, and therefore not easily replicated by other organizations, whether they're existing competitors or new entrants into its market.

An organization's core competencies -- sometimes called core capabilities or distinctive competencies -- explain what it can do better than any other company, and why. These capabilities provide a strong foundation from which the business will deliver value to customers and stakeholders, seize new opportunities and grow. They set the company apart from its peers and help create a sustained competitive advantage in its industry or sector.

A company can have one or more organization-wide core competencies, such as the following:

  • product quality
  • buying power
  • customer-centric omnichannel support
  • design or innovation capabilities
  • sales and marketing ecosystem
  • automated workflows and processes
  • size

Each competency is a positive characteristic that contributes to the company's unique positioning. Having and using them matters because they can make it quite difficult for competitors to exactly duplicate the company's offerings or replicate its success. This is why identifying core competencies is a crucial step in strategic planning.

Which core competencies matter most varies by industry. A company's ability to stand out in those competencies, and ideally uniquely combine them with other competencies, can give it competitive advantage over its industry peers.

For example, Southwest Airlines built and still has a strong position in the competitive airline industry by focusing on its core competencies. As detailed in Mukund Srinivasan's airline industry blog post, those competencies are keeping operational costs low (largely but not entirely through route efficiency), delivering award-winning customer service and creating a fun work culture that promotes employee loyalty.

Many of the world's largest and most successful companies (see more real-world examples below) got there through similar focus on their core competencies.

core competency skills

Evolution of the idea of core competency

The concept of core competency is widely accepted today. But contrary to popular belief, it's not an old idea. It was first proposed in 1990 in the HBR article "The Core Competence of the Corporation" by C.K. Prahalad and Gary Hamel. In this classic, influential piece, the authors suggest a company's core competence is the "most powerful way to prevail" in global commerce and "adapt quickly to changing opportunities."

Evaluating business managers and leaders based on their ability to "identify, cultivate, and exploit the core competencies that make growth possible" quickly became prominent. In the 1980s, the focus was on streamlining, restructuring and decluttering organizations. According to Prahalad and Hamel, successful enterprises viewed themselves as "a portfolio of competencies versus a portfolio of businesses."

This approach encouraged business leaders to rethink the concept of the corporation itself. The authors also noted that a core competence encompasses collective learning, technology integration, communication, leadership and a commitment to working across the organization's boundaries.

In recent years, a variation on core competence has emerged, with the focus on individuals. This idea suggests that job seekers should develop their personal core competencies or specific abilities to stand out in the job market.

These include the following:

  • analytical abilities
  • communication skills
  • digital literacy
  • problem-solving
  • decision-making
  • interpersonal/relationship-building skills
  • cultural competency
  • business acumen

3 key characteristics of a core competency

Prahalad and Hamel, in that HBR article, list the following three primary conditions a business activity must satisfy to be considered a core competency:

  • It must provide superior value (e.g., benefits) to the customer or consumer.
  • It should provide potential access to a wide variety of markets.
  • It should not be easy to replicate or imitate.

The authors cite Honda to illustrate the concept. According to them, Honda's core competencies in engines and power trains enabled the company to deliver superior benefits to its customers. These capabilities gave Honda competitive advantages in the car, motorcycle, lawn mower and generator businesses. At the time, no other company could match Honda's unique and powerful capabilities.

Sources of core competencies

Contributions to a company's core competencies can come from its:

  • people
  • capital
  • brand equity
  • assets
  • intellectual property

For long-term growth and success, it's important for an organization to develop and nurture all these elements. It should consistently invest its resources on building and maintaining the skills that contribute to its core competencies. It must identify and isolate its best abilities that can provide a competitive advantage -- as Southwest Airlines did with operational costs -- and then develop them into organization-wide strengths.

Furthermore, the company's development strategy should focus on developing these skills and strengths in ways that are unique from competitors and deliver enhanced value to customers -- as Southwest did with superior service and a fun work culture.

To focus resources on core competencies and strengthen their competitive position, companies can outsource or divest areas that fall outside their primary expertise. Such streamlining was in focus, as Prahalad and Hamel pointed out, in the 1980s; it remains relevant today.

traditional learning vs. continuous learning
Organizations should constantly devote resources to developing and preserving skills that support their core competencies.

More real-world examples of core competencies

Three of the best examples of companies that have enjoyed sustained success by focusing on their core companies are the following:

  • McDonald's
  • Apple
  • Walmart

McDonald's best core competence is its ability to standardize its food service and delivery processes. Every McDonald's offering tastes and looks exactly the same, regardless of its geographical location or outlet -- after accounting for local tastes and exceptions. Since customers always know what they will get when they order a Big Mac or Chicken McNuggets, they trust the brand. That trust continues to drive McDonald's success.

Apple has a unique ability to design and produce electronic devices that appeal to consumers' esthetic sensibilities and material aspirations, such as the iPhone, iMac and iPad. Each product boasts attractive visual esthetics and tactile appeal that have allowed Apple to achieve the status of the world's most valuable company in current market capitalization.

Walmart has the buying power that even its closest competitors cannot match. The company's massive supply chain operations allow it to buy products in bulk and at low rates, and then undersell its competitors to attract and retain more customers.

Every business must aim to maximize its core competencies in every area of operations, including advertising or reputation management, marketing or human resource management, sponsorship and strategic management. This holistic approach will empower a company to pursue long-term growth and success. In addition, it must develop more than one competency to maintain and improve its competitiveness and unique market position.

This was last updated in September 2021

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