Intercultural Competence – Can it be measured?

While in Tallinn I had the pleasure of attending Dr. Milton Bennett’s speech: “Culture is not like an Iceberg, and Competence is not like Intelligence: The Ravages of Reification in Intercultural Theory & Research”[1]. As expected the temperature in the room directly rose and animated discussions followed the presentation. What sparked so many reactions was the fact that Dr. Bennett pointed towards the idea that intercultural competence is not a ‘thing’  – and therefore cannot be measured and/or ranked – as one cannot assume that it is normally distributed within a given population.

In his recent Blog post: “The Mismeasure of Intercultural Competence” he even goes a little further drawing a parallel between intelligence (IQ) and Intercultural Competence (IC). He says: “IQ was (…) devised as a system to rank people in terms of how much g[2] they had, and it is still with us today. The point here is that g (and consequently IQ) has no identifiable existence outside of our measurement.” When originally observing Intercultural Competence in behavior, whereby some people obviously had more of it than others, we directly assumed that the ones “(…) more competent had some set of measurable inherent qualities and characteristics that accounted for their competence”, hence something that could be measured.

One can easily understand why these statements cause so many reactions… it leaves HR professionals, trainers, coaches, consultants etc. with a big ‘question mark’, meaning a gap where the traditional measurement tools normally would have been situated. Exactly as in other domains – like communications for example – if you cannot prove in numbers how the situation was before your intervention and where it stands after, how can you show the ROI and show your value to the organization?

Concerning IQ, it is generally assumed that it is not the only factor determining how well a person will function in international or national teams, with employees or as a manager/supervisor. Whereas technical skills are important, different ways are found nowadays to express a persons’ skill levels; emotional intelligence with its different aspects for instance, well described by Daniel Goleman, is one example of a ‘new’ way of analyzing people’s competences when working together.

I guess in the case of Intercultural Competence, new ways have to be found to express how well a person adapts and others don’t. Certainly interesting new ground for research!




[1] You can find his slides here

[2] General Intelligence Factor