Core competencies in business: Finding a competitive advantage

Core competencies give businesses a competitive edge by leveraging unique resources and talents. Identifying and developing these strengths is crucial for success in today’s market.

By Brad Nakase, Attorney

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Core Competencies: What Are They?

A business’s strategic advantages are made up of its core competencies, which include its resources and talents. According to contemporary management theory, a company can only thrive against other businesses if it can identify, develop, and capitalize on its core competencies.

Key Learnings

  • The distinctive qualities that set a company or a person apart from others are called core competencies.
  • Determining and utilizing core competencies is considered crucial for a startup seeking to make a name for itself or an existing organization looking to maintain its competitiveness.
  • A company’s capital, personnel, physical assets, trademarks, and brand equity can all contribute to its core competencies.
  • In contrast to the 1980s evaluation system for business executives, the concept of core competencies initially came forth in the 1990s.
  • Walmart, McDonald’s, and Apple are a few examples of businesses whose basic skills have helped them sustain success over decades.

Comprehending Core Competencies

A profitable company knows what it does better than its competitors and why. The “why” is its central competency. You may also refer to core competencies as distinguishing competencies or core capabilities. Competitive advantages are a result of core competencies.

Found in the Harvard Business Review article in 1990 “The Core Competence of the Corporation,” core competency constitutes a relatively recent philosophy of management. Three requirements that a company activity needs to fulfill in order to qualify as a core competency are reviewed by C.K. Prahalad & Gary Hamel in the piece:

  • The consumer must receive greater value or advantages from the act in question.
  • It ought to be challenging for a rival to copy or mimic.
  • It ought to be uncommon.

The piece emphasized the differences between the 1980s company model and the ideal 1990s business model. According to the article, company managers were evaluated based on their capacity to reorganize, simplify, and reschedule their companies during the 1980s. Their ability to recognize, develop, and capitalize on the basic talents that enable growth will be the basis for their evaluation in the 1990s.”

Different industries have different core capabilities that set them apart. A production company may recognize exceptional quality control, while a hospital and clinic may concentrate on brilliance in certain specializations.

Key Business Core Competencies

There are several ways a firm might decide to be highly efficient in its operations. The following list of typical core competencies in business:

  • Best Quality Products: this core competency denotes that the organization has made the greatest investments in technically skilled personnel, robust quality control procedures, and premium raw materials to produce the most dependable, long-lasting, and durable products.
  • Most inventive technology. Because of this core skill, the business leads its industry in its particular field. The business probably employs subject-matter specialists, has numerous patents, and has made significant financial investments in R&D.
  • Excellent Client Support. Having the best experience for customers before and after the sale is a fundamental skill. A significant number of support representatives, staff training, and procedures to handle exceptions or problems as they emerge will probably have been invested in by the business.
  • Maximum purchasing power. Utilizing a company’s economies of scale is this essential capability. This business most likely made investments in mergers and acquisitions and developed a solid rapport with suppliers in order to obtain advantageous terms on goods or services.
  • Most robust corporate culture. This fundamental skill enhances the company culture. The corporation aims to attract top personnel by investing heavily in employee recognition, development, or fun, cooperative activities.
  • Fastest Delivery or Production Time. The company’s ability to produce or send goods the quickest is a core competency. The business probably made investments in production procedures, distribution networks, and networked software systems.
  • Cheapest Supplier. Because of this fundamental skill, the business offers equivalent products at the lowest possible cost. Most likely, the business has made investments in the labor and material input-saving most efficient procedures.
  • Maximum Flexibility Level. The company’s ability to swiftly adjust to changing business conditions is a result of this key strength. It is probable that the organization has made investments in agile software solutions or cross-training among staff members.

Personal Core Competencies

A novel twist on the idea that has gained popularity recently is to focus on helping job seekers. To differentiate themselves from other candidates, the variant advises job applicants to concentrate on their individual core strengths.

It is possible to cultivate and include these advantageous traits on a CV. Among one’s personal fundamental capabilities are the capacity for analysis, creativity, and problem-solving. A candidate might distinguish oneself as particularly experienced, imaginative, or proficient in technology during an interview by citing their hypothetical personal or individual core skills.

Important: The core competencies that a candidate provides on their resume have to be customized to the position and show the real, highly skilled abilities required for the position.

Methods for Determining Core Competencies

Certain fundamental skills emerge organically, but others need to be deliberately and methodically developed over time. These techniques can help firms determine what their core skills are or could be, regardless of how long they have been in business.

  • Examine the mission, values, or tagline of the organization. There’s a good likelihood that a firm has thought about what it wishes to be recognized for if it has dedicated time and resources to building a brand. A business can express who it is and the way it desires to be perceived by the public through its value statement, mission statement, or other marketing materials.
  • Compare the business to its rivals. A core competency refers to a distinct quality that makes it difficult for other businesses to duplicate. Thus, by considering how the business differs from other companies, a corporation can determine its key capabilities. This includes variations in products, methods, regions of the market, delivery regulations, costs, or workforce.
  • Interview key clients or employees of the company. A company’s strengths and shortcomings may be understood by various important stakeholders. In certain instances, employees working there on a daily basis might know more about the company’s strengths. Also, feedback might come from the company’s main clients who have used its goods and services the most in the actual world.
  • Think about the advantages that the company offers to its clients. A company’s core competency can often be linked to the service or product it offers. For instance, is its product the most affordable, the easiest to use, or the best quality? If clients receive a benefit from what the business provides (for example, they pay the cheapest prices), that can frequently be turned into a key strength.
  • Recognize the steps needed in the production process. A business should evaluate the processes involved in producing the items in addition to the individual products. Labor, supplies, expertise, equipment, procedures, and any research that needs to be done beforehand are all included in this.
  • Highlight the company’s distinctive features. In the event everything else doesn’t work, it could be easiest to focus only on what makes the business special. This could be about the company’s background, specific advantages offered to staff, the sector it works in, or its global goals.

Tip: To identify your company’s core competencies, either now or in the future, think about employing an outside consultant to assess the framework.

The Significance of Core Competencies

A corporation can more effectively utilize its resources when it possesses core capabilities. For instance, if a business does not want to turn a certain activity into its core strength, it can make sense for it to contract out that task. This also entails more stringent guidelines on hiring personnel and investing in training.

Market risk is also decreased by a company’s core strengths. Being outstanding or skilled in particular areas allows a business to depend on those areas to keep operations consistent and dependable. Strong institutional cultures, for instance, can reduce a company’s costs associated with personnel turnover, training, product flaws brought on by ignorance, and disgruntled workers.

Customers frequently identify and link an organization with its core competency as they help businesses identify what they are excellent at. Consequently, a company’s key competencies aid in the development of a stronger brand perception or market position. One common conception among consumers is that Apple products are the most advanced and creative.

Finally, a business’s connections with its customers and employees may be strengthened by its core strengths. When a company’s strength or character is known, both customers and employees may identify with it more. For instance, in the aforementioned scenario, customers may feel satisfied since they have the most inventive solutions, while staff may take pride in producing the most innovative items.

Quick Fact: Certain essential skills do eventually fade. Because of their catalog, Sears has long held a dominant position as the largest retailer. Currently, an in-home published catalog could not be seen as a strength because that key expertise has diminished.

Benefits and Drawbacks of Core Competencies


It is hard to copy core competencies. Developing core talents frequently requires a significant investment of time and money. When a business develops a core expertise, it frequently gains a significant competitive edge over rivals.

It’s possible for core competencies to be applied to other product lines or sectors. As an illustration, Apple has grown into new product categories, industries, and geographical areas on the strength of its reputation as an exceptionally inventive firm. A business may have advantages that are broadly applicable.

Finally, a product’s marketability is organically increased by its fundamental skills. Spirit Airlines’ strengths and business tagline are both derived from its core expertise of providing the most affordable flights in general. Spirit’s reputation is distinct and easily recognizable, even though this could indicate that certain customers are inherently unfavorable to the company.


Developing a core competency can be just as challenging as maintaining it over time. This could unintentionally result in a shaky and unclear brand image for the company. McDonald’s, for instance, used to be well-known for its indoor play areas and Ronald McDonald. Even when the business has moved away from this environment, devoted customers could still connect the brand to previous core capabilities.

The adaptability of a corporation is inherently restricted by its core skills. Take Wal-Mart as an example of a discount store. Consumers might not correctly link what they buy with the brand, making it difficult for the business to introduce high-end, expensive lines of products with larger profits.

Should a business focus too much on establishing a core skill, it could potentially “lose the jungle among the woods.” Being able to sell items is a company’s primary means of making money, not having core competencies. As a result, businesses may invest a great deal of time or money without having a coherent overall plan.

Core Competencies Pros

  • Need significant or prolonged investments, making them difficult to replicate.
  • Once a core expertise is attained, it is frequently challenging for rivals to surpass
  • Maybe transferable to other goods, industries, or business prospects
  • Strengthens the business’s reputation and could make marketing initiatives easier to understand

Core Competencies Cons

  • May cause an organization to become dependent on an antiquated, unusable core competency
  • Could make a corporation less flexible overall
  • Might need a significant investment of time or money.
  • May lead to an organization placing an excessive amount of emphasis on key capabilities rather than one unified approach.

A Practical Illustration of Core Competencies

The essence of Amazon’s business is covered in Part 1 of its 2021 annual report. “Being Earth’s most customer-focused corporation” is the company’s stated goal. In addition, it covers the following commercial endeavors:

  • “Hundreds of thousands of exclusive goods to be offered by us along with third parties” is what Amazon’s stores “enable.” This highlights Amazon’s primary competency: operating scale.
  • Customers may “access our products and services through our sites, mobile applications, Alexa, gadgets, video streaming, and by actually visiting our stores,” demonstrating that Amazon utilizes sophisticated technology as a fundamental skill.
  • Being an affordable choice is one of Amazon’s main competencies, as it aims to “give our consumers low costs, fast and free shipping, easy-to-use performance, and responsive customer care.”
  • As it provides a wide range of technological services to “developers and organizations of every kind including new businesses, government departments, and educational institutions,” Amazon’s adaptability and diversification of products are important competencies.
  • Being self-sufficient is one of Amazon’s key competencies. It does this by helping authors through its own publishing houses, Kindle Direct Publishing and Amazon Publishing, to produce goods for its existing store, the Kindle Store that can be used with its own hardware, the Kindle.
  • As far as Amazon is concerned, “our intellectual property rights, service marks, patents, copyrights, domains, trade look, secrets of trade, proprietary technology, and related intellectual property as crucial to our performance” highlight its fundamental strength of innovation.

What Main Kinds of Core Competencies Exist?

In business, a company’s core skills are frequently related to the kind of product or service it provides to its customers. For example, the primary categories of core competencies are offering the best value, the most dependable delivery, the finest customer support, the most accommodating return policies, or the highest-quality goods.

How Do Businesses Acquire Core Competencies?

An organization should evaluate internally everything it does and also how its rivals approach the market. Next, a business should assess which areas it believes offer the greatest opportunity for it to shape the industry. Even if a company’s strengths might not lie in those domains right now, it can make process and capital improvements over time to establish core competencies.

Which Core Competency Type Is the Best?

There is no reason why one core competency type is superior to another. Some fundamental competencies, meanwhile, could be more challenging for rival businesses to overcome. Take the Coca-Cola brand as an example. It could be quite challenging for a new beverage firm to surpass the company’s main skill of brand recognition. Nonetheless, it might be simpler for a rival business to adopt Coca-Cola’s corporate culture or customer service philosophy.

What Makes Core Competencies Important?

Superior products, satisfied customers, and/or increased profitability are the results of excellence in operations, which is attained through core competencies. A business develops a favorable reputation for what it does best when it can complete a portion of the selling process particularly successfully. Improved business processes, happier staff members, and higher sales could result from this reputation.

In summary

A company’s competitive advantages stem from its core capabilities. The business’s strengths are its areas of expertise, and these are frequently the things that make the organization well-known. Core competencies are what set a firm apart and direct its operational strategy. Examples of these include producing top-quality products, offering the finest customer service, and operating at the lowest possible cost.

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