Cultural Intelligence (CI) is the ability to create a fruitful collaboration with people who think and act different from ourselves.

Cultural Intelligence (CI) consists of three dimensions that correspond to the classical division between emotion, understanding and action:

The emotional dimension – ‘intercultural engagement’

The emotional dimension relates to the emotional or feeling component of the situation and the motivation to generate solutions. This dimension is the 'touch paper' in the intercultural encounter - the thing that changes fuel into fire and contains both the creative potential and the 'danger'; the positive driving forces and the stumbling blocks that can destroy or enliven the contact. ‘Intercultural engagement’ includes the motivation we have to achieve a fruitful inter-cultural encounter. Our motivation comes from both external drivers, goals and objectives such as the need to develop a strategy for innovation and internal drivers such as curiosity or an attraction to things or people who are different. These drivers determine how much of an investment we are prepared to put into any situation.

The cognitive dimension – ‘cultural understanding’

The cognitive dimension is the objective or rational component. It is based on reason and the capacity to develop mental structures which enable us to understand the encounter, to think about what is going on and to make judgements based on conceptual frameworks and language. It consists of understanding oneself as a cultural being as well as understanding people with a different cultural background. This dimension requires knowledge about what culture is as well as knowledge about the characteristics of our own and others' cultures. It also consists of cognitive flexibility and the ability to transfer experience from one kind of cultural encounter to another.

The action dimension – ‘intercultural communication’

The action dimension is about what happens during an encounter, what we decide to do based on our judgements about the situation coming from the emotional and rational data we have collected. The action dimension is the activity and communication during the cultural encounter, what each participant actually does in this encounter. It consists of various types of interpersonal communication, for example, listening, questioning, summarizing, agreeing or disagreeing etc. as well as skills which we have learned to manage relationships in general involving body language, etiquette, rituals, rules and techniques. The action dimension brings the other two dimensions of cultural intelligence into play.


Cultural intelligence involves a combination of the three dimensions and they influence each other. The three dimensions are all equally important and form the structure which helps us to gain a deeper understanding of the intercultural encounter and give us some options for improving the outcome.

Don’t confuse CI with CQ

Elisabeth Plum et al.'s concept of Cultural Intelligence (CI) must not be confused with other versions of Cultural Intelligence. For instance Christopher Earley, Soon Ang and Joo-Seng Tan have another model and David C. Thomas and Kerr Inkson have a third model. They all call their concept for CQ.

Our concept of Cultural Intelligence (CI) includes dealing with the emotional dynamics and irrational parts of the intercultural encounters as well as the understanding part and the action part. We see culture not as a thing or a fixed essence in people but as a collective phenomenon that is changed over time.

Furthermore it is a core point that the cultural interactions and reactions are the same in relation to professional, organisational, national or racial differences and the CI approach enables us to deal with a cultural complexity involving more than one difference. It is helpful to think about cultural differences in as broad a context as possible in order to move away from a tendency to define cultural differences in too concrete and fixed a way.

CI is a development tool - not a descriptive model. It makes no sense to try to measure an individual’s CI because it will change according to the context. CI is a social competence and can only be evaluated by the outcome of a specific cultural encounter. You cannot be culturally intelligent all by yourself.

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Cultural Intelligence (CI) – the art of leading cultural complexity Book, 2008

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Read more about Cultural Intelligence in these publications by and about Elisabeth Plum

Actively managing differences - They found the overlooked resource for innovation article at Danish Industry Global Leadership Academy, 04.2013

Cultural intelligence – the art of leading cultural complexity article at Danish Industry Global Leadership Academy, 04.2013

The Future of innovation is Dependent on Cultural Intelligence. In: Bettina von Stamm & Anna Trifilova (ed.) The Future of Innovation, Gower 2009

Cultural Intelligence - A concept for bridging and benefiting from cultural differences, article, 07.2007.

See all publications by Elisabeth Plum at