The term "world class" has been a mantra to corporations and consulting firms for years, touted as the nirvana that all good companies should strive to achieve. But what does world class actually mean in today's corporate environment? Should you strive to be world class in every part of your business? How do you know when you have achieved it? Do you get to rest once it has been attained?

The dictionary defines world class as "ranking among the foremost in the world; of an international standard of excellence." Change is happening so rapidly in every industry that the bar for world class is constantly edging upward. So world class can be achieved for only a short period of time before the bar has once again been raised. No company can rest on its laurels.

We believe that a company needs to be world class in its core competencies, which are those functions or practices deemed by a company as central to its existence, and those activities that the company believes it does best, should focus on and that are in the company's best interest for long-term success and growth. Core competencies are not fixed. As customer interests and economic indicators change, a company must continually reassess its focus. In today's world, the only constant is change.

A company does not need to be world class in every aspect of its operation. For instance, a company that is service-oriented does not need to be world class in maintenance of equipment or production capabilities, even though parts of its operation contain those capabilities. A computer software corporation might focus on ease of use, upgrading and customer service offerings, whereas a petrochemical plant might be primarily concerned with equipment maintenance. To identify core competencies, one might look at market access and availability, the ever-changing realm of available customers, perceived customer benefits and how easily others could imitate those benefits, and the flexibility of internal processes in adapting to meet requirements.

Identifying core competencies and focusing on them does not mean you can disregard other processes inside the organization. While your non-core competencies may not need to be at the highest levels of achievement, they still need to be solid and reliable. For example, consider a computer firm that does business only via the Internet or phone, has no retail store presence, and has excelled in service and support. Whether its computers are any better than others on the market is not at issue. What set them apart was identifying the market, method and processes that are its core competencies and developing them to achieve a level of success. Nevertheless, advancements in electronics and intense competition from other companies have raised the bar for world-class status and leveled the playing field.

The steps toward world class vary depending on the starting level of proficiency. One company may be so far away from world class that simply stabilizing the operation, developing solid operational processes, and creating a lean, cost-effective environment may be the first major hurdle. Another company may already have much of this covered and can focus on enhancing the processes. Begin with the corporate vision and requirements, determine the current level of proficiency, and develop the metrics to measure results. Then the real fun begins as sustainable improvements in the methods, processes and management of the appropriate systems are implemented.

Sound easy? It takes concerted, long-term dedication to achieve world-class success, in any organization. Are you up to the challenge?