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Employees in Focus




Or: About core expertise and why companies sometimes have to tread confidently to reach lofty goals safely


Britta Koch hails from Germany, but not the flat part. She is from Augsburg, a city in Bavaria that is near plenty of its own imposing peaks. But Britta wanted more, which is probably the reason she ended up staying in Innsbruck after finishing her studies. Climbing, mountaineering, mountain biking and ski tours are her true loves. She can always find a new goal to pursue and there are still more than enough peaks in the "tiny" region of Tyrol to keep her busy.

Britta is not just familiar with setting lofty goals and reaching difficult summits in her private life. "That is THE topic when we work with our customers," she says. "The objective is to find new paths and set new goals based on the existing situation. Sometimes it really does feel like an extremely strenuous climb, but in the end you always get new perspectives once you get to the top."


Patrick: Britta, in management theory, and in particular among supporters of resource-based theory, it is frequently said that organizations far too seldom focus on growth and differentiation opportunities that are based on existing core competencies. They don't like to stray from familiar paths and don't think enough about setting new goals. What can your experience in consulting projects tell us about that?

Unique company expertise that goes unnoticed

Britta: It is always amazing to me how difficult it is for companies to focus some thought on their own abilities, the ones they already definitely "possess". In our competence interviews we are often asked why we aren't trying to figure out what the company CAN'T do. That would be easier, they say. Or they "confess" to us what they see as areas that need real help, where they can improve and what "the others" already do better. We rarely get a list of strengths and capabilities straightaway.

REFLECTING on one's strengths and weaknesses is apparently not just difficult for individuals but also for companies. What do you think the reasons are for this shortcoming?

Britta: I often have the feeling that many companies lose themselves in the myriad problems of the everyday. At the same time they are looking into a mirror (the market) that constantly shows them all of the new and innovative things the competition is doing. That not only shifts standards but also influences how companies think, which in turn results in them looking at themselves in terms of shortcomings and weaknesses instead of the other way around.

Patrick: Perhaps you could give us a few examples of how IMP still manages to work with companies to reveal their core expertise and then build on those to think in new ways and set new goals…

In-depth interviews to distinguish between short-term competitive advantage and long-term core skills

Britta: We try our best to openly discuss the important topics in our interviews. We work with clients to reflect on the existing situation and challenge some of the old thought patterns. In order to most effectively analyze a company's expertise we place all of these "background" competencies into an IMP-developed rating scale. That is how we can ensure that we are differentiating between shortsighted competitive advantages and sustainable, long-term core expertise. REAL skills

  • provide added value for the customer
  • are rare
  • are difficult to imitate or replace
  • and potentially provide access to new markets.

At the same time, we can use this approach to work out which skills need to be improved in which areas in order to then further expand on and develop core expertise.

Patrick: To what degree does OPEN thought come into play here?

Britta: When we have projects with a specific focus, for example in technology driven innovation, we integrate experts from the fields in question. Depending on the goals we also bring in external opinions and perspectives when analyzing core competencies. This may be customers, non-customers or partners such as suppliers or the like. These different perspectives help companies to hold "another mirror" up to show both existing expertise as well as discover potential for development.

Patrick: Does it also happen that companies have no core expertise?

Britta: Well, it's not a given that a company has a specific core competence, much less more than one. More often it is a BUNDLE of skills within an industry that doesn't exist in that particular form at any other competitive company. But these bundles can make companies very successful and it is often these bundles that we work on in order to ultimately develop a core expertise for the organization.

Trailblazers and partners on the way to the top

Patrick: What risks do you personally see when companies need to embark on completely new paths? And to what degree can you draw parallels here with "real" mountaineering exploits.

Britta: In my opinion, one of the biggest risks when forging completely new paths is the UNCERTAINTY that goes along with it. Ascending a new climbing route, for example, is a real challenge when, FIRST of all, you don't know the way, SECOND of all, can't judge how difficult it will be and, THIRD of all, need to react quickly and effectively when confronted with obstacles.

Patrick: To what degree can a "guide" provide help or defuse fears and uncertainties?
Britta: A guide definitely helps. IMP is both a trailblazer and a guide, and to have a mountain guide or climbing partner who...

  • has already completed a lot of similar routes
  • can better assess difficult lines based on experience and, most importantly,
  • can stand aside with an assuring presence

...is usually very good at counteracting the "jitters" early on in the process. Still, in the end you have to go that way YOURSELF. The guide is there to help with all of your preparation (fitness checks, briefings, scenario planning, security mechanisms, tips and assistance, etc.) but the decision about where and when to take which step has to be made by the person making the ascent.
Patrick: How willing are customers to surrender to their guides?

True "summiteers" who share in the glory of common success and who are already looking at the next peak from "the top"

Britta: My experiences with customer projects have been very diverse in that regard. Some of them find it easy to surrender themselves to our "safe hands". They even enjoy learning new methods and seeing new approaches to how they think about their companies. Others find it more difficult to trust the "harness". They are unsure whether they will manage it all and keep thinking about whether they should take a more simple, known route or even stay down in the valley. The strength and the courage to get to the peak has to come from the customer, in spite of all the adversity on the way: steep bits, bad weather, pain, fatigue, "wannabe sprinters" passing them, you name it. But only with the right amount of endurance and tenacity will they finally reach the goal.

Patrick: And then?

Britta: Then they can stand on the peak, look down, enjoy the collective victory and then inwardly begin setting their sites on the next summit…THAT is what makes you a true summiteer.

Patrick: Thank you very much for the interview, Britta! "Storm" is also our new buzzword and we have a customer appointment right now. Off to new heights!


Despite the fact that she's from Germany, Britta Koch has still earned the moniker "Bergfex", an Austrian term for someone who is passionate about mountaineering. True to her hobby, she and Patrick Feuerstein are pursuing the question of what companies can learn from these "summiteers" when the goal is to reach new heights and blaze new trails.

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