It was in an attempt to answer that question that opinion pollsters Mori and PA Consulting Group's Sundridge Park management centre devised the British Quality of Management Awards, and the 18 criteria that, in their view, are components in successful management.
But though the two organisations have been able to come up with these factors, there is little agreement among the three groups they asked to rank them on which are the most important and at which of them British organisations excel.
However, representatives of the three audiences - institutional investors, business journalists and captains of industry - are generally agreed that British companies are good at the things they put towards the bottom of the list and poor at those that matter. For instance, British managers attract some of their best scores for brand development, which is ranked 15th out of the 18 criteria selected. And while they do well in the third- placed general management skills and reasonably - at least in the view of the City and journalists - at first- and second-placed strategic thinking and leadership, their scores are negative in just about every other category.
Disappointingly perhaps for those who - like the Deputy Prime Minister, Michael Heseltine - want to see the arrival of "national champions" to battle on the world stage, it appears that only a handful of companies are rising above the mediocre.
This year's award - the third - was won by last year's winner, Marks and Spencer. The second prize went to Glaxo Wellcome, which was fourth last time and third in the inaugural year, when M&S was second. Third prize went - as last year - to British Airways. All of these companies were contenders for the Quality of Governance Award, which was won by M&S from last year's winner, ICI. Cadbury Schweppes retained third place in this award.
John Buckley, head of the global technology group at PA Consulting, and Roger Stubbs, chairman of Mori Financial, pointed out in the analysis of the first three years of results that the continual presence of the same names may not be exciting but is reassuring and "demonstrates that such success is not easily come by".
They added: "As in any other endeavour, reaching the top in business is a long haul. Reputation and sticking power have to be built on strong foundations."
The organisers certainly claim that having 18 criteria - ranging from brand development, through innovation and research and development, to strategy and leadership - gives the awards a breadth that some others lack. But Sir Denys Henderson, chairman of the Rank Organisation and a non-executive director of Mori, said when presenting the awards last week that he would have liked to see a category that recognised the importance of the customer.
Sir Denys, who as chairman of ICI received last year's governance award, also suggested that most FT-SE 100 companies were well managed but that there was "a comet's tail of companies outside the FT-SE that need to improve".
As president and chairman of the British Quality Foundation, which aims to promote total quality in business and the public sector, he is especially concerned that this problem be addressed. "I've always believed that there is no such thing as poor employees, just rank bad managers," he said, pointing out that the awards set good, clear examples of best practice that all could aspire to emulate.