Over my several decades as a health care business writer and editor, browsing hundreds of company websites and receiving (and deleting) thousands of press releases, I have not bothered to count the number of times an organization has claimed that some virtue or other is “in our DNA.” But it’s a lot. The term “corporate DNA” even has its own Wikipedia page.
I understand what these organizations mean: that something is so deeply ingrained in their corporate culture that it determines everything about how they operate. However, at this point, I’ve written or edited enough articles about genomics that I have had it with such conceits. In addition to being the laziest of clichés, “corporate DNA” is a terrible metaphor.
To be clear, I am not a genomics expert, and if any are reading this, I would welcome your thoughts. But even as a layperson, I see a few problems with “corporate DNA.”
• Epigenetics: Most genes are repressed most of the time unless they are switched on by “epigenetic” factors — outside influences that research has only begun to explore. Many characteristics — good, bad and neutral — may be “in your DNA,” but lie dormant forever unless acted on by an outside influence. Sometimes outside influences switch on genes that you would prefer to remain repressed, like the ones that lead to cancer. So, does your organization have the right outside influences to turn on those very special cultural virtues hidden in your corporate DNA? Or are they dormant? Or does your organization maybe have cancer?
• Junk DNA: In humans, the vast majority of DNA is “non-coding” — that is, it doesn’t result directly in any manifestation of characteristics. It may do other stuff: Science is still figuring out exactly what, when and how. You definitely don’t want to inspire any conversations about how much of your corporate DNA is non-coding and has no apparent function.
• The microbiome: It turns out that many aspects of our biology have less to do with our own DNA than with the DNA of the billions of microbes that live in and on our bodies. We’ve barely begun to grasp the scope of their interactions. You could go with an extended “corporate microbiome” metaphor that encompasses your suppliers, customers, contractors, etc., at the risk of putting your audiences to sleep more quickly than usual.
• Mutations: DNA changes all the time, from a host of causes including environmental toxins, viruses and ionizing radiation. Just because it’s in your DNA — whatever “it” is — that doesn’t mean it will always be there. Corporate cultures also change all the time, sometimes gradually and sometimes cataclysmically from a radioactive spider bite… Oops, I meant an acquisition or merger. Or sometimes just with new leadership. What’s left after these types of changes? Is it the same splendid “corporate DNA” that you’ve been promoting all this time? Or has it mutated?
I get it. Business metaphors are hard to find, and most don’t hold up well under pressure. (And speaking of pressure, frogs will jump out of slowly heating water before it boils.) As a writer, I appreciate a good metaphor, but if “corporate DNA” is the best you can do, it’s probably better to skip the metaphors altogether. Organizations don’t have DNA in any meaningful sense, and the more we learn about DNA, the more obvious it becomes.
P.S. If you decide to switch from biology to architecture, keep in mind that buildings may have a lot of corners but they have only one cornerstone.
Elizabeth Gardner is a health care reporter and editor who has written for numerous medical, trade and consumer outlets.
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