25 Dec 2011

Corporate or cultural DNA

Posted by jofr

“Culture is roughly everything we do and monkeys don’t.” ~ FitzRoy Richard

If genes can be the blueprints of bodies, is there such a thing as a memetic blueprint, a blueprint made out of ideas, memes, or cultural genes for a cultural body, too? Is there such a thing as a cultural or corporate DNA for a memetic body? Owl city sings that “dreams don’t turn to dust”, but if there are memetic bodies, can there be memetic dust, too? Can “cultural genes” be expressed like biological ones?

A cultural or corporate DNA would be a set of ideas or memes which is sufficient to reproduce or recreate the corresponding culture or corporation. A party for example has a manifesto, program or charter which defines the identity of the party. The genes from this cultural DNA are expressed in a party conference: the information from the books, charter or program of the party is read and translated into the language of the ordinary people. It is a process where someone reads the “genetic” information, so that the members of the group can translate the information later into appropriate behavior.

We know that architects create blueprints for buildings, cooks create recipes for meals, and composers create compositions for pieces of music. But what about naturally evolving systems – complex adaptive systems like languages, cultures, countries, companies or even persons? Who creates their blueprint? For political parties and economic entities like companies and corporations, it is often the founders. A culture or corporation be coded in a set of instructions, rules, guidelines, recipes and policies. These policies can also be contained in a book which describes the history of the founder. Biographies of persons, histories of countries or companies, stories for a culture or civilization are maybe the thing which is the most similar to such a memetic blueprint. One difference to genetic blueprints is the temporal relationship: genetic blueprints exist before the life of the individual, whereas biographies of persons and histories of companies exist only by hindsight. Often the set of rules, guidelines and policies which define a nation, corporation, culture or organization emerge during the course of time: the identity emerges. The bureaucratic rules of Wikipedia and Stackoverflow are an example.

System Identity Properties
Biology physical identity bundle of forms
Psychology personal identity bundle of traits
Sociology social identity bundle of roles
Economy corporate identity bundle of brands


Social systems, organizations and cultural objects in general such as sports clubs, companies, corporations or even societies can be viewed as constructs of cultural DNA: companies for instance contain Corporate DNA, the basic information which defines the corporate culture and the corporate identity, and which is often related to the history of the company. Google for example has the two famous rules “Don’t be evil” and the “20% rule”, which says employees get 1/5th of their time to work on projects of their own choosing, to name only two. There are more policies, guidelines, rules and traditions, for instance the tradition to use inexpensive commodity hardware. And of course not all of them are public.

While the DNA of Google contains a preference for Linux, C++, and Python (and also some bits of Java), the DNA of Microsoft contains a preference for MS-DOS, Assembler, and Basic. They still offer a Visual Basic compiler. In the beginning Microsoft was a programming language company in Albuquerque building BASIC interpreters. At that time it was really innovative. The programmers at Microsoft – originally only Paul Allen and Bill Gates – did their early work in Assembler on PDP minicomputers from DEC. Things in the computer industry are moving fast. Does anyone know DEC today? DEC built minicomputers, and nobody needs minicomputers today. Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) existed only from 1957-1998. Later Microsoft bought Q-DOS (Quick-and-Dirty Operating System) from Tim Paterson and adapted it as MS-DOS for the IBM PC. The rest is history.

All companies try to be innovative, creative, and most of all, successful. Every business has it’s own style, office environment and culture. Some companies are evil and digest people: they chew you up and spit you out. It is also called “burn and turn” philosphy: they use you up, then turn you out for some new hire who has new ideas and will work for half the money. Some companies are bold when it comes to innovations and yet anxious that somebody steals their ideas. These companies have often very strong security policies. Other companies are very political: it is important who you know, and not what you know, if you want to make a career. If we look at the major technology companies today, one could say roughly that Apple has a marketing culture, Google a technology culture, and Microsoft a political culture:

  • Apple: marketing culture focused on design which leads to beautiful products and marketing driven decision making but also a totalitarian culture, high levels of secrecy and very strong security policies
  • Google: technology culture focused on engineering which leads to awesome products based on state of the art technologies
  • Microsoft: political culture focused on power. Originally it was a technology culture like Google in the beginning, now more and more an isolated and idiosyncratic culture focused on itself.

The corporate DNA is made of the company culture – a set of customs, rules, policies and guidelines -, corporate knowledge, and the business idea. It can be altered. This cultural DNA can be written down somewhere, in a book (for example the biography of the founder) or a website, but it also can exist in form of stories and myths, which may condense later into written form. Languages themselves are defined by a set of semantic (a vocabulary) and syntactic (a grammar) rules. Not only companies, but also social groups and societies in general are based on a common set of shared customs, laws, and policies. In this sense, both genes and memes are capable of having complex “bodies”. Corporations, organizations, languages, religions, complex societies and maybe even whole civilizations can be considered as memetic bodies, at least to some extent.

blueprint body
genetic DNA biological bodies, organisms
cultural DNA memetic bodies, organizations
corporate DNA corporations, companies
political DNA parties, movements


A cultural or corporate body can have multiple set of “cultural” genes, which can be merged and split apart again. Smaller companies swallowed successfully by larger ones often have their own DNA. The YouTube, DoubleClick, or Motorola Mobility departments form Google may have their own set of rules and guidelines, because they were originally independent companies before they were acquired by Google. Such “swallowed companies” sometimes remain their own character, i.e. their own set of corporate rules, just like Mitchondria and Chloroplasts which have their own DNA although they are a part of a larger cell which has a central core containing the DNA for the whole cell. Lynn Margulis proposed the theory of endosymbiosis, which says that basic organelles in eukaryotic cells – mitochondria in animals and chloroplasts in plants – originated in free-living bacteria, which were swallowed and integrated in the cell. There you have it Motorola and DoubleClick – you may generate your own energy (“revenue”), but you are nothing but a chloroplast ;-)

Individual minds can at best be described as the place where multiple bodies, genetic and memetic bodies, meet. As cultural beings, we live in multiple worlds, are members of different organizations, cultures, countries and companies, and have multiple circle of friends. Often we have a special name, nickname or ID in each cultural world (in the film Matrix, the main character Neo lives in different worlds, in the Matrix as Tom Anderson, and in the real world as Neo). Each of these cultural worlds we live in has its own rules. The biological DNA is a blueprint for a self-constructing being. Biological organisms construct and build themselves, by being adaptive and curious.

To anwser the questions in the beginning: yes, yes, and yes. Yes, there is something like cultural genes or corporate DNA. Yes, there is something like memetic dust: isolated ideas, single slogans, party program snippets, individual guidelines. And yes, “cultural genes” can be expressed like biological ones, for example through party conferences, regular company meetings, etc.

(the DNA picture is from Wikipedia)

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