Organizational DNA can be defined as a metaphor that is used to describe the essence of an organization’s identity. It is not a concrete concept with a widely shared definition, but instead, it has had different meanings attributed to it. As metaphors offer a wide range of entailments and can even create new meaning, the biologistic DNA metaphor theorizes about structural processes and relations in organizations, for example, in the field of decision making, innovation, or crises. The genetic associations convey the idea that organizations have underlying, predetermined mechanisms that cannot easily be manipulated; however, once they are, the organization itself is fundamentally changed. Accordingly, the term organizational DNA is widely applied to help organizations conduct organizational change and adapt to external challenges. This entry defines organizational DNA and discusses the importance of organizational DNA for organizations. It then critically reflects on the potential of the concept, and finally, it draws conclusions on the implications of the concept for reputation management.
The definitions of organizational DNA itself vary. Organizational DNA contains, for example, the following elements. The first aspect, the structure, contains the formal reporting structure, the decision authority, the information flows, and the task or process flows. A second element comprises the members of the organization, the staff, and aspects related to them, such as leadership traits, staffing policies, competencies, and promotion policies or career paths. A third element is defined as systems: This contains the planning, budgeting, and control systems, the business performance evaluation criteria, and the incentive and compensation systems. A fourth aspect is the culture, which is related to notions about behaviors that are valued and embedded business assumptions and decision biases. Researchers who study organizations, for example, define organizational DNA as being rooted in four building blocks, which combine and recombine to express distinct identities and influence how the organization is perceived internally and externally: (1) the decision rights, (2) information, (3) motivators, and (4) structure. Very often, organizational DNA is used in a very unspecific way as a vague concept that needs to be unpacked.
Although research on organizational DNA remains very thin, this topic is relevant to the subject of corporate reputation. In reputation research, it is often argued that building reputation is strongly connected to an organization’s identity and culture, and accordingly to the ability of an organization to change. This entry therefore elaborates on how strategies of organizational change, as described not just in academic literature but also in more practice-oriented literature, might enable building reputation.
Importance of Organizational DNA
The institutionalization of new communication technologies in our networked society challenges how and the extent to which reputation can be stabilized by corporations or is disrupted in the dynamic interplay between multiple actors. Practices and research in corporate reputation management focus on how organizations can react to these challenges by implementing communication tools to monitor or communicate messages, especially through the use of new media platforms. Besides, the institutionalization of new communication technologies highlights the strong role of the organization’s identity as manifested in its core values and the importance of changing this identity to build reputation. Following earlier debates on corporate culture in the 1980s, the ongoing debate on corporate social responsibility (CSR) in practice and research, for example, often regards CSR as a more defensive and strategic tool to build reputation. At the core of this debate lay the assumption that responsibility is one of the core reputation determinants, that CSR is a way to introduce new values and practices in an organization’s culture, and that this change in an organization’s identity is necessary to align it with external expectations and to maintain reputation. Accordingly, building reputation is strongly connected to the ability to conduct organizational change.
As a metaphor for organizational change, organizational DNA is widely applied in the field of corporate innovation, which responds to broader societal changes that are driven by a variety of forces, such as globalization, technology, and demography. Building on the metaphor, researchers describe how organizations can change to adapt to external demands. It is, for example, argued that organizations must create, grow, and profit from completely new business models. Accordingly, those parts of corporations in which innovation is established in the form of new products or services need to build their own organizational DNA. Although they may not be isolated from the core of the company, they need to reconsider the standard choices about staff, structure, systems, and culture. For example, they may need to hire outsiders, who report to top managers on innovative success measures and who develop their own descriptions of roles and functions, which may or may not be in line with the traditional roles and functions of the organization. At the same time, a shared set of corporate values linking the traditional and the new parts of the organization needs to be established, and interactions that reflect on the similarities and differences between both parts should be fostered on an ongoing basis.
The DNA metaphor plays a role not only in positive change processes but also in change that is stimulated out of crises. To be successful, crisis management and communication need to be fundamentally injected into the organization’s DNA, including constant monitoring of threats, updates of the plan, and annual drills. These researchers highlight especially the internal resistance against such change. To overcome resistance, organizations need prime movers to be change champions, to involve employees, to develop a vision and a need for change, and especially to enfold interaction and dialogic communication around it.
Criticism of the Organizational DNA Concept
The debate over organizational DNA is associated with the broad, practice-oriented debate on organizational culture, which has its roots in the 1920s and became popular in the management discourse of the 1980s. The idea of instrumentalizing values to change social relations in the organizational context, and also in the societal context, was perceived as a solution for problems deriving from fundamental economic challenges and social changes. However, some have questioned whether values and symbols could be used as instruments to control behavior. Also, the biologic idea of DNA suggests a kind of root logic and unity and might therefore tend to make invisible the disintegrative moments of diversity, decoupling, misalignment, and dissensus, which are equally important for the constitution of organizational reality. Furthermore, the underlying instrumental view tends to draw too little attention to the environmental context within which an organization operates and to the aspect that reality is constituted in communication, which in turn calls into question the traditional distinction between internal and external organizational reality.
Implications for Reputation Management and Public Relations
Organizational DNA has been used extensively as a metaphor and heuristic model in the practice field, but it has only received limited attention in research on public relations and reputation. As stated earlier, the idea of aligning and unifying organizations around such a core to build consistent messages, reputation, or even legitimacy remains reductionist, as it does not entail the complexity of the dynamic construction of reputation in networked societies. Corporations function as political actors that can take a proactive role in society and participate in shaping the environment, for example, by collaborating in a network of nongovernmental organizations and other actors to develop branchwide standards that meet the expectations of relevant publics. As pointed out in the context of CSR, disintegrative moments such as decoupling and conflict are also very fruitful for the constitution of legitimacy.
Nevertheless, the simple metaphor of organizational DNA could suggest that reputation building entails more than the right technologies or messages of communication and is a process that starts at the “nucleus” of a company and spreads from there. It can also involve fruitful links to the concept of brand DNA. Finally, it offers a more practical guide to understand which steps need to be conducted in order to manifest organizational change leading to reputation.
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