Genetically engineering your business (first appeared in InfoWorld)

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Maybe they were just tired.

In the past, when I’ve mentioned evolutionary theory in this space, I’ve received mail challenging my misguided acceptance of natural selection written in the quantities and tones usually reserved for criticisms of OS/2. But my recent column promoting the value of evolutionary concepts in everyday business thinking provoked no protest (see Survival Guide, Sept. 2, page 51).

Time to try again, I guess.

One of the less-well understood subtleties of Darwinian theory is that fitness is like Einsteinian velocity: It’s relative. Nature selects those organisms that best fit their particular circumstances, not those that are best in any absolute sense.

Popular culture seems to prefer absolutism these days. Nonetheless, Darwinian relativism is a valuable thought process to apply to business situations. Take, for example, the popular notion of “best practices.” If the adoption of best practices is an important part of your operational plan it’s time to ask yourself, are you a business fundamentalist? In other words, do you really think there is such a thing as a practice that’s best in all circumstances? Or are you a Darwinian, understanding that the best you can find are practices that are optimal for your particular situation?

Not that best practices is a worthless idea. Some areas of business are pretty much the same across a wide variety of circumstances. Accounts payable is an area in which best practices really are “best” — there just isn’t that much difference from one company to another.

Except, of course, that even with something as prosaic as the process of paying vendors for goods and services you will find enormous differences if you peel the onion at all. That’s why the grocery industry was an early adopter of EDI (Electronic Data Interchange), while IT services (for example) lags: Supermarket chains process huge numbers of purchase transactions while making their profits on turns, so shaving even a few cents from transaction costs pays off. For IT services, with its higher margins and low transaction volume, EDI makes little sense.

None of which is to say you have nothing to learn from other companies. In fact, you can learn a lot. Think of it as the business equivalent of gene splicing — you can benefit from some other company’s evolutionary history without having to go through the pain of inventing a successful practice yourself. But be Darwinian, and make sure someone else’s best practice fits your business circumstances.

Genetic engineering isn’t, after all, always such a great idea.