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What Is a Business Metaphor?

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  • Written By: Osmand Vitez
  • Edited By: PJP Schroeder
  • Last Modified Date: 25 August 2016
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A business metaphor is a word or phrase that makes direct reference to a business or person as a point of illustration. For example, businesses often label sales departments with copious sales as cash cows. An individual who does not make decisions or run operations due to an upcoming change may be a lame duck. The uses for a business metaphor are almost endless in the course of a business and its normal operations. In some cases, companies can label themselves using metaphors, such as a supertanker or three-ring circus, as in big and slow or with lots of departments vying for attention.

Companies use metaphors to draw pictures in people’s minds. This often helps managers and employees better understand the company and its operating environment or management style. In many ways, the use of a business metaphor is an analogous statement. It compares a complex or difficult-to-understand business concept or operation into an easily relatable belief or situation. One might say that working for a company is like urinating into a pond; you see the activity, but it makes little long-lasting effect in the business.

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Many companies often use business metaphors that are universal. This allows all individuals within the company to derive the meaning or understanding of the words. Managers and long-term employees are often the individuals who use business metaphors to describe the business. The reason for this comes from access to higher business decisions or departments and the length of employment for employees. For example, a long-term employee may describe the owner as Queen Elizabeth I, an analogy for a powerful individual who sits over a dysfunctional company.

The use of a business metaphor is often informal speech in business terms. While an individual may use these terms as highlights in a formal text, they are usually infrequent. A common reason for this comes from the lack of understanding outsiders may have of the company’s internal business environment. Improper use of business metaphors can create confusion and may even lead an outsider to draw incorrect conclusions about the company. For this purpose, informal conversations or internal business meetings may be the best place for using business metaphors.

Heavy use of metaphors may become jargon in a business. Jargon is unnecessary language that is difficult for individuals to understand. Boil the ocean, 10,000-foot view, come to Jesus meeting, and best of breed are a few examples of business jargon. These may be more colloquial phrases than actual business metaphors, which do tend to have more purpose than jargon.

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