Metaphors have guided us

Gareth Morgan (Morgan, G. Images of Organization. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications Inc, 1986.) identified 8 metaphors that underpin most perspectives of organisation. Each of these metaphors is based on its own set of assumptions,mental models and values about. Different metaphors seek to explain a range of phenomena including, but not not limited to:


• what an organisation actually is

• how organisations operate

• the purpose and primary tasks of organisations

• how organisations grow and change

• what causes organisations to be successful

• what causes organisations to collapse

• how organisations adapts to (or fail to adapt to) the external environment within which they operate)

• how organisations interacts with their own members, clients, key stakeholders and wider communities in which they exist.

The Organisation as a Machine

The machine metaphor has been by far the most dominant and commonly used metaphor by organisational leaders and writers. The machine metaphor views an organisation as being like a machine such as a car. Viewing an organisation as being a series of interconnected cogs, belts, wheels etc connected to a power source and controlled by inputs from a central “driver” has been a very helpful although overly simplistic metaphor. Even today it remains the dominant metaphor and is especially effective for organisations which are actually highly mechanised ….such as factories, assembly lines, petrochemical plants and mining companies. While most writers readily acknowledge that the machine metaphor underpins Taylorism and Scientific Management (see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taylorism) many just do not see that Total Quality Management interventions including Kaizan, Six Sigma and Lean Manufacturing are based on the machine metaphor view of what an organisation is. Common language based on the machine metaphor:


• Pooring oil on squeaky gears

• Unlocking

• Meshing

• Kick starting

• Broken (as in “if it aint broke, don’t fix it)

• High performance teams (like high performance engines) While the machine metaphor may still be the “most used” metaphor for understanding organisations, many organisational analysts, writers and leaders find it far too simplistic.

The Organisation as an Organism

The Organism metaphor views organisations as being complex than machines and views an organisation as something like a tree, for example. The organism metaphor gives rise to the idea of “healthy” and “sick” organisations; organisations that grow; Darwinian evolution of organisations (survival of the fittest); growth through reproduction. Much of the “Human Resource Management” management movement is based on the organism metaphor, with the individual cells of an organism corresponding to individual staff members of an organisation. By carefully maintaining the “health” of all the “cells” good HR management can help the organisation to “grow, blossom and bear fruit”. Head hunting staff can “cross pollinate” the organisation while perpetuating the organisation’s strong “DNA”.

The Organisation as a Brain

While some writers view the brain metaphor as being merely an area of emphasis from within the organism metaphor, there is a considerable body of work in at least three key areas which are based on the brain metaphor and which are considerably more sophisticated than the organism metaphor. Most of APMG’s services are based on the view that organisations are socio technical systems for making decisions. APMG’s consulting practice is based on the assumption that organisations are more like brains than they are like machines or organisms. Although we acknowledge that the machine metaphor underpins the mental models of many of our client organisations and their managers, we see the brain metaphor as providing deeper insight into how organises can adapt themselves. To use the culture metaphor (see 4. below) the machine metaphor is part of the recent cultural history of the industrial revolution. It is natural that in organisations that have been built around the productive capacity of machines, that the machine metaphor should be prevalent. However, as organisations increasingly use machines that can process data like a brain, and as organisations place dramatically increased information in the hands of their staff the decisionmaking system /brain metaphor becomes more obviously relevant. The body of work associated with “organisational learning” including “action learning” and “adaptive process” opens the possibility of organisations being able to evolve and adapt themselves to changes in their environment. Writers like Chris Argyris  (one of APMG’s key praxis influences) have encouraged organisations to go beyond thinking about how they act, to thinking about how they think and to explore our processes like “defensive reasoning” actually block learning that causes anxiety. Group psychodynamics experts go further to identify how group dynamics and psychological process such as denial, splitting and projection can be employed by groups in ways that limit or block effective and timely action. Dr Elliott Jaques work on requisite organisation has been labelled as “Taylorist” by some and “old economy” by others (including Gareth Morgan), but disciplined consultants who apply Jaques’ ideas are in no doubt that Jaques viewed organisations as brains. He saw an organisation as a decisionmaking system and his model (which he only claimed to have discovered, rather than invented) and been understood by eastern scholars thousands of years before he was born. Critics of Jaques with a simplistic grasp of his ideas often point to his views about hierarchy as evidencing an old fashioned command and control mechanistic mindset. Experienced Jaques practitioners know the opposite is true: that Jaques ideas are about decentralising decisionmaking authority and accountability “to the point that decision naturally belongs”. One of Jaques’ key disciples, Gillian Stamp, (who took over management of the Brunel Institute for Organisation and Social Studies after Jaques turned his back on the psychodynamics experts at the Tavistock Institute) added considerably to Jaques ideas about decisionmaking with her “Tripod of Work” model which cautions managerial leaders about “interfering in decisions that rightfully belong to people as a lower level in the organisation” (and not just because this disempowers the lower level staff but also because it means they are likely to be neglecting decisions at their own work level). After turning his back on the work he did at the Tavistock Institute in organisational psychodynamics and psychoanalysis (which also inform the psychic prison metaphor, Jaques played a key role in developing the systems dynamics and his ideas about “stratified systems theory”. Decisionmaking systems theory remains today one of the strong fields of organisational enquiry underpinned by the organisation as brain metaphor. Jaques is credited with creating the term “mid life crisis”. He is also credited as being the first published author to use the term culture with respect to organisations in 1952.

The Organisation as a Culture

The culture metaphor borrows heavily from social anthropology and views an organisation as being a kind of modern corporate “tribe” with its own rituals, myths, sacred beliefs, language and customs. One of the powerful tools for understanding organisations, ethnography, rejects totally the scientific management perspective. Well trained ethnographers who study organisations as cultures pursue a quest to obtain “the native view” of members of the organisation they are studying: their task is to understand the organisation from the perspective of members of that organisation. Their challenge is to try to leave behind their own cultural beliefs, values, mental models and ways of thinking. Although they accept that it is not possible to do this perfectly, the extent to which they can will deepen their understanding of the organisation they are studying.

The Organisation as a Political System

Writers and analysts who view organisations as political systems concern themselves with issues of power, control and political influence. Formal power, rules, regulations, control of resources, control of knowledge & technology, group alliances and networks, and the role of counter organisations such as unions are the focus of the political system metaphor..

The Organisation as a Psychic Prison

While it can be argued that the psychic prison metaphor may be a key theme from within the brain metaphor, Morgan classified it separately. This metaphor views organisations as structures that imprison employees in limited ways of thinking and conceiving of their worlds. Researchers and analysts seeking to understand organisations from a perspective guided by the psychic prison metaphor often focus on unconscious processes, the impact of group dynamics on irrational constructions of reality and factors which contribute to organisations failing to think “outside the box”. Issues like the impact of narcissistic leaders on the behaviour of their staff, irrational scapegoating, the ways in which organisations treat men and women differently, the kinds of data that organisations favour and reject are all examples of areas for focus using the Psychic Prison Metaphor.

The Organisation as a System of Flux and Tranformation

This metaphor views organisations as something like a sailing boat sailing on a sea experiencing constantly changing weather conditions which require the sailors to respond and adapt in order to survive. The driving issue of this metaphor is the randomness and complexity of the constantly external environment in which organisations exist. The impact of externally forces driving change such as technology, markets, government regulation, weather, competitor activity, etc and the way organisations respond, or fail to respond are at heart of this perspective of organisations.

The Organisation as a System of Domination


APMG’s consulting practice draws most heavily on the brain, culture and psychic prison metaphors. We acknowledge the significance of the machine metaphor in influencing the view of many managerial leaders and the influence of the organism metaphor in influencing the field of human resource management