OMD646/Organizational Metaphors

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Assignment I - Questions

As a team, write a 1500-word paper (about three pages single-spaced) that answers these questions about the metaphor you studied.

  • What metaphor did you select?
  • What specific images within that metaphor are most helpful? You may need to focus on a specific image within the metaphor. For example, using the metaphor of the organization as a brain, you might focus on information- processing, on organizational learning, or on the holographic approach.
  • What does this metaphor say about the external environment of the organization (including the competitive market)?
  • What does this metaphor say about the internal operation of the organization?
  • What does this metaphor suggest about strategies for change?
  • How would you measure success using this metaphor?

Organizations as Machines

What metaphor did you select?

  • Organizations as Machines.

What specific images within that metaphor are most helpful?

(You may need to focus on a specific image within the metaphor. For example, using the metaphor of the organization as a brain, you might focus on information- processing, on organizational learning, or on the holographic approach.)

The most helpful images when I think of a machine are seeing all the parts working together without rest. Each part does its job which intern allows the next part to do its job and so on. This image of an organization that works like a machine is very much what I see when I think of an organization like a machine. I see employees who work diligently at their assigned task which allows the next person to continue the work.

When I think of a machine I also think of a timing system. Machines are set to perform the same task at the same speed and at the same time without fail. Organizations often set themselves up to mimic this kind of timed work. Morgan says in his book Images of Organizations “Employees are frequently trained to interact with customers according to a detailed code of instructions and are monitored in their performance. (Morgan, p. 13)” This is what we see in machines, machines are set to perform the task at hand and they are monitored to be sure they are doing things right and that they do not break. Machines are programed to perform the job within certain parameters just as employees are trained to perform tasks that are given to them. They are then judged on their performance.

What does this metaphor say about the external environment of the organization?

While treating an organization like a machine may make the organization more efficient it also has its drawbacks. One of the drawbacks that should be noted is that it is people who make up the organization and as much as one may want them to be, a person is not a machine. This must be taken into consideration when looking at this metaphor. Machines are made to do repetitive work and are expected to breakdown rarely, with people we must expect the opposite. Human beings breakdown frequently and are not meant to do repetitive work without mentally being drained. It is these kinds of drawbacks that can cause problems for the organization in the external environment.

Competitively speaking these organizations that operate under the Machine metaphor “have proved incredibly popular, partly because of their efficiency in the performance of task that can be successfully routinized and partly because they offer managers the promise of tight control over people and their activities. (Morgan, p. 31)” This is the part of the metaphor that makes the organization so valuable to the external environment. When a job can be performed more efficiently it causes the cost to go down. It is the competitive market that constantly drives an organization to be more efficient. Customers will shy away from an organization that appears to be sloppy and lack the efficiency to perform the job within a specific time frame. This is what will cause the Mechanical Organization to thrive, the question is how long can an organization operate like a machine before it breaks down.

What does this metaphor say about the internal operation of the organization?

It points to a centralized buraucratic image, that conjures up clockwork-like control, top-down discipline and subordination of individual efforts (in a positive sense), and excessive rules, procedures, 'by-the-book' thinking and duplication (in the negative). The organizational structure is made to support the operation "as precisely as possible, through patterns of authority - in terms of job responsibilities and the right to give orders and to exact obedience." Organizations that use scientific management as its holy grail, operate in a "routinized, efficient, reliable and predictable way." (Morgan, p. 13), emphasize planning (and Management by Objectives MBO) and a fairly rigid division of labour. Sociologist Max Weber (as quoted by Morgan) identified mechanistic "organizations as a form of organization that emphasized precision, speed, clarity, regularity, reliability and efficiency achieved through the creation of a fixed division of tasks, hierarchical supervision and detailed rules and regulations." (Morgan, p. 17). In a mechanistic organization, people are cogs in the Big Machine.

What does this metaphor suggest about strategies for change?

"Mechanistically structured [hierarchical] organizations have great difficulty adapting to changing circumstances because they are designed to achieve predetermined goals; they are not designed for innovation." These types of organizations lack the flexibility to respond to fast-changing circumstances, or super-ordinate challenges such as climate change, disruptive technologies - which require mass -coordination, -networking and -collaboration to succeed. Indeed, "standardized procedures and channels of communication are often unable to deal effectively with new circumstances, necessitating numerous ad hoc meetings and committees, which because they have to planned to fit rather than disrupt the normal mode of operation, are often too slow or too late for dealing with [critical] issues." (Morgan, p. 29)

The mechanistic organization metaphor is not at a loss for job roles and responsibilities; hence there is considerable opportunity for introducing job rotation and continuous improvement, to improve organizational flexibility for on-the-job productivity gains (responding to external competition, market shifts); increase organizational; increase in qualitative outputs (and quality); individual learning; and retain loyal and qualified staff. Mechanistic organizations ~ which have built their legacy on this operational modality are often a major employer within a remote community / region, and the impacts of changes on the factory floor, can have dramatic improvements to the organization's bottom line and the community's sustainability. (i.e., as the company embraces change, so too will the community in terms of more, or less employment; house sales / or not; and other economic adjustments). Depending on the degree of mechanization, the availability of capital, and workforce readiness for change (i.e., organized labour has considerable vested power and privelege in things remaining as they are, in many cases), mechanistic organizations may or may not have adequate resilience for contemplating the changes required, or the stomach for enduring the pain of adjustment in the form of new roles and responsibilities and expectations for continuous quality / improvements for both services and products.

How would you measure success using this metaphor?

Measuring success using this metaphor would generally come in terms of quantitative outputs and efficiency - for both products and services. "Mechanistic approaches to organizations work well only under conditions where machines work well: (a) when there is a straightforward task to perform; (b) when the environment is stable enough to ensure that the products produced will be appropriate ones; (c) when one wishes to produce exactly the same product time and again; (d) when precision is at a premium; and (e) when the human "machine" parts are compliant and behave as they have been designed to do so." (Morgan, p. 27). Metrics for success include: increased output per employee; higher rates of quality; rate of profit per employee or workstation; increased plant / manufacturing capacity; increased production per square foot (lower production costs); reduction in worker absenteeism; labour peace;


Morgan, Gareth. Images of Organization. London: Sage Publications, 2006.

Assignment II - Questions

As a team, write a 1500-word paper (about three pages single-spaced) that answers these questions about the metaphor you studied.

  • What metaphor did you select?
  • What specific images within that metaphor are most helpful? You may need to focus on a specific image within the metaphor. For example, using the metaphor of the organization as a brain, you might focus on information- processing, on organizational learning, or on the holographic approach.
  • What does this metaphor say about the external environment of the organization (including the competitive market)?
  • What does this metaphor say about the internal operation of the organization?
  • What does this metaphor suggest about strategies for change?
  • How would you measure success using this metaphor?

Organizations as Political Systems

Joe, Maryann and Randy

Image: Organization as Political Systems

As Morgan (p. 154) puts it: “Political issues involve the activities of the rulers and the ruled. Organizations are systems of government or management that follow different political principles, even while pursuing common goals.

As a collection of people with divergent interests, politics abound, it almost seems inevitable that there will be multiple differences of interests and opinions there will be “conflicts and power plays” (p. 160). Add to the mix, people who advocate or champion a point of view; invest significant resources, personal and professional equity based on a different perspective or frame of reference and accompanying values and behaviours, and the stage is set for a healthy or unhealthy tension dynamic – depending on timing, personalities, resources and many other factors.

There are a variety of positive and negative images that come to mind, painting a picture of the ‘organization as political system’ or paraphrasing from Morgan, ‘a balance between interests, conflict and power’.

From a positive perspective:

• a 3-way scale to quickly determine who received what, how much and where; • departmental managers working co-opetively.

From a negative perspective: • Labor unions and collective bargaining • An image of a person during the Middle Ages ‘quartered’ by the four horses pulling him apart (ouch!) • Richard Feynman holding an O-ring with a background picture of the white steam arising from Challenger explosion.

What does the metaphor say about the external environment of the organizations (including the competitive market)?

In Silicon Valley and many high tech clusters, technocratic organizations are typical organizational forms, where technical knowledge and expertise are critical for leading and maintaining competitive advantage. Apple’s Steve Jobs comes to mind, with his strong advocacy of innovative technology (such as IPhone) to differentiate his company’s (and products) value proposition, attract market share and ultimately, engage shareholders.

The world of competing interests is far more visible in the external environment than internally. For example, two-firms in the energy sector may form a joint-venture to collaborate and share gains on large capital projects such as oil field development. While they share a common goal (and a superordinate goal (Sharif, 1954), there are considerable variations in how each organization flexes its political muscle (i.e., which has the controlling interest; which is the JV operator ~ as the organization with the controlling interest tends to establishes the policies and norms for working together.)

Nearly 90% of corporate exit strategies take the form of acquisitions. And certainly, they show power and politics in action. For example, when Oracle made a hostile bid for PeopleSoft, the Oracle CEO Larry Ellison relentlessly derided PeopleSoft CEO, David Duffield, as if he had a personal vendetta. While such gamesmanship might have been part of an elaborate negotiation ploy, it was drawn out and created a great deal of stress for PeopleSoft employees. It may also have been short-sighted, as the real value in high tech firms is the intellectual capital possessed by a highly-motivated workforce.

What does the metaphor say about the internal operation of the organization?

When people come together to work on a project or to simply satisfy organizational requirements, they certainly don’t check their interests or their culture at the door. Hans Tromenaars talks about the importance of shared meanings in a group [or organization], and this causes different interpretations in different ways (Trompenaars, p. 27).

When an organization operates as a political system, it does not necessarily mean that the outcomes are negative or prone to greater conflict, but conflict is definitely a possibility ~ as the organization’s employees have different ways of processing information, decision-making and allocating scarce resources. Conflict is also more likely when dealing with different ethnic cultures and functional (sub-)cultures and value orientations, such as the Achievement vs. Ascription continuum (Trompenaars, p. 29), whereby status, position and rank can trump merit and achievement in terms of authority, power and direction ~ introducing a complex element in the distribution and finality of power relations.

For example, in some high tech companies, engineers and highly-technical experts have considerable authority and prestige and “call the shots”. Some organizations may impose more autocratic approaches with leaders wielding their positional power to control employees and force outcomes.

Certainly, individual, group and team differences and interests can be self-managed and reconciled through teamwork (Davis, 2000) collaborating and negotiating----all typical behaviors within an organization that leverages more democratic approaches. Employees in this more democratic approach are encouraged to be informal leaders, to demonstrate leadership, grow and develop while sharing accountability. There is a real sense of shared power in “healthy systems of government” (p. 155). Similarly, there is a political principle that in such a system those in power should be balanced by formal input by employees. This has led to labor unions that “adopt an oppositional role in order to shape policy without owning it.” (p. 159)

When dealing with budgets and resource allocation, especially when one group or individual has control over discretionary funds, there can also be blatant gamesmanship and political interference.

Day to day organizational life can be rife with people pursuing their own agendas or trying to move their specific interest ahead. This is not a demonstration of good leverage of a political system but rather a type of politicking that gets in the way of mutual success.

Factions can operate within a haze of “political correctness”, by not calling things as they really are, or hiding behind a cloak. They can also mask and diminish diversity by naming and putting people into categories. For example, career development for older workers may not refer to a specific age but rather as those who have “shorter runways”.

Secrecy, withholding knowledge and information are ways to manipulate and control people. Also, people who serve as (self-appointed) “gatekeepers’ interrupt the free-flow of key information, which in turn impacts decision-making and desired outcomes. (Open systems, wikis and other open communication platform is an emerging countervail to these individuals and behaviors).

There are a number of questions that can be asked, to understand the degree to which a metaphor might be internal or external, including:

• How does this type of organization look at the environment? • What can I get from it? • How can I control it? • How can I maximize my interactions while maximizing my return and minimizing my investment. W • How can I use or partner with to create competitive advantage? • How can I leverage my resources to control a given situation?

Positive change is also possible, by asking questions.

• How can I contribute in a meaningful way? • How can I make my organizational environment a better place? • How can I facilitate my team / group towards greater alignment? • How can I leverage competing interests to move from unhealthy dynamics to healthy co-opetition? • How can my organization shift its focus from maximizing quarterly profit which takes from the community, to optimizing annual profit that helps our community and creates a positive, enduring legacy?

What does this metaphor suggest about strategies for change?

People have different sense of balance between work and life demands so that their interest and behaviors reflect the degree to which they lean one way or the other. There is a great variety of behavior and response to change where some employees are seen as “work-a-holics” and highly engaged, versus those whose attitudes are “this is just a job” and not as sensitive to organizational change.

A leader who is seen as charismatic, with a strong point of view or advocacy, may more easily sway others to support a course of action. Such advocacy can persuade others to follow, and can be especially damaging to the organization and its employees when it turns out that the leader is following a hidden, albeit personal agenda.

In bringing about large-scale change in an organization, different coalitions need to be brought into alignment and actively lobbied for progress toward a particular goal. The resistance factor of “bounded rationality” (p. 166) is demonstrated by people wanting to stick with what they know (i.e., ‘their’ projects, ‘their’ functional affiliation) and thus, cause fragmentation and a siloed / bunker mentality. Coalition-building requires an influence strategy to engage stakeholders who have different points of view, disagreements with the direction of a change ~ or even information that can positively affect a change and adaptation response.

Another important perspective is to examine the Charles Perrow’s observation (quoted by Morgan) that “unobtrusive or unconscious elements of control can also be built into vocabularies, structures of communication, attitudes, beliefs, rules and procedures. Though often unquestioned, they extera decisive influence on decision outcomes regarding how we think and act.” (Morgan, p. 172). Any strategy for change must take these into account, and ensure that these ‘elements of control’ are in complete alignment with the desired change; otherwise, the organization’s change mantra will quickly ring hollow, as employees discount the message, the messenger and the medium.

A desired end-result for greater collaboration, would be demonstrated by all stakeholders engaged in working towards a common goal. One performance intervention might be to create a “large carrot” to those involved in the change. For example, if two departments cannot work together, they could be motivated to accomplish a mutual or superordinate goal, commensurate with a highly-sought after reward / incentive upon successful completion of the goal.

Individually and with groups, awards and highly visible recognition can be given to those who collaborate. Perhaps a continuous measurement and monitoring system could be devised and used as a review tool, where a greater number of points would be available for collaborative or desired behaviour.

How would you measure success using this metaphor?

Some potential success measures when using the political metaphor include the following:

• Number of conflicts surfaced and resolved • Number of employee networks (representing different factions, interests) that collaborate on projects; • Number of successful projects delivered by employee network partnerships • Corporate morale, employee engagement and retention • Qualitative measures such as: o How the conflicts were handled, and what options were generated as a result of X intervention? (measured in dollars saved / earned, % of people involved at different stages in a corporate / product life cycle; to what result? o What employee networks were able to achieve, relative to an absence of this type of organization o Individual / team / organizational performance – before, during and after a change. o Testimonials, anecdotal reports • A measure of good conflict versus bad conflict would provide insight into progress made. • The degree of success enjoyed by others, or an organization’s customers.


  • Davis, Larry N. Pioneering Organizations, 2000.
  • Morgan, Gareth. Images of Organization, 2006
  • Sherif, M., Harvey, O.J., White, B.J., Hood, W.R., & Sherif, C.W. (1961) Intergroup Conflict and Co-operation: The Robbers Cave Experiment. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Book Exchange.
  • Trompenaars, F. & Hampden-Turner, C. (1998). Riding the Waves of Culture: Understanding Cultural Diversity in Global Business. Irwin.