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A quick summary of Morgan’s Metaphors

Table of Contents

Organisation as a machine


Organisation as a brain


Organisation as an organism


Organisation as political systems


Organisations as cultures


Morgan’s Metaphors – quick summary

Organisation as a machine


The basic concept of the machine as a metaphor, is the idea you can set up your organization to follow the same principles as a machine. This means that each process

is carefully selected and monitored, in order to make sure that it is done as efficient as

possible. This is done through highly specifying and standardizing parts and processes

making up the machine. You view each part of the machine as objects with tasks, processes, procedures etc. These are highly specialized, described, standardized, outlined etc. So as every part of the machine is defined and has a purpose.

The people who often follow taylorism/machine are engineers and economists. People who think like this will always strive to do things as efficiently as possible. Frederick Taylor was inspired by Adam Smith. Taylor’s solutions to management were standards, uniform work methods, skill based job placement, schemes and supervision, IE all his thinking was about making a company or a process as efficient


possible. An easy way to think about taylorism is to think on how Henry Ford used


run Ford Motors, and how he streamlined the whole process of building cars.

Taylor devised 5 principles.

1. The managers should be the responsible party, not the worker.

2. The use of scientific methods to specify the precise way in which work is to be done.

3. Select the best person to perform

4. Train the worker to do the work efficiently

5. Monitor the worker performance to ensure that appropriate procedures are followed and appropriate results are achieved.

A weakness to the machine metaphor is as explained by Morgan: “Organisations can

or should be rational systems that operate in as efficient manner as possible. While many will endorse this as an ideal, it is easier said than done, because we are dealing with people, not inanimate cogs and wheels” (Morgan, 2006, p. 22). The problem is that the management approach, “’splits’ the worker, advocating the separation of

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hand and brain” (Morgan, 2006, p. 25). The management practice leaves little

creativity and intuition for the individual employee, as all the thinking is to be done

by the managers.

Taylorism can be related to Standards & Classifications by Bowker & Star. A major difference between the two could be that Taylorism is thinking machine like on an organizational level, whereas S& C are the individual processes, actors and projects.

A weakness of Taylorism is single loop learning

Strengths of machine as an organizational metaphor


Highly standardized parts and as such, interchangeable.


High production speed (hopefully)

Organisation as a brain

Description - What is the brain metaphor? It is important for people to be able to question their actions especially in times of change, like a brain, which is the best known information processor. Organisations cannot function without processing information, communicating, and making decisions. When processing this information, communicating, interaction or making decisions problems will arise. The brain metaphor is a metaphor for an iterative process of learning these things in order to accomplish an improvement for the organization

Strengths Double loop ensures that a mistake is corrected in a way that ensures that it doesn’t happen again. By learning how the problem rose in the first place it can be prevented.

A company that has successfully implemented it can start developing new work

practices. For example, Honda in Japan developed a new way of thinking in metaphors that each employee was using. They had extended the R&D department into every employee, the result was a car developed from a “Beer can”

Weakness Questioning the activities of the system goes against the usual bureaucracy. Imagine Mærsk, they have a bureaucracy strong where it is hard to accomplish changes, this is

Morgan’s Metaphors – quick summary

a weakness for double looped learning.

The brain metaphor is not always about optimizing the most. Bounded rationality is something that is hard to accept for companies. It seems like the idea is that successful double looped learning will allow you to ditch good solutions and only take the great ones that fit the problems.

Conflict between learning/self-organisation and power/control. Explained a little in culture below.

Relation to other metaphors concepts we have worked with so far Machine In taylors theory he knew what was best. And the employees does what they want you to do or you get fired. It would be hard for the brain metaphor to work with the machine metaphor as double looped learning is harder to accomplish in such a (beau)cracy

Organism Organisms fight to survive. They fight over resources. And a new battle-strategy would be something they would consider. The brain metaphor works better with organism then machines.

Political Power clashes with the brain metaphor as information might be correct but needs to respect the hierarchy within an organisation in order to accomplish its intention.

Culture You need to think of culture if you wish to accomplish double looped learning. Both from the company’s perspective and the employees perspective. You cannot get your solution implemented in Mærsk if you look like a bump. In other words, blend in, be normal and not a abnormality and double looped learning will be easier for you to accomplish. From the companies perspective, if we have strict culture norms then implementing double looped learning will be harder. The ideas will be lost in a bureaucracy where

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project leaders or “plant” managers will suggest the idea to the higher ups. Think of power from either perspective. If you want to know why people have a hard time adapting double looped learning and pitching their solutions, think of power. What is the cause? What is the network of actors that stops them from adopting the metaphor- strategy?

Organisation as an organism

The metaphor for organisations as organisms is an attempt to move away from Taylorism and bureaucracy. In this metaphor organizations are perceived to work like living organisms. Consequently, they are concerned with survival. Employees have complex needs that must be satisfied for them to function well: “Thinking of organisms as living systems existing in a wider environment on which they depend for the satisfaction of various needs.” (Morgan, 2006, s. 33)

This metaphor mostly focuses on the social part of the organization including making work more meaningful and getting people more involved in their jobs. Here we moved from ‘soldiering’ (from the machine metaphor) to motivation of the employees. Consequently, changes should happen on a strategic level, as opposed to a Tayloristic approach which focuses on changing, improving and streamlining the operational level.

“A new theory of organization began to emerge, built on the idea that individuals and groups, like biological organisms, operate most effectively when their needs are satisfied.” (Morgan, 2006, s. 34)

Relations to other metaphors:

Compared to the bureaucratic organizations, who thrives the best when the environment is stable, the organismic organization is more adaptable to changes in the environment.

In contrast to the machine metaphor, the organism is an open-ended system, whereas

Morgan’s Metaphors – quick summary

the machine is considered to be a closed system.













Culture - the structure of the organisation shapes the culture of the organisation.

Organisations as political systems - there might be different reasons for/interests in focusing on the human values. Those with power in an organisation, such as the employees, may be interested in shifting focus from profit to the well-being of the employees, for an example.

Organisations as brains - single-loop learning versus double-loop learning. An organism organisation is much more likely to utilize double-loop learning, since it relies more heavily upon its human resources, instead of predefined ways of doing things. The following is an excerpt from:


These organisations are perceived to work like living organisms. Consequently, they are concerned with survival. Employees have complex needs that must be satisfied for them to function well. The Hawthorne studies identified social needs in the workplace and brought the motivation to work to the fore. The emphasis shifted towards making work more meaningful and getting people more involved in their jobs.

Since organisations are open to the environment, they should be organised to fit their task environments, rather than according to a boilerplate. Such organisations are better able to respond to change in the environment. This lead to models such as adhocracies, project orientated companies, matrix organisations, and so on.

Some researchers emphasise the importance of the environment as a force in organisational survival. According to the population ecology view, some organisations depend on resources to survive for which they have to compete with other organisations. Since there is normally a shortage of resources, only the fittest survive and the environment determines who will succeed or fail. It is therefore important to understand how groups of organisations or industries adapt and survive rather than individual organisations, since whole industries may fail when the

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environment changes.

The strengths of the organismic view is its emphasis on relations between organisations and the environment, which suggests that open systems must be understood at a process level. Secondly, its focus is on survival, which is a process as opposed to goals, which are endpoints. Organismic organisations have more design choices, they are more innovative, and they focus on inter-organisational relations.

Its limitations are that it is too mechanistic and therefore struggles with social phenomena on which it relies, most organisations do not function well because their elements do not cooperate, and the metaphor can easily become an ideology.

Organisation as political systems

In talking about “interest” within politics we are talking about “predispositions embracing goals, values, desires, expectations, and other orientations and inclinations that lead a person to act in one way rather than another” (Morgan, 2006, p. 157). There are many ways in which one can define and analyze the pursuit and defense of interests. One way is to look at three interconnected domains related to one’s tasks, career and personal life, but these does not have to belong together. Task interests are connected to the tasks one has to perform.

According to Morgan, there will always be different interests in a workplace creating a tension. This tension makes work inherently political. These tensions are inherent in work because of the latent contradictions between the demands of work and leisure, on the one hand, and the demand of present and future on the other. The drama of organizational life is shaped by a political script.

“The political metaphor encourages us to see organizations as loose networks of people with divergent interests who gather together for the sake of expediency” (Morgan, 2006, p. 161). Organizations are coalitions and are made up of coalitions, and coalitions building is an important dimension of almost all organizational life. “Coalitions arise when groups of individuals get together to cooperate in relation to specific issues, events or decisions or to advance specific values and ideologies

Morgan’s Metaphors – quick summary

Like the organism metaphor but realises the fact that an organization rarely works as a unified whole but rather is in constant struggle and dispute. Persons form coalitions, they contribute, they have personal ambitions and they may even work to disrupt the work of others to further their own agenda.

Organisation s as cultures

Culture shapes organisations, and organisations are mini-societies with their own different subcultures within national cultures with frequently subcultures within subcultures.

In short: organisations are socially constructed realities.

The Culture Metaphor gives us a new way of understanding culture by recognizing the important relationship between organization and culture. When we are describing culture in terms of the understanding of Morgan then we think of: “shared values, shared beliefs, shared meaning, shared understanding and shared sense making” these are also used in order to make sense of what we experience. (G. Morgan; 134)

Artefacts are the visible structures and processes of an organisation and include language, technology, products, dress code, ways to address people, rituals, ceremonies, and so on. They are easy to see but are only meaningful relative to the values and assumptions of the organisation.

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