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The Power and Limitations of Organizational Metaphors

We use metaphors all the time as a way of enhancing our understanding by seeing things in a different light. Simply put, metaphors involve the "transportation of meaning" from one conceptual domain to another.

Lakoff and Johnson in “Metaphors We Live By” make the important point that the way we talk about concepts shapes the way we think about them and often defines our subsequent actions.

“In all aspects of life ... we define our reality in terms of metaphors and then proceed to act on (that) basis… We draw inferences, set goals, make commitments, and execute plans, all on the basis of how we in part structure our experience, consciously and unconsciously, by means of metaphor.”

In organizational analysis, the two dominant metaphors are those of “machine” and “organism.” There are others (organization as culture, as political systems, as conversations, etc) but I’ll concentrate on the two dominant ones.

“Organisation as machine” has its roots in early management theory. In its essence, it is based on “command and control” and its terminology often includes “blueprint”, “well oiled”, “firing on all cylinders” etc. Not much thought is given to adaptation or the influence on the organization of the external environment.

“Organisation as organism” is a more adaptive conceptualization that sees organizations as open systems (made up of interrelated sub-systems) which constantly interact with the environment: evolving, adapting and learning. We talk of organizational “DNA”, “resilience” and “nimbleness”.

There is no doubt that the (right) metaphors can create new insight and enhance understanding. Among the two dominant metaphors I briefly outlined above, there is no question in that the organism metaphor is the more appropriate one for organizational analysis. But even when a metaphor is appropriate and useful, there is no denying the fact that if taken too far, we may begin to encounter problems. For starters, organizations are not functionally organized as organisms, so attempting to find alignment between say the heart and a specific organizational function will soon prove intractable. Acceptance of a metaphor may also lead to the exclusion of others such as, for instance, organizations as "political systems” or as "conversations." As an organizational practitioner, I may not consider those as the best mataphors but I still believe that they can add a useful perspective to the discussion.

So, here is my take: metaphors are very important conceptual lenses through which we can analyze phenomena (in this case organizations). They help visualise complex concepts and make them less abstract. But, they can also mislead as when they create the impression of false equivalence or can obfuscate real complexity. We need to always keep in mind that even the best metaphors are partial schemata which could distort or mislead, if taken too far.

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