Metaphors matter: Talking about how we talk about organizations

I’ve been involved in a discussion recently with a diverse group of practitioners, social tool makers, and researchers, circling around the ideas of social tool adoption and organizational cultural adaptations to those tools — and vice versa.

But one thing that I am relearning is that people use very different terms to position their perspectives on organizations, communications, and the ever nebulous notion of organizational culture. You may have noticed this in your own discussions with others, with friends, or especially at work, where framing the discussion about organization has an overt political and power orientation, as well.

For my own sake, I thought I would summarize the work of a few researchers to talk about the way we talk of organizations, and to mull over the implications of how metaphors matter. If I were a social critic, I might add the observation: We should always ask the question, “Who benefits from this metaphor or perspective?”

[If you are already familiar with the work of Gareth Morgan’s metaphors of organization and Joanne Martin’s work on organizational culture you can jump down to my conclusions on How Metaphors Of Organizational Culture Frame Our Thinking, at the bottom.]

Morgan and Martin’s Insights

The first wellspring of helpful insight I’d like to revisit is the work of Gareth Morgan, who explored the nature of metaphor and how we use it to help understand organization and the role of management in Images of Organization. He offered up these organizational metaphors, and analyzed their implications:

  • Organization as machine — The default modern notion of the business, derived the industrial model of centralized control and piecemealed work, and the roles of all-knowing bureaucratic management spelling out the work that laborers perform. Basically, this reduces organization to a form of engineering, management as the engineers, and the dehumanization of the workers as cogs in an effort to construct the “one best way” to function.
  • Organization as organism — The naturalistic view, that an organization is similar a living thing that seeks to adapt and survive in a changing environment. It is an appealing metaphor, especially when management is confronted with circumstances with they believe require organization change. And the greater metaphor of competition for scarce resources against other organisms in a Darwinian struggle fits other cultural norms, and justifies certain attitudes, like openly aggressive behavioral norms.
  • Organization as brain — A metaphor that emphasizes learning over other activities, and lines up with the perspective that places information processing at the center of organizational action, and accords with practices like Total Quality Management and Kaizen.
  • Organization as culture — Organizations can be viewed as societies with their own values, rituals, ideologies and beliefs. They can be collections of semi-independent and contending subcultures, or uniform and homogeneous. Organization cultures can also be seen as contiguous with ethnic, national, or regional cultures, inheriting some values and beliefs. A great deal of the application of this metaphor in the business setting can be seen as an attempt to impose a specific and clearly articulated set of norms that are intended to proscriptive define culture, and to indoctrinate employees as a means to direct their behavior. I will expand this discussion, below, because I feel it is particularly relevant to the discussion I have been involved in recently.
  • Organization as political systems — In this perspective, the interplay of various factions is viewed like a political contest for power and dominance. In this model, effective managers are skilled politicians who balance competing interests and apply their power for the benefit of their constituencies and political faction. Organizations can be identified as autocracies, bureaucracies, technocracies, or democracies. This view boils down all striving as self- and group-interest oriented, and justifies conflict and factionalism as inevitable and maybe even advantageous.
  • Organization as psychic prisons — This metaphor plays up the perspective that the natural impulses of humans as social animals are never far below the surface, like sexual attraction, anxieties, fear, obsessions and dependencies. As a result, the psychic make up of the powerful can come to dominate the organization’s dynamics and competencies.
  • Organization as flux and transformation — This metaphor is derived from the growing understanding of complexity and chaos, and casts organization as a nexus for these phenomena. This approach considers the feedback loops with a system, as opposed to characterizing linear relationships and causal chains. While this may be an attractive set of ideas for theorists it doesn’t provide a groundwork for management to push from.
  • Organization as instruments of domination — This is the perspective that casts organizations as actors that exploit people, the natural environment, and the global economy for the benefit of the organization. This is the canonical evil corporation of cinema, exploiting seemingly rational and even legal processes to control the world, or as much of it as it can wrest away from others.

It’s a bit fatuous to say the obvious, that these various metaphors can be applied to the degree that they are helpful, like golf clubs are selected based on the terrain of a golf course. The reality is a bit stickier. The question is what do you want your characterization of a business to do? And who do you want to do it for? As I mentioned in the list item on organization as organism, management or change agents may choose to employ a specific metaphor precisely because it emphasizes and values certain aspects of organizational dynamics or human interactions over others.

Perhaps nowhere is it more clear that metaphors matter than in the various flavors of casting organization as culture. Joanne Martin wrote about three schools of thought around organizational culture in Organizational Culture: Mapping the terrain. She investigated three contending perspectives that researchers apply to analysis of organization culture: the integration, the differentiation, and the fragmentation perspective.

Notably, she starts with the telling observation that

Most of this research has used only one, or at most two, of these perspectives in a single study. Historically, advocates of these three cultural theories have either been antagonistic or ignored each other’s work.

Here’s a summarization of her analysis by Liese Gerritsen, from Metaphors of the Organization: Discourse in Public and Private Worlds:

The integration perspective “focuses on those manifestations of a culture that have mutually consistent interpretations.” Words like “shared values” pervade these types of research studies. Culture is that which is clear and unambiguous. Martin uses a metaphor to sum up this perspective: “Culture is like a solid monolith that is seen the same way by most people, no matter from which angle they view it.” Practically speaking, it often focuses on management, endorsing the interpretation of those in power over competing stories. Edgar Schein, (1985) a prolific writer on the subject of organizational culture and leadership notes that “only what is shared is, by definition, cultural.” Deviations within this model are seen as shortcomings or problems that need fixing.

The differentiation perspective focuses on cultural manifestations that have inconsistent interpretations. Consensus exists, but only within subcultures. “Subcultures may exist independently, in harmony or in conflict with each other.” This model views differences and inconsistencies as inescapable and desirable. According to Martin, some differentiation studies emphasize harmonious relationships between subcultures whereas others stress the inconsistencies and conflicts between these cultures at various organizational levels.

The fragmentation perspective places ambiguity, rather than coherence or clarity, at the core of culture. In this view consensus is possible, but it is expected to be fleeting and issue specific, rather than organization wide and everlasting. This view studies and attempts to understand organizational tensions and polemic behavior. It explores paradoxes and contradictions and attempts to make sense of these. Many of these studies assume the existence of multiple organizational realities and focus on a multiplicity of interpretations. Both organizations and individuals are seen to have fluctuating identities.

How Metaphors Of Organizational Culture Frame Our Thinking

The discussion I have been having — as I mentioned earlier — with a group of (at face value) like-minded theorists, practitioners and social tools developers has been revealing. One of the thoughts that occurred to me is that to effectively discuss the role and challenges of change agents in organizations adopting social technologies, we really need to start with a discussion of Martin’s framework, and craft a metanarrative that bridges the complex realities of culture, and especially in the context of organizations. We have to ask about who is served by various ways of talking about culture.

In my investigations into the changing nature of organizations I have stressed what we have learned from social networks theory and human cognition, which is a fusion of person- and network-centered findings. I have made an ongoing case for a movement toward the fast-and-loose form factor of work, a transition from more consensus-oriented, collaborative business culture to an increasingly laissez faire (or dissensus-oriented), cooperative business culture.

From Martin’s viewpoint, I am advancing an argument that is –as its core — a usurping of the guiding metaphor of organization culture.

Today’s entrepreneurial culture in business is grounded in an integrative metaphor: the CEO as visionary develops a strategy for the business, then lays it out so that others in the elite rally around it, and then it is inculcated into the controls and culture of the business, which are monolithic.

But the reality of business is that the average employee is increasingly disengaged: they are rejecting alignment with the leadership-provided storyline and monolithic culture. At the very least the reality is that culture has drifted into a differentiated form, with various subcultures believing what they believe, and varying degrees of dissent, rebellion, or passive assent.

From the mindset of integration, this is a manifestation of a sick culture, and something to be fixed. From the mindset, however, of fragmentation, this is a middle ground, a transition zone. As we head toward a more cooperative form of work, and leave behind the consensus requirements of the ideal integrated culture, then the role of leaders changes.

As I wrote in the recent piece Moving toward emergent strategy: slowly, if at all, the nature of strategy changes in a time of great change, when the future is difficult to foresee. The role of leadership changes with it, as well. Instead of concocting a strategic vision and pushing it out to the organization through cultural and managerial channels — the deliberate style of strategy — leadership must shift to distributed, action-based strategic learning about what is actually happening in the market: emergent strategy. This, as Henry Mintzberg observed, does not mean chaos, but unintended order.

To come full circle, if the goal of my circle of friends is to concoct a way to way to help change agents within business organizations, I feel we should start with a metanarrative about the changed groundwork for business, the shifting role of strategy and leadership, and, lastly, the fading of consensus and collaborative organizational culture as a consequence.

The coming cooperative organization is scary, because it places ambiguity and uncertainty at the center of organization dynamics. It is based on not knowing exactly what to do, in a world increasingly difficult to read. It values experimentation over execution, places agility above process, and puts learning ahead of knowing. It asks more questions than it can answer, and it may not even know how to answer them.

The power dynamic for change agents is always all uphill: if they want to lead the business forward, they have to convince leaders that they can’t stop the future by saying no, and the best way ahead is through. But we would be making a mistake by sticking to the contemporary metanarrative, one that would reduce this to increased alignment, immediate increases in productivity, or near-term fixes in what is viewed by management as a broken culture.

The challenge, then, is not to reëngage the workforce in solid, uniform cultural norms and allegiance to the company’s official vision — an approach more suitable for the previous decade or century — but to disengage management from the limited metaphor of Martin’s integration mindset. And the place to start is by reconsidering the nature of strategy — and its practice — in a postnormal, chaotic, and changeable world. Everything follows from there, although it will still be a difficult task to reframe the discussion around the future — and not the past — of work, management, organization, and the social compact.