The Eight Metaphors of Organization

by Venkat on July 13, 2010

Gareth Morgan’s Images of Organization is a must-read for those who want to develop a deeper understanding of a lot of the stuff I talk about here. Though I’ve cited the book lots of times, it is one of those dense, complex books that I am never going to attempt to review or summarize. You’ll just have to read it. But I figured since I refer to it so much, I need at least a simple anchor post about it. So I thought I’d summarize the main idea with a picture, and point out some quick connections to things I have written/plan to write.

(For once, the picture was complex enough that I chose to draw it and scan it in, instead of doing one of my ugly MS-Paint sketches). Here’s the main idea of the book –The Eight Metaphors

Morgan’s book is based on the premise that almost all our thinking about organizations is based on one or more of eight basic metaphors. The main reason this book is hugely valuable is that 99% of organizational conversations stay exclusively within one metaphor.  Worse, most people are permanently stuck in their favorite metaphor and simply cannot understand things said within other metaphors. So these are not really 8 perspectives, but 8 languages.  Speaking 8 languages is a lot harder than learning to appreciate 8 perspectives. I consider myself a bit of an organizational linguist: I speak languages 2, 5, 6 and 7 fluently, 1 and 3 passably well (enough to get by), and 8 poorly.

  1. Organization as Machine: This is the most simplistic metaphor, and is the foundation of Taylorism. Any geometrically structuralist approach also falls into this category, which is why I have little patience for people who use words/phrases like top down, bottom-up, centralized, decentralized and so forth, without realizing how narrow their view of organizations is. The entire mainstream Michael-Porter view of business is within this metaphor.
  2. Organization as Organism: This is a slightly richer metaphor and suggests such ideas as “organizational DNA,” birth, maturity and death, and so forth. I really like this one a LOT, and have so much to say about it that I haven’t said anything yet. I even bought a domain name (electricleviathan.com) to develop my ideas on this topic separately. Maybe one day I’ll do at least a summary here.
  3. Organization as Brain: This may sound like a subset of the Organism metaphor (and there is some overlap), but there is a subtle and important shift in emphasis from “life processes” to learning. Organization as brain is the source of information-theoretic ways of understanding collectives (“who knows what,” how information spreads and informs systems and processes). The System Dynamics people like this a lot, especially Peter Senge (The Fifth Discipline). I cannot recommend the SysDyn approach though; I think it is fundamentally flawed. But the learning view itself is very valuable.
  4. Organization as Culture: I’ve written about this stuff before (There is No Such Thing as Culture Change on the E2.0 blog), and plan to do so soon, when I review Tony Hsieh’s Delivering Happiness and in the next Gervais Principle post. I honestly dislike this metaphor, but can understand its appeal objectively. More so than others, culturalists tend to be extremists; they think the culture metaphor is the most important one, and this rigidity traps them in peculiar ways.
  5. Organization as Political System: Most of the Gervais Principle series falls within the boundaries of this metaphor, though I sometimes step out to the Psychic Prison metaphor.
  6. Organization as Psychic Prison: I chose to represent this as a guy in a prison, since that is immediately obvious to everybody, but the right symbol (and the one Morgan uses) is the Plato’s cave symbol, which would be obscure to most people even if I could sketch it in a recognizable form. We’ve talked about this on the edges of the Gervais Principle series, through our discussions of exile/exodus, and also extensively in my old Cloudworker series.
  7. Organization as System of Change and Flux: Think of a dynamically stable whirlpool or eddy in a flowing stream, and you get this one. It highlights some of the same aspects of organizations as the Organism metaphor, but in different ways. For example, notions of stability, dissipation, entropy, and other physics ideas are used. This is where things like GTDlean startups and agile programming fit.  The idea of creative destruction also fits in here. If the Machine metaphor is the dominant one, this one is the market-leading alternative metaphor.
  8. Organization as Instrument of Domination: This is NOT the same as the political metaphor, since it involves naked aggression in some form. This is where you get themes of oppression, sweat-shops, social costs (such as the BP oil spill), the military-industrial complex and so forth. This used to be a lot more important than it is now, because humans are selfish creatures. So long as the subjects of oppression were human laborers, this was the leading metaphor. The moment that variety of oppression began to wane, and corporations shifted their oppressive gaze to animals, via factory farming, and the environment, via wanton damage out of public view, we stopped caring as much. Fortunately, that is starting to change, because ‘out of public view’ is an increasingly difficult state to maintain. Cases in point: Iran, Burma and BP.

There is a lot to be said about each metaphor. Morgan’s book is not particularly original in its analysis, but it is magisterial in its scope, coverage and organization. It surveys and contextualizes a lot of work by others in organizational theory. Bits of it can be tedious and too cautious/conservative, but overall, this is one of those “get your foundational education” books that you truly must read. I don’t want to tempt you into an illusion of understanding with this post, but just give you a taste of what is in store for you, if you choose to read the book.

I plan to do a series of such quick-tastes of books that I consider very important, but don’t plan to review/summarize.

Martina July 13, 2010 at 12:39 pm

I speak languages 2, 5, 6 and 7 fluently, 1, 2 and 3 passably well (enough to get by), and 8 poorly.
I thought you’d like to know number 2 is twice on your list.
Your blog is amazing, by the way. I find your articles sharp and your perspective very interesting

Venkat July 13, 2010 at 12:48 pm

Fixed, thanks for spotting that Martina.

And glad you like the blog!

Maria Lascas July 13, 2010 at 4:56 pm

Could you elaborate a bit more on why you think System Dynamics is an approach that is fundamentally flawed? I do understand that the tools are not applicable to all business situations, and that the mere attempted to model a complex dynamic business system is by itself a reduction of its complexity, and so of the outcomes of the simulations. Nevertheless, there is a whole body of research supporting the use of system dynamics in modelling business systems.

Venkat July 14, 2010 at 10:16 am

Mix of technical, philosophical and pragmatic reasons:

1. Technical: My background is in control theory, the foundational field from which System Dynamics forked off, due to Forrester, in the 1960s. SD remains to this day “applied 1960s control theory.” Developments since then, in controls (40 years worth) make SD rather obsolete and flawed. That would be a longer, mathematical discussion that I don’t want to have on this blog’s comments sections :)

2. Philosophical: I think the SD folks’ basic philosophy of modeling is flawed, another discussion I don’t want to have here.

3. Pragmatic: Within the restricted domain of problems where SD is applicable and useful, four things need to be true for there to be value. i) the modeler asks the right question, ii) he/she has the aesthetics to build a model with the right level of coarseness/fineness depending on the question and the quality of data available (time constants etc.), iii) Has the plug-and-chug technical skills to code the model in a tool and run it without making conceptual mistakes, iv) Actually understands the plug-and-chug formulas properly to interpret the results right.

In my experience, people who have all 4 skills are generally smart enough to build a MUCH leaner model using a judiciously-selected mix of modeling tools that ends up being MORE expressive and answering the question better. So you get more for less. So the best modelers in my experience rarely pick SD as the right way to answer any interesting question.

On the flip side, if any of those conditions fail, you get dreck. The most common failure modes are a) asking unimportant questions that matter to nobody b) knowing only skill iii, plug-and-chug.

In the first case, you get good answers to questions nobody asked. In the second case, you get aesthetically ugly answers to the wrong questions, with the (correct) answers being interpreted incorrectly.

This is for classic system dynamics modelers who actually go to the trouble of even using the tools for questions answerable by simulation. There are 2 ways SD slides into even worse territory under the generic, meaningless label “Systems Thinking.” If I hear that phrase, I run a mile.

In the first way, some clever talker will use a single mind-candy example (like the bullwhip effect in the beer supply chain) to riff on huge, very different questions, wail about how people are idiots and end with some idiotic line like “to answer important questions like global warming, we really need to understand the real dynamics.” Such people absolutely don’t get how huge socio-cultural-political problems are ACTUALLY solved in the real world. The big variables are not the objective realities but interpersonal dynamics, personalities and other psycho-social factors playing out in the people involved in solving the problem.

The second way is even worse. Here, even the mind-candy examples (which at least reveal a single relevant insight) are dispensed with, and you get into purely philosophical territory about how the world ought to work. I couldn’t finish Peter Senge’s Fifth Discipline because I had objections on nearly every second page — it is a thoroughly shaky extrapolation from already shaky technical “systems thinking” foundations into organizational theory and self-improvement. But his book after that (forget the name) which is a series of conversations with a group of people who seem to want to change the world, was basically in New Age spirituality territory rather than science. That sealed the deal for me.

Hope that doesn’t offend anyone.

For the record, I do understand the technical end of SD, have played with the tools and have even had one paper in the IEEE Transactions on Systems, Cybernetics and Man :). . (It isn’t a core SD journal, cybernetics is the precursor created by Norbert Wiener, who was a contemporary of Vannevar Bush, Jay Forrester’s adviser). So this isn’t a completely unfounded opinion…

Still, after that long rant… yeah, basic stock-and-flow/iThink System Dynamics is a useful tool under some narrowly circumscribed conditions. It just isn’t the world-changing epistemological revolution its practitioners think it is.

Venkat

Josh W July 19, 2010 at 5:14 am

I’d love you to go into this at some point, I’ve got very fond of the old-school cybernetics stuff, and one of my medium-term goals is to update it for the stuff that’s changed at the theoretical level in the meantime; chaos/topological stuff/computational mechanics etc, so that I can use it more effectively in a wider context.

Obviously that’s my project not yours, but I’d love to hear what parts of it you find useful and how that’s limited.

Venkat July 19, 2010 at 5:35 am

It’s a good idea for a project, but backward-looking IMO. You will unduly constrain yourself if you frame the new in terms of the old.

I think the most innovative thinking in this stuff is probably happening in 2 places: game design, and social technology design. I’d start there and theorize from first principles about basic assumptions, design laws etc. in those domains.

Dave July 13, 2010 at 6:57 pm

I think the Gervais metaphor did more than dabble in the Psychic Prison. The political system seems to grow organically around psychic prisoners – the Losers see the prison and escape via apathy, while the Sociopaths see it and choose to be the guards.

Greg July 15, 2010 at 8:46 am

For what it’s worth, if you and an artist collaborated on a poster that details your drawing a little cleaner and with some notes interspersed, I would consider buying it.

I have to say that #7 makes the most sense to me in the department I work in. Even the recent death of a colleague and friend did not shake up the department in any substantial way. A small whirlpool and flood of atypical behaviour, but within a few days it’s business as usual.

Venkat July 15, 2010 at 1:40 pm

Good to know I have a potential revenue stream in the poster business :D

Kay July 16, 2010 at 8:01 pm

This is all great and so, but wouldn’t it be nice at some point to come to terms and restart conceptual thinking i.e. giving old fashioned philosophers, modernists, universalists, scientists, reductionists a piece sugar instead of intentionally weak minded postmodernists with their love for images, collections, metaphors, stories, posters and what not. My math professor loved to draw for illustration purposes but he didn’t confused it with math. So I can just hope no one confuses this imagery with theory building.

Canute July 19, 2010 at 8:12 am

I view the organism metaphor as a reality:

The prequel: http://www.minorheresies.com/posts/2007/12/14/the-stonemason-and-the-gunman.html

The essay: http://www.minorheresies.com/posts/2007/12/28/hyperscopic-life.html

The discussion reminds me of the old cliche-parable about the ten blind men and the elephant. Or, for that matter, the particle/wave duality in physics. The manifested characteristics of the phenomenon depend upon the structure of the experiment.

tubelite July 20, 2010 at 9:11 pm

When I was young and innocent, I thought of organization as a tool to accomplish business goals. A marvelously complex organic tool, with many different specialized parts carefully integrated and smoothly working together.

Then came reorg after reorg, and it looked more and more like something cobbled together in a hurry from whatever was available. A Frankenstein monster, a zombie, lurching staggers, “Braaains!” and all. Would nothing stop this undead beast?

Doomsday failed to happen with monotonous regularity. “There’s no one left who understood all this, how can it possibly go on?” But it did, somehow or the other.

So to my final metaphor: the organization with a high inertia cash flow generates a field. Random iron filings will arrange themselves in nice org-chart patterns. The identity of the filings matters little: wipe them all out, and new ones will be attracted and fall into the field-well, until the current finally runs out.

AmitP August 9, 2010 at 11:50 am

Loved the article Venkat, im writing a paper on Morgans metaphors and have to show how they are like lenses, in the sense they change the way we think depending on the perspective used(based on reallife examples). I know this sounds really stupid but how would you suggest going about this, any help would be greatly appreciated.

Venkat August 9, 2010 at 1:25 pm

Ha! Nice try! Am not about to offer free homework help here. I charge a minimum of $150/hr for that :)

Anon July 26, 2011 at 12:18 pm

Bitdefender blocks access to http://electricleviathan.com/, saying it “included objects that were either infected or likely to be infected with a virus”. If you’ve ignored the domain for a long time, maybe it’s been pwned.

Snarky July 16, 2012 at 2:20 pm

I studied dystopic literature for my master’s degree. Amusingly, this list reads like a list of all the ways to corrupt a society and make it dystopic. Particularly organization as instrument of domination. Last year I read LePan’s “Animals” – dystopic work about factory farming taken in an interesting direction. Makes for uncomfortable reading. Great picture!

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