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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 GTD, lean 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.
- 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.