The theories of organisation and management

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The concept of using metaphors whilst analysing organisations is explained by Morgan; "All theories of organisation and management are based on implicit images or metaphors that persuade us to see, understand, and imagine situations in partial ways.  Metaphors create insight.  But they also distort.  They have strengths.  But they also have limitations.  In creating ways of seeing, they create ways of not seeing.  Hence there can be no single theory or metaphor that gives an all-purpose point of view.  There can be no 'correct theory' for structuring everything we do." (Morgan, 1997, p.348). Organisations, like organisms, evolve over time.  Understanding the nature of organisations and how they have changed helps us to better understand the purpose of managerial work.

In this paper I will focus on different situations using metaphors in order to illustrate how we can have a further look into organisational behaviour and performance. Through various examples with different metaphors such as machine, organism, art and animal metaphors I will show how important metaphors are in learning and understanding how an organisation can perform with success gaining competitive advantage in the marketplace. In addition, I will link these examples with various organisational situations and theory.

 Many theorists use the 'machine' as a metaphor to describe organisations.  We can think of it in terms of 'inputs and outputs' and production lines etc. Machines are often used to help to accomplish certain tasks, such as how cars are made to transport us from one location to another. Machinery has revolutionized our way of life, as it possess attractive qualities such as producing high volumes of output in shorter time frames and increased predictability. People can also control the operations and adjust conditions so that machines run at their most efficient levels. All these qualities have people wonder if organizations can be managed in the same way as machines.

"Machine" organisations all usually share a common characteristic in their theory of management. It is the clear define work tasks and long lists of rules, which employees must follow that distinguish this from other metaphors. An example of a "machine" organisation is the multinational fast food company McDonalds. The employees are trained to work just like any constructed machine, each of the tasks are carefully programmed into workers so that they know the exact sequence of their job (the way burgers are made, how they communicate with customers etc). This machine like approach aims to maximize the efficiency of the organization, so each independent worker can collaborate in a specifically defined sequence. Machine organisations also looked at conditions that would increase productivity and identify reasons for workers to breakdown in much the same way as we would when trying to improve the efficiency of machinery. By breaking each task into small operations, it minimizes the likelihood of error since every individual knows exactly what their tasks are. If the machine doesn't work well you can then think of the organisation as having communication lines 'broken' down and then things need fixing.  Morgan tells us that many of the metaphors of organisation are machine, organism, culture and domination etc.  He states that metaphors give us the opportunity to stretch our thinking and deepen our understanding, thereby allowing us to see things in new ways.


Other organisational theorists have invoked the metaphor of "organism" to convey how they understand organisations (Hannan & Freeman, 1977; Lawrence & Lorsch, 1967).  Steeping their analysis in general systems theory, these theorists liken organisations to living systems which respond and adapt to their environments in order to survive.  Just as human beings are organisms which adapt to their environments, or perhaps, are selected by nature, or even, adapt to subtle patterns within the environment.  E.g. a cactus in the desert has to adapt to an environment of no water, so can people adapt to different environments in the work place?  Is a cactus a suitable metaphor for all organisations?


Oswick and Montgomery (1996) in another study on 'images of organisation' find that 'the selection of animals (living organisms) equates to aspects of organisational change', where images of large and slow animals equal low levels of change, images of 'lean, fast moving, and often predatory animals portray and adaptive organisation'. Keizer and Post, 1996, p.95 suggest that animals are useful to point the contrast between properties like weakness and strength (e.g. mouse versus elephant) or slowness and speed (snail versus cheetah) (cited in Oswick and Montgomery (1996).  Images of large, slow-moving animals e.g. elephant suggest a need for organisational change and a limited amount of activity taking place.  An elephant is strong but slow to respond, it is slow to change direction but unstoppable once moving.  It is awkward and it consumes and expels large volumes of waste therefore if we relate this to any organisation then it tells us that there is need for change. It might be a slow moving organisation but it is a stable one as it does not really like change much.  It is a reliable organisation.  If this organisation for example was the Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU), the 'elephant' metaphor would apply in some ways e.g. MMU is a very stable and strong organisation but is it slow to change?  With different courses available now a days and different minorities attending the college, is it still old and established?  Does the 'elephant' metaphor really apply to this organisation?  The 'elephant' metaphor may apply to an organisation like the British Rail system.  It has been there for hundreds of years and it is very slow to change. E.g. we have transformed from steam engines to diesel engines to electric trains in Japan. 

If you used a tiger as an 'animal' metaphor could all the characteristics of a tiger relate to MMU? Tigers are usually fast moving, quick thinking and powerful. The Manchester Metropolitan University like many Universities can certainly be powerful but is it fast moving, and is it a strong competitor?  It may need to compete with other universities but it is still stable in the way it stands. 


The metaphor of an ostrich would be that an ostrich is capable of standing tall and proud, but it often buries its head in the sand over a lot of issues, instead of foreseeing problems.  An ostrich is a bird which does not fly.  If you used the 'Ostrich' metaphor in the organisation of the Northern Ireland Assembly, you can see that it is its own government but a lot of issues are buried.  The ostrich will never fly; will the Northern Ireland Assembly ever take off?  Would the 'elephant' metaphor suit the Northern Ireland Assembly better? The problem with these metaphors is that they relate more to organisational change rather than the organisation itself.


Another example of a metaphor would be the example of urban housing.  Slums can be referred to blighted, unhealthy, congenitally diseased and requiring an entirely new redesign to root out the cause of cancer.  In another cited passage by Donald Schon, slums are viewed as natural communities sharing much with working class communities across cultures and history.  If we apply the metaphor of a slum to that of a hospital organisation it would show very different things.  Hospitals are places that are blighted by people with diseases or different illnesses, but depending on what way you think of a slum could refer to that way you think of the words of the metaphor that would relate to that specific organisation. In other words peoples' opinions about certain things may vary so this could be a limitation for this metaphor.

In relation to the art metaphor, "theatre" is another metaphor which is used to describe organisations.  The organisation can be understood as high drama and organisational analysis might begin with a critical examination or the stage upon which the drama is taking place.  Besides, what is the role of the stage?  In the example of the hospital organisation the stage could be the operating theatre and the actors could be the surgeons and the nurses. Goffman asks how do these people present themselves and interact on stage and what does this mean in terms of human interactions in daily life. In view of the responses to these questions, one might also analyse the drama's plot, setting, theme, character and conflict.  The organisational metaphor depicting the organisation as theatre conveys how humans experience dramas and, they use this experience to explain and legitimise organisational processes.

Since we can relate each metaphor to a different situation to understand and evaluate organisational performance the same happens in the "theatre" metaphor when we talk about services provided by organisations. Different circumstances will require different types of performance in order for an organisation to provide its services successfully. Baron and Harris (2001) discussed four theatrical movements which reflected a wide range of theoretical ideas extended into practice. These include theatrical realism, where the audience is the distanced observer where the environment needs to be realistic; political realism where the audience is a participator and reviewer; surrealism where the senses are attacked creating a subconscious experience and absurd theatre to challenging the mind where the emphasis in the staging is on minimalism. They argue that the important characteristic of the four movements is that they offer innovative insights about how to manage and develop the performance of frontline employees within retail environments.

In the theoretical idea of theatrical realism theme parks like Alton Towers and Disney World can be used as an example. Here the emphasis is on detail and accuracy in the creation of a realistic environment. The audience become voyeurs, looking into a realistic world in which the costumes, properties, and backdrops capture the exact detail of the environment. The characters are dressed in costumes and are a way of bringing the theme of the parks into reality. Bentley (1968) concludes that the theatre is merely a simulation of the basic components of social interaction. Gabbott proposed that a key part in the maintaining "truth" of the performance and the illusion of the reality of the role lies in the non-verbal presentation of the actor (Jones, 1996). There are two elements, body language as illustrated by mime, and the use of vocal tones or pitch to convey meaning.


Service personnel are an integral component of most service organizations' effort. Their significant impact upon service quality has been recognized in various models of the service encounter; whether they operate behind the scenes in areas not visible to the customers' view or in a front region where their every move is open to public inspection, a service's employees are largely responsible for the excellence of the service product. This is particularly true for those who come in contact with the customer, since customers will often equate the quality of an organization's service with its 'contract personnel'. All other things being equal, what this suggests is that service organizations can achieve a competitive or differential advantage in the marketplace through their service employees.


Customisation of the service to meet individual needs is growing in importance, for example front line hotel staff will make a judgment on whether the customer is a business or leisure guest and match their delivery style accordingly. Mood can also be a major determining factor in the service encounter and can alter the everyday through process (Morris 1989). Customer contact personnel can influence the customers' mood through their presence, message content, attractiveness, status and their interpersonal relationships with the customer. The staff have to be able to create a positive mood and to carryout a convincing performance. On the basis that the core exchange paradigm occurs between people, and specifically in the service context between a customer and a service provider, it follows that the selection and training of service employees is of paramount importance. (Gabbott et al 2000). The interaction during performance will be especially important where there is a great amount of interaction. If a member of the service staff was in a bad mood, a hairdresser for example, and this become clear to the customer it would create a negative mood for them and the customer would leave feeling they did not have a satisfactory experience even if the service, the hair cut, was of the expected quality. In this example the hair dresser would be expected to mask their bad mood and hence put on a performance.

Another metaphor that could be used, in terms of "performance", would be that of an orchestra. If we think of an orchestra we think of a whole group of different people playing different instruments.  All these people are directed by one person, the conductor. If the conductor doesn't conduct properly then it doesn't work in correlation and then the song or tune is destroyed. The Human Resource perspective emphasises the importance of changing people through training, rotation, promotion or dismissal. As Bolman & Deal (1997) describe, organisations and people need each other - the former needs energy, and talent; the latter needs careers, salaries and opportunities. They are interdependent. Although, a poor fit between individuals and the system affect one or both. Therefore, skills, needs, feeling and relationship between individuals and group are so essential that managers need to involve themselves in improving the relationship and motivate people. Therefore linking this theory with the above example we can see that it is a team effort which means that when the members of the band respond to the conductors' directions then everything will run smoothly. On the other hand, if a member of the band doesn't follow the conductor's commands then the whole tune will be ruined.  This metaphor could be associated with that of the organisation of Manchester airport as team work and effort is constantly needed for the smooth running of this organisation.  If one person does not correctly perform his/her duties then it can spoil the whole running of the organisation. E.g. In the control tower, if there is no team effort and correlation and a certain flight schedule is not followed by the crew or the management then it could end in disaster.  

Nevertheless the use of multiple metaphors can complicate how managers and leaders think about organisational development but also unlocks the human creative potential and critical thinking ability to develop new ways for organising because managers and leaders now consider alternative view points (Bolman and Deal, 1997). Knowing that no single metaphor is consistently more effective than another, successful managers and leaders might be those that use multiple metaphors. This will enable them to face different situations and achieve their tasks.


 If we change the metaphors, we can see not only different phases of the same organisation but also imagine different phases of the same organisation but also imagine different environments and different concepts for analysing the interrelation of organisation and environment. In his 1997 paper, "Discussion note: Using metaphors to understand and to change organisations.  A critique of Gareth Morgan's approach", McCourt raises the question of whether the metaphorical approach does 'live up to its promise as a new and productive technique for understanding and acting in organisations.'  McCourt's critique is a useful guide to an analysis of Morgan's theory.  He sees Morgan's work as a scientific research of finding and elaborating metaphors.  He also suggests that if scientific discourse id funded on metaphorical thinking, then metaphors should enable us to get a deeper insight into organisations and suggest creative solutions to problems or generate new ideas.


Consultancy firms refer back to metaphors as well.  An example to show this is the 'ship' metaphor used by the Self Renewal Group to 'welcome newcomers on board'.  'Running a tight ship' is important to a manager as well as knowing 'the direction in which we sail'.  This illustrates how metaphors, elucidated by an image, can be used to think about organisations.  The Self Renewal Group ask the validity of the metaphorical approach, 'What metaphors determine your thinking about organisations?', giving reference to 'machines', 'organisms', ' persons', etc.  So, for instance, 'organisms, like businesses, compete for survival and evolve to gain an edge'.  Here the metaphor of survival and evolution is used, much like Whittington (1993) did when analysing a strategy formulation process. The metaphor of evolution used by Whittington (1993) is used to get a deeper understanding and to explain the strategy formulation process.  He relates back to strategies of 'survival', especially focusing on differentiation, which he illustrates using the metaphor of 'species'.  Animals of the same genus but a different species can easily co-exist, where animals of the same genus and the same species can't.  The use of metaphor and images helps to elucidate a complex process, confirming what Morgan says in his theory.


Metaphors imply a way of thinking and seeing which engenders a form of understanding (Pesqueux, 1999).  Images become animated and create a 'whole' which takes account of the circumstances that impact on the situation.  The kinds of metaphors used in organisations can range from simple mediating images, which fulfil the basic task of a metaphor to more complex metaphors which refer to a whole field of knowledge.  Morgan stresses that the metaphors mentioned in his writings are merely detailed examples of how metaphors can be used in organisational analysis. Some of the metaphors have been commonly adopted and are now widely used in organisational discourse.  Morgan stresses that metaphors fade into the background once new insight in a particular situation or problem has been generated.  Metaphors can help to get new insights, they allow us to become more flexible in terms of the point of view we take, and thus to discard pre-occupations and clear situations where a 'bigger picture' would be helpful.