Change Management : Organizational Metaphors

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The workplace is full of metaphor. How could it not be when the concept of work itself is presented as a metaphor for life and a vehicle for many people’s purpose and reason for being? The workplace attracts metaphors with a gravitational pull all of its own. For instance, we find ourselves trying to climb the career ladder, or making our way along a winding career path; we might be told to go to out and bat for our team or play this one avoiding the rough. We still punch in and out despite the physical time card for the most part being consigned to history.

The metaphors that find currency in an organization speak volumes and tell us more than the company would themselves like to admit. They tell us a huge amount about the workplace culture, its structure an its ability (or lack of) to effect change. As change managers and advocates of change, we learn a lot from playing close attention to these metaphors, and working out what type of organization we are dealing with. Are we told about the employees working hard at the coal face? Are ideas often lost ‘in the weeds’ or in the ‘fog of war’? Is a difficult marketplace a set of choppy waters or a field ripe for harvest? Or are the combat metaphors rolled out, with bad sales figures a body blow? Is risk portrayed as an opportunity, or a threat?

Gareth Morgan wrote Images of Organization in 1986 and it has since found international acclaim. Updated in 2006, Morgan describes in his new ‘Preface’ how he retained the simplicity of the central premise:

“The central message is presented in two short chapters …. they show, very simply, (a) how different metaphors give rise to different theories of organization and management, (b) how an understanding of the process can help us master the strengths and limitations of different viewpoints an (c) how we can use this knowledge to become more effective leaders and managers” [Morgan, 2006; xi]

Thus we are to understand how companies resemble certain types of organizations but that beyond the simple naming of things, we want to use this to help us understand and effect change. The ideas were powerful ways to get at the core elements and drivers of a company, beyond even we look at and analyse the Company Handbooks and mission statements. (Although don’t discount this – almost nothing will tell you what a company really values more than its Annual Report and its internal staff handbook.)

Whilst important and insightful, Morgan’s work did not come out of nowhere. Linguistics has long been concerned with cognition and models of comprehension. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson wrote Metaphors We Live By in 1980, suggesting that metaphor is a tool that enables people to use what they know about their primary physical and social experiences in order to understand more abstract notions like work or time. It tells us metaphor is not just a handy figure of speech or literary device but a mechanism of meaning in the mind.

Morgan’s carefully applied research builds on this body of linguistic theory stretching back to the mid-20th century. Lakoff in 1987 developed this work into a semantic mode of cognition, in his book Women, Fire and Dangerous Things. Morgan’s work went on to have an influential and lasting effect on management theory. He posited eight types of organization, and I thought it might be instructive (and amusing) to pick four of these out – and then apply them to companies in the publishing world.

The Organization as Machines metaphor is appropriate when the company sees its processes as highly designed, and controlled. Planning and management is achievable – easy, even. People are units of production and can be trained and used like tools The publishing companies that most readily fall into this category would be RELX, or, for our purposes here, Elsevier. RELX itself is now an information and systems company as its listing on the stock market tell us and it has designed itself, machinic and precise, out of the world of publishing altogether.

Organization as Brains seems companies that are intelligence-led, with the organization resembling a library or a memory bank. Change is viewed and implemented as a learning process, and double-loop positive feedback learning is used widely. Many University Presses might see themselves as part of this group – in my experience this is not true, and they are more likely to be organizations as culture. Despite their proximity to knowledge, they maintain a striking amount of ignorance, and the AUP statement following the Black Lives Matter protests is important and necessary. An example here might be Pearson, which has done some very hard thinking to retool its business models given the collapse of reliable and profitable print textbook sales.

Organizations as Political systems sees companies resemble small governments, managing the common an often conflicting needs. Decisions are made according to lines of power and the route taken is not always one that is the most thought-out, but rather the one that satisfies the most powerful stakeholders. Factions develop and energy is spent electioneering and maintaining a powerbase. Many publishing companies are like this (see also ‘Organizations as Cultural Systems’, which is devastatingly accurate in describing many publishers and their homogenous workplaces.) I’d nominate Bloomsbury as a good example here, although many other publishing companies fit the bill.

What form might a forward thinking and modern publishing company take? Organizations as Flux and Transformation is one where the company is an ever-changing system, which responds to and learns from its environment. It doesn’t always work – if the external chaos is too prevalent, or if the processes involved are so simple that a machine approach would be better suited – but it means that the companies involved are able to transcend cultural hegemony and homeogeneity. Where publishing is concerned, given the parlous state of affairs described by the Lee and Low Survey from the US, and damning reports from various UK initiatives, this might be no bad thing at all. For a fairly damning indictment, look up Organizations as Psychic Prisons and you’ll find a fair amount to nod your head to. Food for thought? Do get in touch or leave a comment.

Published by gurdeepmattu

I’m an author and publisher. I live and work in London and am the author of “Sons and Fascination” (2011, Paperbooks). It's available here:

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