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This post discusses the use of metaphors in organizational analysis.
Organizations are extremely important, but also staggeringly complicated, facets of human behavior. Our ability to organize in groups is arguably what separates us from other animals. Individually, we are not particularly good at physical things, like being strong and fast. We may be intelligent on some level, though this intelligence is sometimes conceptualized as being good at human things. Maybe we are smart, but a lot of what we consider to be “intelligence” or “wisdom” involves socially-transmitted information, learned through decades of study made possible through communal institutions. Organizations are extremely important.
We have many reasons to want to understand and manipulate organizations. Human resources managers are charged with the task of influencing worker behavior. Business-to-business marketers are interested in how organizations make purchasing decisions. Investment market analysts are interested in identifying well-run companies. Non-profit administrators look for ways to manage scarce human resources. Economic development policy analysts are interested in understanding how government agencies can become corrupt, or cure themselves of corruption. The list could go on. The main point is that there are many, many constituencies for information that conveys a full understanding of how organizations work, and how organizations can be influenced to do some desired thing or behave in some desired way.
For content creators, an understanding of how organizations work can be helpful in designing and diagnosing problems with their production process, general operations, and working relationships. My interviews with popular podcasters suggest that most have fairly structured creative processes and maintain a range of relationships with collaborators and service providers. If they are to appraise these processes and relationships critically and with an eye towards self-improvement, it would really help to understand how organizations work.
The problem is that, at present, organizations are far too complicated for people to understand fully. We only understand organizations in narrow ways, and our ability to fully control and manipulate them is limited in many ways. In a way, our inability to fully comprehend the workings of organizations makes sense. Think of how difficult people can have to understand and control their own behavior. It is several magnitudes more difficult to understand and control one other person’s behavior. Understanding and controlling organizations involve dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of individuals, and complex webs of interactions among them. At the present state of science and knowledge, our understanding of organizations has many limitations.
Many organizational analysts deal with this complexity through the application of different metaphors that artificially reduce organizations to limited facets of their workings. This is approach is advanced in contemporary classics like Perrow’s (1979) sociology classic Complex Organizations: A Critical Essay (University of Michigan Press) or Gareth Morgan’s (1986) management bestseller, Images of the Organization (Sage).
The use of metaphors in organizational analysis is illustrated artfully by Morgan, whose explanation I will adapt below. He gives the example of explaining a complex entity, like a human being, with reference to something else, like an ant. So, I might explain human beings by saying, “They are like ants.”
In drawing this metaphor — in saying that something (humans) is like something else (ants) — we are entreating your mind to find similarities between the two. We take the wide universe of characteristics or behaviors attached to humans, and reduce our set of considerations to those also possessed by ants. While it is obvious that humans are not, on whole, a lot like ants, they have commonalities. For example, both ants and humans are highly social, and are capable of operating large and organized colonies. Metaphors prompt you to see your subject in a different light, and prime your mind to recognize features of a complex phenomenon.
We might be tempted to think that the comparison neatly encapsulates the totality of humanity. You might say, “Humans are basically like ants”, in the sense that you argue that metaphor captures everything that is salient about humans. This is a risk in this kind of mental operation. The act of drawing metaphors may draw our minds to similarities, but they also present the risk that we ignore the differences and overestimate the overall similarity.
This comparison between humans and ants is useful for some purposes. Maybe it is useful for an analysis to underscore humanity’s social nature in service of an activity like urban planning or human resources management. Under other circumstances, the metaphor might not provide useful insights. Metaphors are potentially useful under some circumstances. There is no single metaphor that explains all organizational workings or problems. It is nonsense to argue that one particular metaphor is intrinsically superior to others.
In the field of organizational analysis, clusters of research have developed around several kinds of metaphors. Morgan’s and especially Perrow’s books are recommended. They involve metaphors comparing organizations to things like machines, cultures, brains, political systems, or human control systems. Organizations can be all of these things at once, but your brain cannot process all these sides at once. So you apply these filters one by one, hoping that the act of drawing comparisons evokes insights or ideas that can help you improve your living, breathing organization.
In this episode, The Annex discusses the topic of entrepreneurship with Rasmus Koss Hartman from Copenhagen Business School.
Photo Credit. By Francisclarke – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=53752550
In this week’s episode of The Annex, we talk about the concept of “racialized organizations” with Victor Ray (University of Iowa). Victor recently published “Why So Many Organizations Stay White” in Harvard Business Review.
Special guest co-host Jason Smith from George Mason University, and recent editor of Race and Contention in Twenty-First Century U.S. Media (Routledge).
Public radio has sometimes criticized as being “too white”. Today’s episode examines the idea that NPR is a racialized organization.
Laura Garbes is a doctoral student at Brown University. She studies the racialization of voice in public radio. Laura recently posted “When the “Blank Slate” Is a White One: White Institutional Isomorphism in the Birth of National Public Radio” to SocArXiv.
Victor Ray is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Iowa. Victor recently published “A Theory of Racialized Organizations” in the American Journal of Sociology.
Today, The Annex meets Sarah Jenkins from Cardiff Business School. Sarah recently co-published “Trusted to Deceive: A Case Study of ‘Strategic Deception’ and the Normalization of Lying at Work” in Organization Studies, an article that chronicles employees who work for a business that poses as office staff for clients. You can see this work summarized in Work in Progress.
Sarah Jenkins is a Reader in Human Resources Management at the Cardiff Business School. She recently co-published “Trusted to Deceive: A Case Study of ‘Strategic Deception’ and the Normalization of Lying at Work” in Organization Studies.