COMMENTS ON ORGANIZATIONAL METAPHORS
Morgan (1986) a number of metaphors that have been proposed for understanding organizations. Here I comment on Morgan's treatment from a Dooyeweerdian point of view.
Morgan suggested eight different metaphors, each of which provides a different way of thinking about organizations, seeing the organization:
- as a goal-seeking machine with interchangeable parts,
- as a biological organism that continually adapts to change,
- as a central brain that can respond to, and predict, change,
- as centring on a set of shared values and beliefs,
- as centring on power and conflict, as a means whereby individuals achieve their own aspirations or mutual self-interest,
- as centring on norms of behaviour, so that the organization is likened to a psychic prison,
- as flux and transformation,
- as an instrument of domination.
The metaphors are grouped into sets, at least by S.D. Green, whose summary of Morgan's ideas I am using. (S.D. Green discussed them from the point of view of briefing in construction projects.) Each metaphor, each way of seeing an organization, is not just a matter of academic curiosity; the way those who have influence in an organization see it, their predominant metaphor, will shape the organization and heavily influence the way it functions. So 'way of seeing' is taken, here, to also include 'way the organization functions'.
It is immediately apparent that at least some of the metaphors refer to Dooyeweerdian aspects. Dooyeweerd laid great importance on metaphor, on the analogical relationships between aspects, in which each aspect contains echoes of all the others. Each aspect can therefore be a metaphor for the others, a way of seeing things. In particular, any (multi-aspectual) situation can be seen in terms of a single aspect, and seeing it in this way is valid - though very limited. Valid, as long as it is remembered that such perspective is metaphorical and should never be taken to be the overriding or only valid way of treating the situation, and as long as all the other aspects are immediately brought to bear on any and every decision that has to be made.
So a Dooyeweerdian comment would seem to be compatible with and appropriate to Morgan's approach, and hopefully to enrich it. First, we attempt a correlation between Morgan's ways of seeing organizations, then we suggest at least one way in which it could be enriched by Dooyeweerdian approach.
Let us discuss the metaphors in turn.
- as a goal-seeking machine with interchangeable parts. The idea of goal-seeking is close to part of the kernel meaning of the formative aspect, while the idea of interchangeable parts would seem related to the kernel of the physical aspect. The idea of 'machine' is taken to refer to the ideal of control rather than to physical assembly.
- as a biological organism that continually adapts to change. This is obviously centred on the biotic aspect which centres on life functions.
- as a central brain that can respond to, and predict, change. He seems to be referring mainly to signals and sensory functioning, and so is mainly centred on the sensitive aspect.
- as centring on a set of shared values and beliefs. This could be several things, but is most likely to centre on the pistic aspect of commitment, faith, vision, especially as he talks about mission statements.
- as centring on power and conflict, as a means whereby individuals achieve their own aspirations or mutual self-interest. This is almost certainly centring on the formative aspect, whose kernel is deliberate formative power that lies at the root of culture, history and technology, and whose functioning includes creativity and achievement. One misuse of the formative aspect is to view people mainly through the formative aspect, treating human relationships as mere power relations in which we attempt to achieve our own goals or 'mutual self-interest'. It would seem that this is a poor metaphor, in the sense of leading to poor results and being non-sustainable. That this is so is hinted at by the last sentence in Green's discussion "The long-term success of any organization wil however depend upon an underlying willingness amongst its members to form coalitions, otherwise the organization will inevitably disintegrate." That is, if we treat an organization purely in this way, then it will disintegrate; we need other aspects (ways of treating organizations) too. Therefore this metaphor is deficient, it is counter-productive, destructive. We discuss this further below, as an issue that it seems neither Morgan nor Green addressed.
- as centring on norms of behaviour, so that the organization is likened to a psychic prison. Both the reference to 'prison' (a legal institution) and 'norms' suggest that this metaphor is centred on the juridical aspect. Of course, 'prison' has negative connotations, and is probably used here to refer to constraints, and ones that are seen to be wrong in some way: constraints that should not be in place. An organization that functions according to this metaphor, will 'trap' its members into favoured ways of thinking. As Green points out, Groupthink is an extreme form of this. Organizations can develop strong norms of behaviour which, Green suggests, stifle individual creativity. The tone of Green's writing is that this is a bad metaphor, that there should not be such norms. But Dooyeweerd would disagree, but in an interesting way. To most of us, laws, norms, are restrictions on individual freedom. But to Dooyeweerd, laws are what enable, rather than constrain. The question that Dooyeweerd would throw at this metaphor is not to suggest that the metaphor is deficient in itself, but to ask whether there could be a good version of this metaphor, in which organizational norms are positive in their effect, and enable the full health of the organization and also its environment.
- as flux and transformation. Green separates this metaphor out from the others, pointing out that it sees the organization as a verb rather than a noun. It is possible that Dooyeweerd's kinematic aspect is the one most closely related to this way of seeing an organization, or maybe the formative aspect in its kernel meaning of deliberate change. However, it may be that a completely different dimension of Dooyeweerd's thought is more appropriate here: his notion of Time. Time is something that extends through all aspects, and is seen not as mere sequence but as something highly active and dynamic.
- as an instrument of domination. The organization, in this light, is a means whereby some individuals impose their will on others, and rather than seeking shared values, they resort to 'brainwashing'. Obviously, from the tone used, this is seen as a totally bad metaphor. It would seem to be an extreme version that combines the worst of the political and prison metaphors above. The question is: is there any valid good to be found in this way of seeing an organization? A Dooyeweerdian analysis might help us find it, as it did with the prison metaphor, but I think it likely that a Dooyeweerdian analysis would agree with Morgan's and Green's obvious dislike of organizations that function in this manner. While, according to Dooyeweerd, there is a certain type of dominion that is valid, that dominion is not harsh and does not reduce human beings to mere objects, which it seems that this way of functioning does.
So we see that, in spite of the fact that Morgan and Green are discussing quite complex scenarios, there seems to be some correlation between their metaphors and Dooyeweerd's thinking. Indeed, it is likely that where I have shown some ambiguity above a deeper understanding of Morgan's thinking would reveal a clearer correlation.
The question remains, though: can a Dooyeweerdian analysis enrich Morgan's ideas usefully? I think there are three ways in which this is possible.
It can perhaps suggest new ways of seeing organizations, by highlighting aspects that are not mentioned above. For example, the ethical aspect, whose kernel is self-giving love, might suggest an organization as something that does good in its environment.
A second enrichment has been suggested above, that where Morgan might characterise a metaphor in derogatory terms, Dooyeweerd could suggest whether there is in fact some validity lurking behind it that, if it could be discerned and activated, would result in beneficial ways of functioning. It was suggested that this could be applied to the metaphor of the psychic prison. Contrariwise, where Morgan might seem to applaud a way of seeing an organization, Dooyeweerd could suggest what the downside might be.
The third enrichment has also been referred to above. At least Green's version of Morgan's metaphors seems to avoid explicitly stating whether any metaphors are intrinsically bad (though the tone used might do so). Dooyeweerd's concern, with the aspects, is to identify the conditions or norms for 'shalom', that is, for sustainable, long-term success in its widest and richest form. We noticed that Green suggests that the political (power relation) metaphor is counter-productive in its pure form. Dooyeweerd's treatment can explain why this is. While treating people in terms of power relations might be OK as far as the formative aspect is concerned, it goes against the laws of the ethical aspect. Since real life is multi-aspectual, and going against any one relevant aspect will bring about damaging results, this metaphor will inherently bring harm. This suggests that a Dooyeweerdian approach, while similar to Morgan's in some ways, goes further, and distinguishes between 'good' and 'poor' metaphors, ways of seeing organizations, ways in which organizations function.
A fourth enrichment comes from Dooyeweerd's insistence that for healthy functioning all aspects should be kept in balance. Even though it is valid to view a situation (or an organization) via one aspect, such viewing should always be temporary, and be given low priority. The organization should be viewed, and thus steered and managed, from a perspective that spans all aspects and seeks to keep all aspects in balance. This was, perhaps, what was wrong with much of the management consultancy of the 1970s and 1980s: that they applied ideas that were attractive and easy to understand simply because they were drawn from a single aspect.
Green S D (1996) "A metaphorical analysis of client organizations and the briefing process", Construction Management and Economics, 14:155-64.
Morgan G (1986) Images of Organization, Sage.
This page is part of a collection of pages that links to various thinkers, within The Dooyeweerd Pages, which explain, explore and discuss Dooyeweerd's interesting philosophy. Email questions or comments would be welcome.
Copyright (c) 2010 Andrew Basden. But you may use this material subject to conditions.
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