Patterns in Organizations


I know research laboratories that are organized like assembly lines. They employ a huge number of staff involved in planning, financial control and reporting. They rely of the principles behind scientific management (Taylor-ism). They use standard software to control resources, designed for industrial companies like SAP.

I know also organizations that help the poor, which are organized like boys clubs. There is no coordination at all, there are no job requirements or descriptions, and participation is non-committal.

Both types of organizations perform rather poor, because the way they think about organizing themselves does not correspondent with the aim and function of that organizational entity.

In the book Images of Organizations Gareth Morgan distinguishes eight basic metaphors or ways people communicate about an organization. They function as concepts as how to arrange coordination mechanisms in an association of purposeful coordination.

For a more detailed overview see, here or for a comprehensive mind map here.

  1.  Machines  – Some organizations could be dominantly organized as machines and conform the principles of scientific management like car companies. Efficiency is the dominant trait. But of course, there design departments should be organized differently.
  2. Organisms – Organizations could be dominantly organized as living organism who adapts themselves to the environment. The less fit organizations will not survive. It is a Social Darwinism conception of organizations.
  3. Brains– Organizations could be dominantly organized as brains. Those are “thinking companies” like consultancies and universities. They produce knowledge. It is all about how an organization handles information and learns.
  4. Cultures  – Organizations could be characterized as merely cultures. The employees are tied to each other by shared values, as for instance in church communities
  5. Political systems– Organizations could be described as a continuing fight about power and influence between employees and between departments. Many public organizations could be described by this metaphor.
  6. Psychic prisons – some organizations could be dominantly described as psychic prisons. The prisoners are bound to a reality within the borders of the prison, and do not have any knowledge about what is happening outside the walls.  Many privatized organizations have become psychic prisons for the former professional workers in it, as market demands conflicts with professional norms.
  7. Flux and transformation. The organization seems to have no structure, no coordination, and no goals at all. Many start-ups, pioneer and ad-hoc organizations could be described in terms of flow , spiritual transformation and business transformation
  8. Instruments of domination.  The organization could be interpreted as all about social oppression and exploitation of humans and natural resources.

The metaphors provide lenses by which we are able to see different and often not obvious aspects in a situation. In doing so, it enriches our perception on what is going on below the surface. This is similar to multi-focal thinking that we wrote about in an earlier blog post.

Photo “Stack Of Files” by Stuart Miles

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