Thursday, 16 August 2012

Using metaphors to explain and shape Organisational culture

The expression “organisational culture” was for the first time used by Pettigrew in the late 1970s (Pettigrew, 1979), ever since a number of approaches have indeed been developed and adopted by different academics and practitioners to investigate, assess and review corporate culture. The largest part of these approaches can be essentially classified into two main different groupings: those who explain organisational culture having recourse to metaphors and those who see organisational culture as an “objective entity” (Thornhill et al, 2000).

Using metaphors actually represents a fascinating and to some extent unconventional, original way to approach organisational culture, definitely worth the efforts it requires. In general, metaphors are used to provide emphasis or originality to a concept or a particular aspect of an idea which the speaker wants to express. Phrases like “life is a game” and “the world is a stage” clearly represent expressions by means of which the speaker aims at drawing the recipient attention to the circumstance that in life one can either win or lose or that sometimes people have to act as on a stage. Defining the world as just the world, for instance, would definitely be boring, flat and static (Morgan, 1998).
The scope of using metaphors can however be more comprehensive; metaphors can be in fact seen as a process by means of which people explain and try to understand a phenomenon on the basis of their precedent experience related to a different phenomenon, or in the Morgan’s words “to understand one element of experience in terms of another” (Morgan, 1998).

One of the most typical benefits provided by metaphors is indeed that to help their users to approach complex issues and explain these in a simpler way, ultimately providing meaning to phenomena whose interpretation is not so immediately obvious (Morgan, 1996). This process shows to be particularly effectual because metaphors usually attract individual attention to their most important elements and characteristics (Dickmeyer, 1989).

Metaphors also show to be particularly useful to put order and clarity in those circumstances dominated by vagueness and dubiety, “the more ambiguous a situation is, the more important metaphors become for ordering the situation and making sense of our organisational experience” (Boland and Greenberg, 1988).

Metaphor basically is the result of each individual imagination, of what an individual notices the most or wants to emphasise the most; different individuals can thus represent the same phenomenon having recourse to different metaphors according to the different viewpoint. Indeed, the same individual might potentially use a different metaphor, at different times, to represent the same occurrence depending on his/her changing feeling and state of mind.

Multiple or even inconsistent metaphors relating to the same phenomenon actually prove the metaphor tendency to focus on different aspects or nuances of the same circumstance (Lakoff and Johnson, 1980). The fact that different individuals may use diverse metaphors to describe the same organisation can be hence deemed as absolutely normal, considering that one organisation can be seen or can be perceived in different ways at the same moment by different individuals (Morgan, 1998). The change of metaphors or the introduction of new ones basically express a different, altered perception of how a particular phenomenon is perceived or experienced.

Many individuals use metaphors to describe the image and feeling they have about their organisation. These metaphors also influence the way individuals treat the information they receive, insofar as it can be said that conflicts within organisations are often caused by people holding different metaphor about their organisation. Each person is also likely to behave according to his/her own metaphor (Hamburger and Itzhayek, 1998). By means of metaphors, after all, employees give meaning to their organisation (Smircich, 1987) and can practically express their feeling, not always necessarily positive, in an illustrative and imaginary fashion. Businesses dominated by high level of internal competition become thus “battlefields”, those where a climate of suspicion dominates “spy rings” or “secret police forces” (Hamburger and Itzhayek, 1998) and those where things are perceived by individuals going pretty bad “sinking ships” or more recently “Costa Concordia.”

Findings of a study carried out by Gibson and Zellmer-Bruhn (1998, 2001) revealed that in order to promote teamwork, organisations have very often recourse to figures of speech inspired to the world of sport, insofar as they identified the work-team-as-sports-team metaphor.

At Eastman Chemical, for instance, managers are called “coaches”; at Wilson Corporation, teams having progressed the most in term of process improvement are awarded during the annual reward and recognition dinner: gold, silver and bronze achievement medals.

At Sabre Inc. North America, where figurative language is clearly inspired by cycling, the team training programme is called “Tour de teams.” Teams, passing through different milestones, progress along a route of programmes where the leading team is awarded the “yellow jersey” (Gibson and Zellmer-Bruhn, 1998, 2001).

The use of metaphors and figurative language is actually constantly growing. Also the John-Lewis partnership can be indeed considered as a metaphor where every employee is not called in fact employee but partner just to stress and foster the idea that each member of the partnership is deeply involved in the running of the business, in its success and, eventually, misfortune.

Organisations as culture metaphor
Morgan (2006), who arguably is the most authoritative advocate of the use of metaphors, maintains that organisational culture is a living phenomenon which has to be intended as a continuous, conscious process aiming at creating meaning and better communicating and sharing organisational vision; whereas cultural metaphors help employers to shape reality (Morgan, 1996).

As stressed by Gerritsen (2006), metaphors provide to organisations and individuals “a sense of direction, history and values.”

Albeit it would prove to be a pointless exercise trying to discern good from bad cultures; as a general rule, a good approach to develop and shape a consistent and effective organisational culture should aim at establishing a cohesive and unifying culture on the basis of the firm shared values, beliefs and ideas consistent with the ideal and adequate focus of the business (Peter and Waterman, 2006).

Metaphors as such may help explaining what the most important objective of corporate culture is (Morgan, 2006): quality, customers, staff or what else? Imaginary figures basically help employers to put the message across and share reality, very often by means of short slogans or mission statements summarising the meaning and values behind them. Examples of slogans expressing organisational shared values are “IBM means service”, “Never kill a new idea – 3M, “Sell it to the sales staff” – HP (Morgan, 2006).

The metaphor organisations as culture, hence, help business leaders to create a vision enabling them to identify and show a clear direction to attain organisational objectives, which followers can understand and ultimately evaluate (Morgan, 2006).

The circumstance an organisation has a clear direction means that it has a pre-identified plan and that its execution is constantly monitored in order to find out whether divergences occur and eventually take appropriate action to redress the navigation route. This approach is even more valuable whether changes of route need to deliberately be operated. In such circumstances the cooperation of everybody is clearly of paramount importance and figurative language can practically help business leaders to effectively communicate with followers and make them understand the importance of cohesiveness and unity (Van Engen, 2008).

As for the process culture unfolds, Morgan (1997) posits that it is essentially developed and shaped by the organisations’ members. The Author, however, acknowledges the existence of a certain relationship between organisations and their environment, and maintains that the link between an organisation and its environment is socially constructed and that “our environments are extensions of ourselves.” Practically, employers arrange and organise businesses environments as they organise their internal operations; “the beliefs and ideas that organisations hold about who they are, what they are trying to do, and what their environment is like have a much greater tendency to realise themselves than usually believed” (Morgan, 1997).

Rather similarly, Weick (1979) maintains that, to the development of organisational culture, the context plays an important and remarkable role.

Closer to Morgan’s position, Able and Sementelli (2005) suggest that organisational culture varies continuously by reason of the changed behaviour of all of the individuals concerned. Additionally, they consider that these changes cannot either be anticipated or controlled by employers.

Differences in the process throughout which organisational culture develops notwithstanding, there is a widespread agreement on the idea that corporate culture is shaped and improved by means of figures of speech.

Business leaders clearly aim all at shaping and developing quality culture, but a problem remains on how to measure it. Culture cannot be measured in a scale because it essentially is a form of lived experience (Morgan, 1997), but it can be assumed that a quality culture is actually attained when a positive morale amongst leaders and followers is noticed. Metaphors support organisational culture clarifying all the different concepts associated with this and enabling conceptual comparisons so that the value of the idea behind each metaphor is clearly identified. When a relevant number of individuals within the business correctly associates the idea of the organization with its metaphor, which entails that the concept has been understood, this means that a healthier environment has been realised (Van Engen, 2008).

Effectively mastering figurative language can help both managers and leaders to improve their creativity and better make understand employees the different facets associated with organisational life (Morgan, 1986).

Despite Morgan (2006) posits that metaphors influence the way individuals perceive and forms their opinions about values and beliefs, he also maintains that manipulation within the working place produces negative effects over individuals. In order to explain this idea and the way organisational culture can exert control over an organisation missing to reflect “human character”, Morgan resorts to the metaphor of “corporate newspeak”, which lead to resentment, mistrust and hence resistance.

Constant growing interest for figurative language notwithstanding, Pinder and Bourgeois (1982) have expressed some reservations about the use of metaphors in organisational studies, more in particular for fear that business scholars could be derailed from the domain of organisational experience they aim at investigating and knowing. Smircich (1983), who recognises the validity of the warning launched by these Authors, however, suggests that rather than avoiding figures of speech, efforts should be directed at critically investigating and examining the way human thinking is actually influenced and constrained by its choice of metaphors.

The most widely used metaphors over the years
There are indeed many ways to represent organisations by means of metaphors. Yet, the same metaphors can be interpreted in a different way according to the features or aspects individuals want to emphasise the most when having recourse to figures of speech to depict their organisation. Amongst them the most widely used are the following:

Organisations as machines
This metaphor, spread during the industrial revolution, basically aims at underscoring the importance of organisational structure and efficiency (Morgan, 1980).

Organisation like a machine metaphor is mostly used by managers when they want to express the idea of their units “running smoothly as a well-oiled machine” (Pondy and Mitroff, 1979; Morgan, 1980 and Koch and Deetz, 1981). The concept associated with this metaphor is not necessarily positive. Morgan (1998), for instance, deems Frederick the Great of Prussia the one who, in practice, firstly used this model in that he organised his army as a model of mechanistic organisation where Prussian soldiers, in a consistent fashion with the “scientific management” approach developed later by Frederick Taylor (1856 – 1915), should fear their own army officers more than their enemy.

Ideas usually associated with this figure of speech are: efficiency, order, standardisation, measurement and control, power source, breakdowns and repairs (Koch and Deetz, 1981).

Organisations as organisms
In the 1970s the image mostly used by managers to describe their organisation was that of organisation as an organism. Indeed, this metaphor is actually prone to be interpreted in several ways too. Clancy (1989), for instance, associates this conceptualisation with the aim to represent organisations as having life and purpose of their own, whereas other Authors link this metaphor to the challenges faced by the organisation to compete and survive in their ever-changing and evolving market, which in case of failure can lead to death (Lawrence and Lorch, 1967; Burns and Stalker, 1961; Henry and Sutton, 1986).

Concepts typical of this metaphor are: adaptation, life cycles, needs, evolution, survival, health and illness (Yousefi, 2005).

Organisations as brains
The metaphor of organisations as brain was developed by Morgan (1997) to emphasise the complex activities carried out by organisations. Brains generate ideas and thoughts and store data which are made available when required. Yet, the brain is a never idle, ever-changing and evolving organ. Brains work and are creative even during rest (Van Engen, 2008). The term brainstorming is actually associated and developed with the use of this figure of speech.

Ideas usually associated with the organisations as brain metaphor are: learning, processing, mindset, intelligence, feedback, knowledge and networks.

Organisations as political systems
Despite politics was originally intended as a process enabling groups of people to find agreement on controversial subjects where conflicting interests needed to be set and was, hence, essentially considered as a process aiming at creating unity and cohesion, this metaphor actually has not a positive inference (Hamburger and Itzhayek, 1998).

The reference, here, is in fact to the authoritarian approach used by managers at employees’ expenses, who on the other hand complain that their managers do not listen to them.

The concepts more widely associated with this metaphor are: interests and rights, hidden agenda and backroom deals, alliances, party-line and censorship (Yousefi, 2005).

Organisations as psychic prison
This metaphor, which has gained a particular relevance with regard to change management, was developed by Morgan (2006) to stress the relevance which unconscious influences play within organisations. The reference is to the serious risk managers run, because of unconscious factors, to remain literally trapped or imprisoned in their own way of thinking (Renz, 2009). In the words of Morgan “the last thing a fish is likely to discover is the water it is swimming in” (Morgan, 2006).

With particular reference to change management applications, Morgan (2006) stresses the importance for managers to recognise the need for change in order to gain their full support to successfully implement it. Enabling business leaders and managers to identify both rational and irrational behaviour toward change, the psychic prison metaphor creates the right environment to viable change and innovation (Renz, 2009).

Amongst the other culture-based organisational metaphors developed over the years it is worth mentioning also the: master detective (Manning, 1979), militarism (Garsombke, 1987), drama and family (Smith and Eisenberg, 1987), mistress and symphony orchestra (Clancy, 1989), jazz band and missionaries (Aking and Schultheiss, 1990) metaphors.

Longo, R., (2012), Using metaphors to explain and shape Organisational culture; Milan: HR Professionals [online].