Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Images of Organization

When I was in college I took several classes in organizational behavior, design, policy, and in particular one in organizational theory. In the organizational theory class we spent a majority of our time studying and discussing various metaphors that could be used to study how organizations are structured and run. For example we studied various metaphor interpretations such as organizations as machines, organisms, brains, cultures, political systems, psychic prisons, flux and transformation, and domination.[1] Essentially the premise of the class was to define each metaphor in depth and discuss what types of organizations fall into each. Finally we spent a fair amount of time studying the sort of strategies a company in the mold of each metaphor might employ.

Throughout the course I always felt we were always trying to force a company into a metaphor and that this square peg into a round hole approach was perhaps an ineffective way of lumping organizations together into groups just for the sake of studying them and how they might react. Often times I would hear my peers make arguments that mechanical organizations would always try to lead their industries in cost effectiveness due to their rigid nature. Someone might argue that organizations as political systems would be more devoted to corporate social responsibility or that organizations as cultures might be happier places to work than psychic prisons etc.

What I took from all of this was simple. How effective is this system? We use things like metaphors and generalizations as an outside the box way of explaining and understanding how organizations work. But in the process do we actually pigeon hole ourselves into thinking a certain way about an organization after that point? I often found students saying the same things about different organizations in the same metaphor. But organizations change directions all the time, shift in and out of markets and are constantly looking for an edge. Is it really an effective method of studying and making predictions about organizations by referring to them in an interesting but constraining way?

[1] Know Your Enemy: Learning about Security Threats. 2nd ed. Boston: Addison-Wesley, 2004. Print.

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