Book Review: Images of Organization

by Joshua Millage

Images of Organization is a timeless business classic by the author Gareth Morgan. The thesis of his book is that all theories and concepts of organizations can be explained through images and metaphors. This descriptive process calls for the reader’s originality and imagination. Triggering an improvement in understanding and a new perspective into how an organization functions. 

Organizations as Machines: An Old School Perspective

 

            In the modern day, organizations that operate as machines are often called bureaucracies. And while a bureaucracy is often thought as an inefficient system, the image that the author is referring to is very much the opposite. The mechanized organization is one in which operates in a routinized, efficient, reliable and predictable way.

            The mechanical organization idea stems from “classical management theory” also known as “scientific management theory”.  In theory, these organization should run with no problems, however, the issue is that humans are not gears in a machine. Humans often operate in unpredictable and inefficient ways.

            Fredrick Taylor, the father of scientific management theory, gave five principles by which machine-like organizations are organized.

  1. Shift all responsibility for the organization of work from the worker to the manager.
  2. Use Scientific methods
  3. Select the best person to perform a given job
  4. Train the worker to be efficient
  5. Monitor the performance of the worker

One can see that this system provides strength in an organization where tasks are straightforward; the environment is stable, when an individual produces the same object over and over, where precision is key, and when humans behave properly. Organization’s like McDonalds are classic examples of how well this organizational structure can function. However, there are some limitations.

Mechanistically structured organizations have limitations because of the rigidity of the structure. They are not suited to take on change, which is often a result of having extreme amounts of bureaucracy. The most severe limitation is the dehumanizing effect that can happen for lower level employees.

Organization as Organisms: The Modern School of Thought

            Thinking about an organization as organisms often leads to one thinking of them as animals, or at least living systems. And just like some animals are better suited for various environments so are different organizations. For instance, bureaucratic organizations often work most effectively in environments that have stability, and experience little change. Whereas an open organization is a better fit for a fast-paced, changing environment.

            The concept that an organization is organism came out of a realization that employees are people. People have a wide range of complex needs, and these needs must be met to achieve the maximum amount of performance from the employee. In todays businesses it is hard for us to imagine ever seeing employee as anything but a person. However, before the Hawthorne studies on motivation, there was much resistance to anything, but the organization as a machine perspective.

            Along with the Hawthorne studies, a catalyst for changing the perspective or organizations came from Abraham Maslow, and his hierarchy of needs. After Maslow, a number of great psychologists began to uncover why bureaucratic organizational structures were not the best way to operate. This lead to many organizations creating a human resource departments which were to make sure that employees were given what they need to perform at their best. Out of the stream of thought came the “open system approach” to organizations, which was essentially an anti-bureaucratic organization theory.

            The major strength that this approach has is that emphasis is placed on the organization and how it interacts with its environment. Also, focusing on the necessities that an organization requires can develop management in these organizations. Above all the most powerful strength that this perspective has is that employees are humans and that each individual has a unique strength that should be harnessed for the betterment of the organization.

Organizations as Brains: The Future of Organization

            The future of organizations is captured in the metaphor of an organization as a brain. Future organizations will have to become learning organizations. This is becoming a priority because of the increased pace of change in all industries. An organization that is able to learn and evolve quickly will be able to survive better than those who are cannot.

            Management guru, Peter Drucker, said that the new economy is a “knowledge economy.” In this economy human intelligence, the ability to create, and insight are the most valuable resources an organization can have. The idea has become truer with the introduction of new information technologies that allow for knowledge and information to spread faster. The organizations that are able to think will be the ones who are most successful in this new economy.

Organization as Culture, Political Systems, and Psychic Prisons:

            The first three metaphors are the foundation in which the following metaphors stand. In organization as culture the author shows that the structure of an organization dictates the culture that the organization embraces. Mechanistic organizations have cultures that revolve around techniques of quantitative analysis. While more modern organizations have belief systems that hold rationality as a core value. The most important thing that the culture metaphor communicates is that the task of leaders and managers is to create a culture that pushes the organization to achieve its objectives.

            The metaphor of organizations as a political systems shows that politics are an inevitable in an organization. Whether good or bad it is part of the society that an organization creates. Understanding this allows one to see how organizational actions are based on the interests of those interacting within the organization.

            In the metaphor of organizations as psychic prisons the authors depicts how organizations can cause people to become “trapped in unsatisfactory modes of existence”.  This sections challenges leaders to dig deep and become aware of the rational and how it interacts with the irrational leading people to become unsatisfied with their roles in an organization. This section also shows how organizations have to pay close attention to the ethical dimension of their organization in order to keep the individuals from falling into psychic prisons.

Organizations as Instruments of Domination: The Dark Side

            Organizations have the ability to become tools of domination and ultimately that is the goal of the owners and leaders of the organization. The author shows that this has the potentially to hurt society when organizations do things the wrong way. Organizations can negatively impact their employees, the environment, and domestic and foreign culture if the goals that they set out to accomplish only take into account profitability and corporate growth.

Analysis:

I believe that the significance that the author is seeking to covey is showing that change in the new economy in inevitable and that we should try to understand its logic. He states in the chapter 8 that western culture is obsessed with predicting the future, and to do so we need to understand the origins of change and how to predict when change is going to happen. This goal maybe a psychic prison itself, if we can never accomplish it, and if so we need to move one and learn how to operate with change affecting how we do things.

While I believe that the author is talking about how change affects organizations I ultimately believe that his focus is using metaphors to help individuals see things from new and fresh perspectives. In chapter 11 he states, “Learn how to generate, integrate, and use insights of competing metaphors. Use them to understand and shape situations that you are seeking to organize and manage.” I think that this is what is most significant about this book, that the various organizations are captured in metaphor and then juxtaposed so that the reader can process them in a way that allows them to create their own meaning from the text. The book shows the reader that organizations can take many shapes and forms, and that each has it strengths and limitations. It is up to reader to takeaway which one will be effective in their time. In the process of doing this the reader make the authors words timeless.

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