Using Metaphor to Describe Organizations


Metaphor (definition): a figure of speech in which one thing is spoken of as if it is another (e.g.,  all the world's a stage; K.C. is the heart of America; NYC is the big apple).

Metaphor is for most people a device of the poetic imagination and of rhetorical flourish--a matter of extraordinary rather than ordinary language. Moreover, metaphor is typically viewed as characteristic of language alone, a matter of words rather than thought or action. For this reason, most people think they can get along perfectly well without metaphor. Metaphor is pervasive in everyday life, not just in language but in thought and action.  Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature. 

Different metaphors constitute and capture the nature of organizational life in different ways, each generating powerful, distinctive, but essentially partial kinds of insight. New metaphors may be used to create new ways of viewing organizations which overcome the weaknesses and blind spots of traditional metaphors. ( Gareth Morgan’s book, Images of Organizations, New Burry Park, CA: Sage, 1986, offers metaphor as a powerful tool for organizational analysis.)

Metaphors help us to convey what we are describing more richly. When using a metaphor, we refer to something as if it is something else or is like something else. The similarity brings to mind for the listener certain attributes and brings the description to life. In everyday speech, we use many colorful metaphors. Business talk is peppered with sports, military, and nautical metaphors.  All metaphor have a dreamlike quality: diffuse and ephemeral.

There are some common traditional metaphors for organizations, such as the one from the structural frame "an organization is a machine, with carefully integrated parts," or "the organization is a living organism, with a nucleus and permeable boundaries"  which  might describe all human relationship which by definition constantly grow and change or sometimes die. These traditional metaphors capture well the "old" view of organizational forms. To think more creatively about the "new" organizational form, we will need some new metaphors. It can be difficult to describe in a rich yet concise way what the new organizational form looks like and to convey it to someone when we think we have seen it. A new metaphor might help. What are some new metaphors for the new organizational form? Often the metaphor of a network is used, to suggest the multiple directions and dimensions of relationships that contrast to the traditional pyramid with one-way, top-to-bottom lines of control. New metaphors may help liberate our thinking about organizations. Old metaphors can constrain it. Some metaphors become very familiar, to the point we forget that they were metaphorical to start with. For example, we refer to "chain stores" quite naturally. When the term "chain" was first used, the image that was prompted was literally a chain, a "flexible series of joined links." This image captures well how a chain of department stores, such as Wal-Mart, typically functioned. Chain stores used to be bound together (they may have relied upon the same advertising campaign) and depended upon their linkages to each other for success (the chain metaphor reminds us of the saying, "a chain is only as strong as its weakest link" and the importance of standardization across the chain for this reason). Today Wal-Mart is struggling to unlink stores so each can reflect the unique culture of its community.

Metaphors, like frames, can limit what we see and how we think if we do not reexamine the metaphor periodically. In contrast to the chain metaphor we may need new metaphors to describe new possibilities for how related organizations link. There is much recent focus on flexible customization of products to serve the buying patterns of different local groups of customers (that is, stores in different cities stock different types and amounts of products). Some alternative metaphors for chain stores convey very different conceptions of organizations and provide a starting point for thinking creatively and critically about alternatives. What might these metaphors be! Metaphors such as brains, neural networks, or satellites may be helpful. A satellite metaphor suggests independent organizations circling in their own orbit, although they retain a notion of a central entity around which the satellite moves (like a central headquarters). This metaphor may work for some groups of stores with strong central planning (perhaps like Wal-Mart). A network metaphor may suggest that the nodes in the network are more equal and there is no center, an alternative depiction that might capture more loosely linked groups of stores (perhaps like independently owned franchises).

Some attempts to describe metaphorically are actually "similes" which use the word "like" or "as." "An organization is a machine" is a metaphor. "An organization is like a machine" is a simile. For the purposes of describing organizational forms creatively, the two terms are often used interchangeably. But they are different. for example we say KC is the heart of America, not like a heart.


Several features of metaphors--they are evocative, partial, elastic, and informative in their limit--are discussed below.


A metaphor is used when we want to describe a complex Thing A by likening it to a more familiar, vivid, or tangible Thing B. Thing A may be difficult to describe on its own terms without some colorful and evocative reference to Thing B. It is difficult to describe the social world. When we read Shakespeare's "All the world's a stage" (the example of metaphor used in the dictionary), we think about all the world (a complex Thing A) by thinking about some specific traits of the stage (Thing B). Thus, the world is a place where people play roles, use certain weI1-rehearsed scripts, act self-consciously as if they know people are watching, try to set a mood, and experience the ups and downs of drama. All these features are conveyed in the shorthand metaphor of the stage. Spelling out the features of the metaphor helps us to understand what we learn from the metaphor.


A metaphor captures only some of the features of what we are describing. For example, when we say, "That person fights like a tiger," we refer to the strength and tenacity of the person (an example from Morgan, 1986). Our descriptive use of "tiger" evokes certain traits. We do not mean to say that the person has stripes and four legs. Nor do we mean to say we have captured everything about the person by using the metaphor. Because the metaphor is partial, we leave out those non-tiger-like things about the person, who may also be a gentle storyteller. Because metaphors are partial, we sometimes need many metaphors to convey richly and more completely what we are describing.

To be most helpful a metaphor should be neither too far from nor too close to the thing being described. For example, if we say, "an organization is like a paper clip," this metaphor may be too abstract and distant to be helpful (although one could try!). However, if we pick something too close--"an organization is like an accounting department" or "an organization is like an assembly plant'-we are almost being tautological ("an organization is like an organization"). These metaphors are not "partial enough"; there are too many traits in common for them to spur creative thinking.


Playing with a metaphor makes it more useful. We might describe an organization as being like an organism. As such, it has to adapt to its environment, finding the right resource niche in which to flourish. What else comes to mind when we play with the organism idea? Each organ or part has a specific function; when all the organs function together, the whole is healthy and productive. By further extending this metaphor of function and health, we can raise some provocative ideas about what the analogy of illness might mean. Illness might mean it is time to eliminate the problem area (like removing tonsils). Or illness can be an opportunity for diagnosis, feedback, and improvement (as when stress indicates that a person's regimen should be changed). The idea of "illness" or "failure" as an opportunity for learning in an organization is a provocative idea that has gotten a fair amount of attention in the academic and business press. Such ideas can be brought to life by taking a metaphor and playing with it. Knowing the details of the metaphor helps in this process (i.e., knowing more about organisms reveals places to play with the metaphor. Philosophers use the term "analogic reasoning" to describe the process of understanding something by playing with a metaphor for it.

Informative in Its Limits

At some point, playing with a metaphor reveals where it breaks down because metaphors are partial. Penicillin can cure a fever, but there may be no such wonder drug for organizational woes, precisely because organizations are not organisms literally. There are no reliable chemical interactions that occur in response to an intervention because people in complex relationships inhabit organizations. They do not respond as predictably as chemical systems. However, even where a metaphor breaks down, there are lessons to learn. Precisely the fact that there is no organizational analogy to the wonder drug can make people think more critically about easy remedies that are offered for organizational problems.


The world of business is full of metaphors. Some common metaphors include sports, military ("marching to the same tune") and nautical ("rescuing a sinking ship") images. Metaphors serve as a shorthand, to convey a picture or image. As such, metaphors are more useful to those who are in the know about the metaphor. Much has been written about the danger of metaphors in a diverse community in which people do not always share the same points of reference. Two examples are offered below, regarding gender diversity and international diversity. These examples remind us that metaphors may need to be spelled out and clarified in order to be widely useful and helpful.

Metaphors and Gender Diversity

The widespread use of sports metaphors in business has been given scrutiny as more women have entered the workforce, some of whom may not have been socialized to the language of sports. Sports metaphors abound in business talk, as might be expected. They are colorful, action-oriented, motivational words and usually have an incisive meaning. One neutral sports phrase can communicate a world of meaning (to receptive men) without forcing the speaker to long explanations or loaded words. If a male manager calmly and smilingly remarks to a male subordinate, "I like to think I'm the quarterback," he communicates volumes, depending on the context. He is saying any or all these things: "Watch out. You're stepping out of bounds. You're forgetting who's the boss. You've argued enough for your viewpoint, now drop it! I've heard you but I've made the decision. I know you might get hurt as a result of this action but do the best you can under the circumstances and you'll probably be okay." "There are good reasons why I’m paid so much more."

The male subordinate could laugh good-naturedly, and say, "it was worth a try," and leave the office, their relationship unimpaired because none of the explosive words were ever said. They understood each other; they spoke each other's language. The same complacent comment made to a woman subordinate might be greeted with a blank stare or a flippant, "So?" The consequences of a misunderstood metaphor can be great. One challenge of an increasingly diverse workforce will be to educate each other in the metaphors that we use and to expand the base of shared metaphors.

Metaphors in the Global Business World

The pitfalls of using metaphors in international business transactions are highlighted in a passage peppered with some favorite, taken-for-granted sports metaphors. Most of us [native speakers of American English] do not stop to realize how many of our metaphors come right off the playing field. . . . No matter how avid a golfer or baseball fan your foreign counterpart is, American sports terminology is still likely to leave him out in left field. Asking for a ballpark figure rarely gets you to first base. Aces, end runs, slam dunks, and playing for all the marbles are not worldwide business maneuvers. One U.S. firm lost a client simply by remarking, "This is a whole new ball game." The client did not consider the discussion a game. These two examples of using sports metaphors remind us that a metaphor makes sense from a particular vantage point. A full understanding of organizational forms and processes may require: (1) sharing and trying out many different metaphors, (2) making the meanings behind metaphors more explicit, and (3) understanding the metaphors that other people take for granted in planning their everyday approach to organizational issues.


The discussion above pointed to metaphors in everyday business that are used as shorthand for a whole variety of situations, strategies, and transactions. This paper emphasizes how metaphors can be used to describe an entire organization. As organizations change their constituent parts and their boundaries with other organizations, metaphors can capture these new forms and relationships. For example, the machine metaphor suggests that an organization is a self-sufficient, standalone entity, requiring inputs and producing outputs. The network metaphor depicts a web of relationships among multiple autonomous subunits of an organization, or a relationship among many organizations, such as between start-up biotechnology companies engaged in joint ventures; the flow of inputs, outputs, ideas, and approaches can be traced around the network, Many metaphors for organizations have flourished in social science research on organizations. Some examples of organizations as machines, organisms, chains, networks have been introduced above. Some other examples of metaphors include the following (summarized in Morgan).

1. Cybernetic systems. These metaphors were popular in the 1960s as the field of cybernetics flourished. This metaphor encourages us to view organizations as "patterns of information." Negative feedback in this pattern can be a source of learning about how to keep the overall system in homeostatic balance.

2. Loosely coupled systems. This metaphor emphasizes that the pieces fit together quite loosely (e.g., the organizational chart is only loosely related to how people really act). This metaphor is meant explicitly to counter the image of the machine metaphor that portrays organizations as tidy, efficient, well-coordinated, tightly coupled systems. Its central idea is that loose coupling is a good thing, not a problem to be fixed, and allows the organization some slack with which to be creative and adaptive. One piece can change without all the others having to be retooled.

3. Population ecology. This metaphor says that organizations should be studied, not one at a time, but in groups or populations. Populations of animals have weaker and stronger members. Populations of animals compete with populations of other animals for resources in order to survive. This metaphor has been used to explain the forces that affect the survival and growth of entire populations of organizations (for example, examining the birth and death of local newspapers in an entire region, instead of considering one newspaper alone). This metaphor emphasizes that changes in an organization's environment can cause it to be "selected against" (an evolutionary biology concept), even despite its attempts to "adapt."

4. Theater. This metaphor suggests that organizational life involves a series of performances. People learn how to put on different faces. Organizational actors may play multiple roles in different settings (in one setting the assertive team member, in another the attentive trainee, in another the dominant supervisor, in another the deferential subordinate). Researchers who have played with this metaphor emphasize that sometimes the conflict of roles can cause stress.

5. Architecture. This metaphor emphasizes how an architect puts together the elements of a building--its purpose, the structural materials available, and any new innovations in style and aesthetics--so that they fit well together. As any of these elements change, so do the ways in which they can be fit together to create an architectural design. The architecture metaphor can be extended to raise some interesting issues. For example, new architectural possibilities, such as the creation of high-rise buildings, have necessitated new auxiliary systems, such as the development of elevators or heating and air conditioning systems. These systems are called "collateral technologies." They are another element that must be fit into the whole to create a pleasing and coherent space. This metaphor urges us to think about similar instances where new organizational designs such as the use of teamwork may necessitate new "collateral technologies." What might teamwork necessitate? Answers range from team meeting rooms to new procedures for evaluating team performance to new ways of rotating team roles when members go on leave. How will these new elements fit together into a coherent and well-balanced overall design?

6. Lean and mean. This metaphor for the changing shape of organizations is evocative of a fit, focused, athletic competitor. It is interesting that this metaphor has gained currency in the United States as the passion for fitness is escalating. Old organizational metaphors emphasized the importance of "buffers" or "slack" in organizations; for example, companies in the United States tended to have large inventories. "Fat city" was a good place to be. The positive view of slack has turned into a negative view of excess baggage. The lean idea follows from the implementation of some principles of "just in time" management, which discourages large buffers because they obscure where the underlying problems or bottlenecks may be. ("Just in time" management uses an interesting metaphor to convey this point: "You can see the rocks in the river only at the points where the river flow is most shallow.") The lean metaphor has been extended as an approach to human resource management as companies "shed" workers (a word evocative of "shedding" pounds to become lean). Whether leanness with respect to labor is a good thing remains a subject of debate. Critics highlight the problems of using a "lean and mean" approach to human resource management, including the strain on employees who survive layoffs but feel overtaxed and put in marathon hours. It is one thing to have a "lean and mean" game of tennis; it is quite another to approach staffing in a mean manner, and here the ways that the metaphor breaks down may be food for thought.


Other metaphors address organizational processes. They describe activities that take place in organizations and give organizations their character. The theater metaphor is an example of a metaphor for organizational processes. So is the cybernetic systems metaphor, inasmuch as it emphasizes a process like learning from negative feedback. Metaphors for organizational processes are used more commonly in the political frame and the cultural perspective on organizations. Indeed, perspectives on organizations as polities or as cultures are both broad metaphors for organizational processes. You will recall that the metaphor of the organization as a political system reminds us to think about political strategies, competing political actors with different interests and agendas, and negotiations between actors. This metaphor reminds us to consider who in the organization has power, how they wield that power, and how the relatively less powerful might respond. A political perspective might use the metaphor of warring medieval fiefdoms, each with their own lord and loyal followers trying to curry favor, in order to bring to life the problems of political squabbles and their contrast to well-behaved, rational bureaucracies. You will also remember that the metaphor of the organization as a cultural sys-tem brings to mind some aspects of how anthropologists study societies. We can look at organizations as being like tribes, with their own stories and rituals. Indeed, in the 1980s, it was popular to think of organizations as "families," with cultural activities that created bonds among employees. This metaphor began to break down as people resisted the idea that organizations should command that much time (e.g., going to company picnics on weekends) and as people began to see that the bonds of loyalty were nor as strong as the family metaphor implied (e.g., companies began to lay people off, a form of exiling people from the family or community). Continued use of an outdated metaphor can a powerful tool for disparaging talk about organizational experience. "This used to be a family!"


People with different metaphors may approach organizational problems quite differently. People may not be conscious of the metaphor that they implicitly favor. Nonetheless, a metaphor may guide the way they instinctively pursue a problem. Even if their analysis of the problem and its solution is carefully bolstered by data, there may be other angles of the problem that they do nor even consider, because it is outside the purview of their working metaphor. Consider a simple example. A customer calls with a complaint about slow delivery service. One employee, Chris, may see the organization as a machine and will think about how to improve the flow of products from manufacturing to shipping. Chris will look for friction or blockage in the machine that clogs up the smooth flow; perhaps new equipment is needed or a better tracking system. An-other employee, Lee, may see the organization as a free-for-all political contest and will try to figure out who stands to gain the most politically by championing the cause of this customer. Lee may try to convince an ambitious subordinate to expedite the customer's shipment. Chris and Lee may conflict in their approaches, because they are building on different metaphors. Chris may wonder why Lee is not getting to the technical root of the problem, and Lee may wonder why Chris is creating a new layer of bureaucracy. Because so much is at stake, it is important to understand one another's metaphors. Moreover, the most complete organizational analysis will require playing with multiple metaphors and gathering together the questions and issues that each metaphor raises.


Playing with metaphors can be a useful learning exercise. First, it is good to be aware of the metaphors in use around you and to understand what they guide you to see and where they might be constraining. Second, it is helpful to try out new metaphors in the process of thinking about new organizational forms. Third, it is helpful analytically to tackle new metaphors that you encounter in your work or in the business press, to extend them, to see what new conceptions they point to, and to understand their limits or the concerns they raise. Fourth, drawing upon multiple metaphors enriches organization analyses.

Adapted and parts copied from "New Organizational Forms," Managing for the Future. Cincinnati: South-Western, 1996.