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Metaphors

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Metaphors
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Beliefs about the way the world works influence what people do and can imagine doing. They open up or close down possible courses of action, which depend on ‘how you see things’. Metaphor is a way of illuminating our thinking about the world, as Gareth Morgan has shown with particular clarity in the world of organisations.

Designed systems

We have become used to the language of mechanical systems when we talk of organisational behaviour - cogs and leverage, re-design and

re-engineering. The hierarchical structure of most organisations reflects this. At the top of a pyramid are the designers: the Chief Executive and the board, responsible for identifying the goals of the organisation and ways of achieving them. At the bottom are the operational workers, responsible for ‘playing their part’. Between these levels are managers, oiling the wheels - transmitting information up and down, identifying problems, proposing and then implementing solutions, and monitoring the outcomes.

This management practice is based on scientific ideas that have increased our understanding of the world by analysing wholes into their component parts. The ‘messes’ and complexity of organisational life are broken down into a series of manageable problems and tackled separately.

Behaviour in a designed system of this sort is sequential - analysis, planning, action and review that occur one after another, feeding into further cycles. Policy and strategy are separated from implementation. The parts of a designed system can be separated, standardised, optimised and re-assembled to improve the efficiency of the whole.

Living Systems

How do we understand organisations if we think of them as living systems - if the words that come to mind are evolution, adaptation, autonomy, purposefulness?

These words suggest a different sort of pattern of organisation - the web or network that underpins living processes. They remind us of the capacity of living systems to self-organise. We know that we may intervene by planting a seed or pruning a diseased part, but we know that whether it grows or heals is not our doing but a manifestation of its own expression of life.

This metaphor is enriched by a detailed understanding of the nature of Complex, adaptive, living systems.

The use of this metaphor leads to the use of a wide range of ways of intervening in networks of organisations, which have in common a set of underlying principles.

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