All theories are metaphors

I have been invited to write a piece on the topic of 'Design and form: Organizational' for the 2nd edition of Elseviers Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences. As I said in a previous blog piece on the topic 'The chapters are intended to summarize the state of current knowledge on the subject, draw links to other subjects, and explain major directions for developing new knowledge.'

Aiming to describe the current state of 'knowledge' of organization design and form is problematic as it implies there is generally accepted agreement on it. This is not the case, partly because 'knowledge' is context driven – what we know in one situation may not hold true in another, and partly because 'knowledge' is interpreted through the meaning-making processes of the 'knower'. An academic in the field of organization design and form will have a very different 'state of current knowledge' from the line manager struggling with the poor performance of his/her department, or the shareholder anxiously watching an organization's share price rise or fall.

Beyond this difficulty with the word 'knowledge' the word 'current' state' suggests that there has been a past state of knowledge that is 'true' and a future state of knowledge that could be predicted or at least guessed at, and a current state that is 'now'. Taking the idea that the state of past knowledge on the subject of organizational design and form could be articulated is similar to taking the idea that history can be told as a unified story. But as John Arnold explains in his book History, A Very Short Introduction

'Historians cannot tell every story from the past … there are many more things that could be said … Historians inevitably decide which things can or should be said.' He makes the point that 'history is true in that it must agree with the evidence, the facts that it calls upon … at the same time it is an interpretation, placing these facts within a wider context or narrative. … The past itself is not a narrative. In its entirety, it is as chaotic, unco-ordinated, and complex as life. History is about making sense of that mess, finding or creating patterns and meanings and stories from the maelstrom.'

So it is with organization design and form. Organizations are 'maelstroms' but until the early 1990s organizational theory was predominantly rooted in an (open) systems perspective (e.g. Katz and Kahn 1978) which led to a view that in order to function effectively they needed 'fit', 'congruence', 'alignment' and 'equilibrium' between various organizational components (e.g. Lawrence and Lorsch 1967). Common models underpinning this open systems theory of organization include Galbraith's Star Model, Nadler and Tushman's 1977 congruence model (see reference at end), and McKinsey's 7-S model.

Challenging the prevailing open systems perspective Gareth Morgan (1997) in his book Images of Organization presented eight images (metaphors) of organization: as machines (the systems perspective), organisms, cultures, brains, psychological prisons, instruments of domination, flux and transformation and political systems. Each one of these offers a multiplicity of ways and related theories in which to interpret an organization. For example, as he explains in his article 'Reflections on Images of Organization and Its Implications for Organization and Environment'.

'When you view organizations as brains, you find yourself thinking about information processing systems, learning capacities and disabilities, right and left brain intelligence, holographic capacity distribution, and a host of images that can take a brain-like thinking beyond the spongy mass of material that comprises an actual brain.'

It seems to me that the eight generative metaphors that Morgan presents are reasonable proxies for the 'state of current knowledge' about organization design and form. We can see each in the work of competing academics and practitioners. Each metaphor offers a path to theory construction and each a set of practitioner tools and intervention approaches. On this basis the state of current knowledge on organization design and form is fragmented: there are many competing positions and contested theories each with adherents and detractors.

The value of recognizing that there is no unifying theory (or practice) of organization design and form (in the same way that one can recognize that there are different perspectives and interpretations of history, even given the 'facts') is that it 'shows the inherent incompleteness of any particular point of view.' As Morgan remarks holding only one perspective as 'a way of seeing becomes a way of not seeing; and that any attempt to understand the complex nature of organizations (as with any other complex subject) always requires an open and pluralistic approach based on the interplay of multiple perspectives.'

The idea of 'multiple perspectives' of organization design and form is brought alive by the use of metaphor and storytelling – the latter much as historian John Arnold demonstrates – to present, interpret and make meaning of a variety of states of current 'knowledge'.

This approach was demonstrated in the Organizational Design Community's 2013 Annual Conference. As Alan Meyer reported participants there (I was not present) 'faced the challenge of making organization design knowledge actionable'. In his useful article Emerging Assumptions About Organization Design, Knowledge And Action on the conference, he comments 'my overall assessment is that design oriented scholars are in the process of shifting from one integrated set of assumptions to another somewhat more amorphous set of assumptions.' He arrived at this assessment by listening to conference participants telling their various stories.

He presents three tables that illustrate the shift in assumptions. The first table considers established versus emerging assumptions about organization design, the second table shows established and emerging assumptions about design knowledge, and the third presents established and emerging assumptions on organization design action. Meyer's conclusion is that seeking to make design knowledge actionable is nudging the community away from a set of assumptions based on linearity and equilibrium (open systems theory, and toward a new set of assumptions based on emergence, self-organization, and non-linearity (possibly multiple theories).

The inherent danger of moving from one set of assumptions towards another is that the emerging assumptions become the new 'way it is', leaving no room for competing and equally valid approaches. In table 2, for example (about design knowledge) one of the established assumptions presented is that 'design knowledge achieves validity through nomological rigor, operational definition of variables, and documentation of causal relationships between carefully measured variables, as demonstrated by statistical analysis'. The emerging assumption related to this is that 'design knowledge achieves pragmatic validity through communication in clear and evocative language, should often be elucidated in narrative form, and benefits from illustration in pictorial diagrams'. It is easy to imagine that quantitative information becomes abandoned in favor of qualitative information.

As Gareth Morgan illustrates through metaphor and John Arnold (the historian) tells us we are dealing with 'maelstroms' when we work with organizations. Recognizing the limitations of past and current interpretations of 'states of knowledge' we might consider thinking not in terms of emerging assumptions – unless are going to question them, but rather taking a path that Chris Rodgers talks about as he aimed to 'clarify my thoughts on how to reframe the dominant – yet limiting – either-or perspective that dominates much conventional management thinking.' He has 'since developed a view of paradox that seeks to accommodate the positive aspects of contending ideas, views or values … and which acknowledges the potentially negative aspects of otherwise well-intended policy shifts.' (I mentally substituted the word 'assumptions' for 'policy' here).

Rather than thinking that one metaphor, or theoretical approach is 'better' than another, or one story is the 'truth' and another isn't it would make for richer approaches to organization design and the ongoing development of the 'state of current knowledge' to work with the paradoxes and the range of interpretations available.

These derive from what Ralph Stacey describes as 'complex responsive processes of interaction between people taking the form of conversation, power relations, ideologies, choices and intentions'. The social processes are inherent in each of the eight images/metaphors of organization, and in any account of history. They foster a range of interpretation about 'what is' (or was). None of the metaphors is 'right' but all of them have merit. Being aware of, and arguing about, the merits of each creates possibilities of changing things and is likely to give rise to new generative metaphors and new theories of organizational design and form.

What's your view that the eight metaphors and their related theories are useful and describe the current state of knowledge of organization design and form? Let me know.

NOTE: Morgan has suggested another metaphor he would put in if he had the opportunity: Organizations as Media.

Galbraith, J. (2012). The Future of Organization Design. Journal Of Organization Design, 1(1), 3-6. doi:10.7146/jod.1.1.6332
Meyer, A. (2013). Emerging Assumptions About Organization Design, Knowledge And Action. Journal Of Organization Design, 2(3), 16-22. doi:10.7146/jod.2.3.15576
Morgan, G. (2011). Reflections on Images of Organization and Its Implications for Organization and Environment. Organization Environment. Vol. 24 no. 4 459-478
Nadler, D. A., & Tushman, M. L. (1999). The organization of the future: Strategic imperatives and core competencies for the 21st century. Organizational Dynamics, 28(1), 45-60.
Nadler, D., & Tushman, M. L. (1977). A congruence model for diagnosing organizational behavior. Columbia University, Graduate School of Business.
Stacey, R. (2012) The Tools and Techniques of Leadership and Management: Meeting the challenge of complexity, London: Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-53118-4 (Extract from the Appendix)