41: Images of Organization – Gareth Morgan

Gareth Morgan

We conclude Season 4 with one of our most ambitious efforts, tackling Gareth Morgan’s classic book Images of Organization, originally published in 1986. This lengthy and detailed volume synthesizes an incredible range of organization theories and concepts over the previous century and presents them under the umbrella of eight distinct metaphors. Each metaphor represents a different way of understanding the existence and  dynamics of organizations, their members, and their interactions with the environment.

Each metaphor stems from distinct literature streams and management practice, and many will be familiar to our listeners — many have been discussed in the podcast before. The first is of the machine, in which the organization is a closed system and members constitute its parts. The metaphor conjures up images of Frederick Taylor and scientific management from the early 20th century, yet it is still in use today (episodes 118 and 40). Next comes the organism, where the organization is explained as an adaptive, competitive whole with needs that must be satisfied to grow and prosper (episodes 9 and 16). As brains, organizations learn and self-organize (episode 41939). As cultures, they operationalize shared values (see episodes 11, 30, and 38). These four are well-known and highlight some attractive qualities of organization, but Morgan then follows them with four others that draw attention to the darker side of organization — political systempsychic prisons, flux and transformation (episode 31), or domination (episode 17). each describing different purposes and behaviors of organizations that bridge theory and practice.

But, as Morgan warns, metaphors are a way of ‘seeing and not seeing.’ While they may stretch “imagination in a way that can create powerful insights,” there is also the “risk of distortion” (p. 5). He presents both the strengths and limitations of each metaphor—what do they explain well and what do they not explain? His work has both an academic and a practical stance. He discusses how these metaphors might form the basis … as well as provide the foundation for managers to think about organizational processes in their workplaces.

The podcasters explored both the different metaphors presented as well as the overall idea of how they might complement each other (or not). The discussion also explored current organizational and managerial issues. This includes organizational commitment, which inspired Tom to prepare a sidecast on the idea of organizational commitment to members and the historical example of Milton Hershey that is still relevant today.

Listen as the podcasters discuss and debate Gareth Morgan’s Images of Organization and the use of metaphor. Afterward, ask yourself which metaphor would you use to describe your organization?


You may also download the audio files here:  Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Appendix (Text version here)

Read with us:

Morgan, G. (2006). Images of Organization, Updated Edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

To know more:

Alvesson, M., & Spicer, A. (Eds.). (2010). Metaphors we lead by: Understanding leadership in the real world. Routledge.

Burrell, G., and G. Morgan. (1989). Sociological Paradigms and Organisational Analysis. Routledge.

Huq, J.-L., T. Reay, and S. Chreim. (2017). “Protecting the Paradox of Interprofessional Collaboration.” Organization Studies, 38: 513–538.

Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1980/2008). Metaphors we live by. University of Chicago press.

Tsoukas, H. (2016). “Don’t Simplify, Complexify: From Disjunctive to Conjunctive Theorizing in Organization and Management Studies.” Journal of Management Studies54: 132–153.

Turco, C. J. (2016). The Conversational Firm: Rethinking Bureaucracy in the Age of Social Media. Columbia University Press.

Weick, K. E. (1989). “Theory Construction as Disciplined Imagination.” The Academy of Management Review14: 516.

Whyte, W. H. (2013). The Organization Man. University of Pennsylvania Press.