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The Importance of Metaphors in Management Learning

December 27, 2013

I am not sure when humankind first told stories as we gathered around a camp fire in winter for warmth and protection. I am fairly sure it was soon after we developed language as a means to coordinate our communal existence and transmit hard-won knowledge to the next generation. The literature of the major religions provide many stories, parables, metaphors and other analogical ways of explaining important and difficult concepts to the listener and thus help generate a common understanding for their believers.

The online Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a metaphor as “a figure of speech in which a word or phrase literally denoting one kind of object or idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them” [1]. We commonly underestimate the extent to which we rely on metaphors and how embedded they are in the way we talk about and understand the world. Becoming actively aware of our usage of metaphors, of their importance to generating shared understanding and of how they constrain our ability to address new challenges are important learning skills for management and leadership [2].

In my last blog on knowledge types and knowledge creation we examined how individual learning of a tacit nature takes place in a social context and is related to specific contextual experience http://wp.me/p3TKaW-4k. Nonaka and Takeuchi’s [3][4] concept of socialisation, where subconscious, tacit knowledge is transferred between humans without knowledge first becoming explicit was something I struggled to understand when I first encountered it! The authors explained this as a process where metaphors and other analogic ways of thinking and communication played a major part.

I struggled with this concept until 2009 when I had the pleasure of working with my Software Engineering Institute colleague and friend Suzanne Garcia-Miller on a presentation for a European software process improvement conference in Prague. We discussed what we might present and Suzanne was enthusiastic to present on metaphors and how they can help us in understanding complex situations and complex engineering challenges. As someone with a science and engineering background I was skeptical but having learned to trust Suzanne’s judgement in the past, I agreed to go along. I was glad I did as Suzanne had a bountiful collection of metaphors which organisations commonly and often unknowingly use and this helped me eventually to understand what Nonaka and Takeuechi had described. My interest in metaphors and analogic thinking deepened subsequently when taking a course on “Creativity, Innovation and Change” with the Open University Business School, which introduced me to Gareth Morgan’s [2] work on the importance of metaphors in understanding organisations.

Morgan explains that metaphors are not just a grammatical device to embellish our communication but have much deeper significance for leadership and management. Metaphors convey our way of thinking about the world and indeed represent a primary mechanism for understanding our world. Our languages, sciences, technical terminology and everyday thinking are pervaded by metaphors. Our ability to understand and make sense of situations is influenced by metaphors. For example, as a manager, if I conceive of the organisation as a well-oiled machine, I may design and implement an organisational structure that corresponds to the bureaucratic, top-down, process compliant organisations first described by Max Weber [5]. In this world-view employees are cogs in a big machine. Taylorism [6], time and motion studies [7] and the operations of some modern logistic companies reflect this world-view.

From a personal development perspective it is important to understand how powerful metaphors are in conveying complex information in simple terms. Senior leadership make adept use of metaphors to create common vision and purpose. The types of metaphors they use reveal their world-view and reflect the organisational cultures they operate within. For example, war related metaphors frame the business in terms of attacking or destroying the competitor, capturing new markets, starting marketing campaigns. Sport related metaphors refer to teams, coaching, winning, losing and trophies. Metaphors of a religious persuasion also abound – leaders talk about shared vision, missions, inspiration, and belief in the new strategy or product line.

The examples above show how prevalent metaphors are in our organisations and in our societies and culture. Morgan describes a multitude of common metaphors including metaphors of organisations as machines (bureaucracy), as organisms consisting of living systems, embedded in an environmental context that must provide our needs, as brains where the organisation is focused on learning and self-organisation, as a political system where power is fought for in terms of interests, influence and conflict and as flux and transformation where change is examined through the concepts of chaos and complexity. These are just a sampling of the metaphors we commonly, and often, unknowingly use to understand our world.

We do, however, need to be aware of the limitations of metaphors and similar analogic devices. Metaphors are embedded in one particular world-view and every world-view, by its very nature, provides a limited and constrained understanding of the world. While any particular metaphor is useful in generating a common understanding, it constrains the variety of possible solutions we may generate for any new challenge the business context generates. The automobile industry, for example, is pervaded by machine related metaphors, which is not surprising given the legacy of Henry Ford and importance of the assembly line. At the same time, the automobile industry is determined to become more agile in managing the development process in order to keep pace with the current levels of technology advancement and customer expectations. It is common to observe automobile suppliers with hierarchical structures and command and control style governance introducing empowerment and agile-based development techniques. That two worlds collide under these circumstances is hardly surprising.

It is important as a practicing manager to regularly reflect on the metaphors we employ and experiment with other possible metaphors, especially where facing new challenges, where the old metaphor may hinder rather than help. Using several metaphors simultaneously can help us overcome the limitations of any particular metaphor and help us generate new metaphors. For management learning it is important to take the time to listen to the language used in organisations, as it helps reveal the dominant metaphors and prevailing world-view. Any actions we take to change organisations also need to address how we change these metaphors, which may lead us back to story-telling around whatever represents the camp fire for us today!

[1] “Metaphor.”Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 26 Dec. 2013. <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/metaphor&gt;.

[2] Morgan, G., (1997), “Images of Organization”, Thousand Oaks, CA., Sage Publications

[3] Nonaka, I, and Takeuchi, H. (1995),“The Knowledge-Creating Company”, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

[4] Nonaka, T. (1993),“The Knowledge-creating Company”, Harvard Business Review, pp. 80–94.

[5] Weber, M., (1947), “The Theory of Social and Economic Organization”, London, Oxford University Press

[6] Taylor, F.W. (1911), “Principles of Scientific Management”, New York, Harper and Row

[7] Gilbreth, F.B., (1911), “Motion Study”, New York,, Van Nostrand

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