The Use of Metaphors as a Tool to Understand Organizations

Subject: Management
Pages: 3
Words: 843
Reading time:
4 min
Study level: Master

Case Study Analysis

Organizations and their structure are complex and multidimensional, which provides a basis for applying various philosophical concepts and theoretical approaches in order to understand the functionality of different companies. Many researchers have contributed to the discourse by exploring the organizational context and the role of management practices applied in organizations. In particular, Gareth Morgan’s framework revolves around the idea that eight organizational perspectives can be distinguished based on eight metaphors. Morgan’s metaphors for organizations are machines, organisms, information processors (brains), cultures, political systems, psychic prisons, flux and transformation, and instruments of domination (Trehan & Putnam, 2016).

There are further examples of notions used in a metaphorical meaning with regard to a company, such as networks, movements, bridges, and others. This paper aims to analyze two case studies that involve the use of metaphors as a tool to understand organizations and explore the role of this approach in management practice.

Business Problems and Metaphors

Two case studies involving the use of Morgan’s and similar metaphors as a tool to understand organizations were identified for this analysis. The paper by Barter and Russell (2013) examines the use of the most widespread metaphors: machine and organism, and their impact on sustainable development. Barter and Russell (2013) argue that these two notions “perpetuate a story that dehumanises and de-prioritises humans at the expense of the organisation which in turn becomes a rarefied and prioritised subject” (p. 145). As a result, the use of machine and organism metaphors impedes sustainable development, which emphasizes the central role of people.

Another study chosen for the analysis studies the impact of organizational metaphors on Cochrane, an international charitable organization is dealing with medical research findings. Gleave (2019) reports that the elements of three metaphors, namely, movement, network, and institution, coexist in Cochrane’s organizational processes. The author explores the current managerial challenges for companies and highlights the role of metaphors in meeting organizational needs and helping the company grow and succeed, as in the case of Cochrane.

Critical Issues

Each case explored several critical issues that can be ranked in the following order minor to major. The main problems studied by Barter and Russell (2013) are the nature and importance of sustainable development, the dominant organizational metaphors, the incompatibility between the organism and machine metaphor and sustainability, and the way forward for conceptualizing old metaphors from a new perspective. The paper by Gleave (2019) explores the following issues: the definition and key features of an organization, the challenges facing Cochrane, as well as the role of the movement, network, and institution metaphors in its development. As can be seen, both papers provide insight into the use of organizational metaphors and the associated problems.

Proposed Solutions Evaluation

The proposed solutions need to be evaluated for both cases. Barter and Russell (2013) highlight the need for re-conceptualizing the old metaphors since “the use of a new way of thinking about organisations and a reconsideration of the language of organisational theory” are critical with regard to sustainable development (p. 156). Based on the interviews conducted with managers and company owners in the United States and the United Kingdom, organizations promoting sustainability as their core value refrain from using dehumanization notions (Barter & Russell, 2013). Thus, they align metaphors with sustainability principles, which implies that the proposed solution of re-conceptualizing is valid.

Gleave (2019) suggests that “an organization that has the strong mission of a movement, needs the collaborative working of a network and has the status of an institution” should focus on the organizational process rather than the corporate entity’s structure (p. 736). Therefore, the proposed solution is valid as it applies metaphors to highlight the multidimensional nature of Cochrane and emphasizes its elements as contributors to a successful organization.

Recommendations and the Communication of the Solutions

In addition to the recommendations stated in the cases, it might be beneficial to consider the organization’s mission and objectives when creating and communicating the metaphors. This approach allows for producing clear and functional messages and aligning all the organizational processes with the proposed perspective (Bejinariu et al., 2017). In particular, for a metaphor to be effective, managers need to consider the context and provide a powerful and vivid image that is concise and comprehensible.

In this regard, companies that apply sustainable development principles can avoid dehumanization from the beginning. Similarly, organizations can meet their organizational needs and overcome challenges effectively if the processes are aligned with a relevant metaphor. The solutions will be communicated to the managers highlighting the need for a new perspective on organizations and with a consideration of the potential distortions that dominant metaphors can create.

The Benefits of Using Metaphors in Management Practice

To summarize, the use of metaphors in management practice is associated with both benefits and potential pitfalls. In particular, it is crucial to consider the context and prevailing needs of an organization to implement Morgan’s framework successfully. Flexible managers can benefit from the multidimensional perspective of a company, while a lack of flexibility can impede organizational growth and result in inconsistencies between the desired outcomes and reality.


Barter, N., & Russell, S. (2013). Organisational metaphors and sustainable development: Enabling or inhibiting? Sustainability Accounting, Management and Policy Journal, 4(2), 145-162. Web.

Bejinariu, A. C., Jitarel A., Sarca, I., & Mocan, A. (2017). Organizational change management: Concepts, definitions and approaches inventory [Article]. Technology, Innovation and Industrial Management International Conference, Lublin, Poland. Web.

Gleave, R. (2019). More than a collaboration: What sort of organization should Cochrane be? Using organizational metaphors to explore the work of Cochrane. Journal of Evaluation in Clinical Practice, 25(5), 729-738. Web.

Trehan, K., & Putnam, L. L. (2016). Exploring Morgan’s metaphors: Theory, research, and practice in organizational studies [eBook edition]. SAGE. Web.