Organizational Metaphor

Man as a cog in a machine
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An organizational metaphor is a figurative comparison (that is, a metaphor, simile, or analogy) used to define the key aspects of an organization and/or explain its methods of operation.

Organizational metaphors provide information about the value system of a company and about employers' attitudes toward their customers and employees.

Examples and Observations

Kosheek Sewchurran and Irwin Brown: [M]etaphor is a basic structural form of experience by which human beings engage, organize, and understand their world. The organizational metaphor is a well-known way in which organizational experiences are characterized. We have come to understand organizations as machines, organisms, brains, cultures, political systems, psychic prisons, instruments of domination, etc. (Llewelyn 2003). The metaphor is a basic way in which human beings ground their experiences and continue to evolve them by adding new, related concepts that carry aspects of the original metaphor.

Dvora Yanow: What we may discover in analyzing organizational metaphors are complex relationships between thought and action, between shape and reflection.

Frederick Taylor on Workers as Machines

Corey Jay Liberman: Perhaps the earliest metaphor used to define an organization was provided by Frederick Taylor, a mechanical engineer interested in better understanding the driving forces behind employee motivation and productivity. Taylor (1911) argued that an employee is very much like an automobile: if the driver adds gas and keeps up with the routine maintenance of the vehicle, the automobile should run forever. His organizational metaphor for the most efficient and effective workforce was the well-oiled machine. In other words, as long as employees are paid fairly for their outputs (synonymous with putting gas into a vehicle), they will continue to work forever. Although both his view and metaphor (organization as machine) have been challenged, Frederick Taylor provided one of the first metaphors by which organizations operated. If an organizational employee knows that this is the metaphor that drives the organization, and that money and incentives are the true motivating factors, then this employee understands quite a bit about his organizational culture. Other popular metaphors that have surfaced over the years include organization as family, organization as system, organization as circus, organization as team, organization as culture, organization as prison, organization as organism, and the list goes on.

Wal-Mart Metaphors

Michael Bergdahl: The people-greeters give you the feeling that you are part of the Wal-Mart family and they are glad you stopped by. They are trained to treat you like a neighbor because they want you to think of Wal-Mart as your neighborhood store. Sam [Walton] called this approach to customer service 'aggressive hospitality.'

Nicholas Copeland and Christine Labuski: Lawyers representing these women [in the court case Wal-Mart v. Dukes] . . . claimed that Wal-Mart's family model of management relegated women to a complementary yet subordinate role; by deploying a family metaphor within the company, Wal-Mart's corporate culture naturalized the hierarchy between their (mostly) male managers and a (mostly) female workforce (Moreton, 2009).

Rebekah Peeples Massengill: Framing Wal-Mart as a kind of David in a battle with Goliath is no accidental move--Wal-Mart, of course, has worn the nickname of the 'retail giant' in the national media for over a decade, and has even been tagged with the alliterative epithet 'the bully from Bentonville.' Attempts to turn the tables of this metaphor challenge the person-based language that otherwise frames Wal-Mart as a behemoth bent on expansion at all costs.

Robert B. Reich: Think of Wal-Mart as a giant steamroller moving across the global economy, pushing down the costs of everything in its path--including wages and benefits--as it squeezes the entire production system.

Kaihan Krippendorff: After experiencing the flaws of having someone in Bentonville make decisions about human resources in Europe, Wal-Mart decided to move critical support functions closer to Latin America. The metaphor it used for describing this decision is that the organization is an organism. As the head of People for Latin American explains, in Latin America Wal-Mart was growing 'a new organism.' If it was to function independently, the new organization needed its own vital organs. Wal-Mart defined three critical organs--People, Finance, and Operations--and positioned them in a new Latin American regional unit.

Charles Bailey: A metaphor seeps deeply into organizational narratives because the metaphor is a way of seeing. Once established it becomes a filter through which participants both old and new see their reality. Soon enough the metaphor becomes the reality. If you use the football metaphor you would think that the fire department ran a series of set plays; finite, divisible, independent actions. You could also assume that at the end of these short segments of violent action, everyone stopped, set up the next plan and then acted again. A metaphor fails when it does not accurately reflect core organizational processes. The football metaphor fails because fires are extinguished in one, essentially, contiguous action, not a series of set plays. There are no designated times for decision making in firefighting and certainly no timeouts, though my aging bones might wish that there were.