1.5 The Use of Metaphors to Understand Organizational Complexity

When using metaphors to understand organizational complexity, it is important to grasp the four basic structures of an organization: simple, functional, multidivisional, and matrix. Similar to the structures of formal and informal organizations previously discussed in 1.2, these four structures draw a clear outline of how an organization works and how the complexity varies between each organization. Edwards outlines the four structures and explains how each differ from one another[17]:

Executives rely on vertical and horizontal linkages to create a structure that they hope will match the firm’s needs. While no two organizational structures are exactly alike, four general types of structures are available to executives: simple, functional, multi-divisional, and matrix.


Simple Structure Simple structures do not rely on formal systems of division of labour, and organizational charts are not generally needed. If the firm is a sole proprietorship, one person performs all of the tasks that the organization needs to accomplish. Consequently, this structure is common for many small businesses.


Functional Structure Within a functional structure, employees are divided into departments where each handles activities related to a functional area of the business, such as marketing, production, human resources, information technology, and customer service.


Multi-divisional Structure In this type of structure, employees are divided into departments based on product areas and/or geographic regions. The Jim Pattison Group, for example, has nine product divisions; Food and Beverage, Media, Entertainment, Automotive and Agriculture, Periodical Distribution and Marketing, Signs, Packaging, Forest Products and Port Service, and Investment and Partnerships.


Matrix Structure Firms that engage in projects of limited duration often use a matrix structure where employees can be put on different teams to maximize creativity and idea flow. As parodied in the movie Office Space, this structure is common in high tech and engineering firms.


Figure 6. The Four Main Organizational Structures (Source: Janice Edwards, Managing Strategic Management – 1st Canadian Edition, Under CC BY 4.0 license)

Metaphors can be used to understand organizational complexity by how companies interact within the specific structures. Gareth Morgan (2011) explains in his work, Images of an Organization, that metaphors, in understanding organizational complexity, provide both partial and conflicting insights, which relies on the “interplay of multiple perspectives”[18]. Morgan describes eight metaphors of an organization[19]:

  1. Organizations as Machines (Mechanization)
  2. Organizations as Organisms (Nature)
  3. Organizations as Brains (Self-Organization)
  4. Organizations as Cultures (Social Reality)
  5. Organizations as Political Systems (Interest, Conflict and Power)
  6. Organizations as Psychic Prisons (Plato’s Allegory of the Cave)
  7. Organizations as Flux and Transformation (Logistics of Change)
  8. Organizations as Domination (The Ugly Face)

These metaphors describe how organizations are viewed based on attributes that surround our everyday life. Be it natural, aesthetic, social, cultural, or ethical, the idea is that metaphors will help the understanding of  how these operations function on many structural levels. Essentially, the farmer who runs his or her own produce stand in a simple structure, to the CEO of a multi-national fast-food corporation in a multi-divisional structure can develop understandings of organizational complexity through the use of a well-described metaphor.

What is an organization like? Taking a naturalistic approach,  an organization is like a budding flower.  An industrial approach would be a well-oiled machine. More specifically,  Morgan’s use of organizations is creating a social or political system.  This is done by noting that organizations create a social reality which have specific interests, conflicts, and power[19].

When understanding the impact of metaphors within a learning organization, we look at what they produce within the people of the organization. When finding clarity in complexity one, has to do with an organizations ability to shift away from traditional understanding and be more innovative, and collaborative[20]. With being innovative and collaborative, this helps develop metaphors to relate to your organizations behaviour. Metaphors find similarities to related organizational concepts, elaborating existing knowledge, and to develop deeper and more profound insight[21].

The visual representation of metaphors is important to understand organizational complexity.

Review Questions

  1. What are the four basic structures of an organization, and what are their attributes?
  2. How would you define organizational complexity?
  3. Describe self-awareness and how it is important to understand organizational complexity.


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Leadership and Management in Learning Organizations Copyright © by Clayton Smith; Carson Babich; and Mark Lubrick is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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