Making Sense of Organisations – Individual Module Assignment 2011

Assignment Brief and Purpose

The assignment requires you to address the following question in the form of an essay;

To what extent are organisations socially constructed phenomena?

Given that organisations are an inescapable part or all our lives it becomes important that we develop an understanding of what they are and how they work (or do not work). The lecture programme has emphasized the idea that organisations are not a single entity and that making sense of them requires us to examine them through a variety of theoretical perspectives as well as our own perceptual lens. This postmodern understanding argues that organisations are socially constructed phenomena, so questions like; ‘what the organisation is’, ‘why it is there’ and ‘how it works (or doesn’t)’ and ‘why’, should be addressed from these different, but interrelated theoretical constructs.

The various perspectives offered during the lectures can all be employed to help you make sense of organisations. These may include the following but you are not confined to these;

Rational technical
Cultural (organisational and national)

An additional implication of the postmodern understanding is that the person making sense, (you), must acknowledge their own influence on the sense making process, that is, you are also involved in socially constructing the organisation even as an analyst, and are not examining it from a distance. This will involve you in a consideration of your own background and life experience. You are encouraged to offer insights of your own, and given that we are understanding organisations as any community of people, large or small and with whatever purpose, you should use your own experience. This may include any organisations of which you have experience, for example; part time or full time work, schools and other educational establishments, leisure time organisations, political organisations.

Finally, you are also required to use examples from contemporary organisations to support and illustrate your points. These might come from your reading of contemporary event from news sources or television documentaries.

Making Sense of Organizations


This essay aims to make sense of organizations by critically drawing in Morgan ’ s metaphors based on personal perceptual lens and supporting them with personal experiences and contemporary examples . In the first section , the essay briefly introduces postmodern understanding of organizations as socially constructed phenomena , which provides a basis for the discussion of Morgan ‘ s metaphors ; In the second section , the metaphors of organizations as machines , organizations as organisms , organizations as brains and organizations as culture are discussed in detail and supported with examples . In the conclusion, the essay draws together the metaphors discussed above and suggests to understand organizations as human-beings , which is inclusive as it summarizes the metaphors discussed .

Section 1 Organization : a socially constructed phenomenon

According to the viewpoint of postmodern understanding , organization is a socially constructed phenomenon that the notion of organization can not be simply described without understanding its connection to social context ( Meznar and Nicolini , 1995 ) , including historical background , political surrounding , cultural ambience , sociological environment and so on ( Morgan , 1996 ) . The social constuctionism argument explains the existence of a wide diversity of definitions and opinions on what the organization is, which depend on theoretical perspectives taken to examine organizations, as well as perceptual lens of person making sense of organizations ( Morgan , 1996 ) .

Morgan ( 1996 ) introduces a ‘ distinctive yet partial way ’ ( p . 4 ) in order to understand organizations effectively . Morgan ( 1996 ) employs some metaphors to explore different dimensions of organizations , such as machine metaphor , organismic metaphor , culture metaphor and so on . The method of using metaphors is advantageous that it is ‘a primal force through which humans create meaning by using one element of experience to understand another. Metaphor gives us the opportunity to stretch our thinking and deepen our understanding, therefore allowing us to see things in new ways and act in new ways. Applied in this way, metaphor becomes a tool for creating an understanding about what we now recognize as organization and management’ ( Morgan , 1998 , p . 4 ).

This essay is going to make sense of organization by adopting Morgan’s method of metaphors , at the same time , integrating personal insight based on personal experience and contemporary examples.

Section 2 The Metaphors

1.Organizations as machines

The machine metaphor offers us an insight to figure out the mechanized aspects of organizations. When considering organizations as machines , it is similar to Max Weber’s bureaucracy (cited in Morgan , 1998 , p . 23 ) . A bureaucratic form of organization is characterized by ‘ a fixed division of tasks ’ , ‘ hierarchical supervision ’ and ‘ detailed rules and regulations ’ , so as to achieve its purpose with minimum cost and the greatest ‘ precision ’ , ‘ speed ’ , ‘ clarity ’ , ‘regularity ’ , ‘ reliability ’ and ‘ efficiency ’ ( Weber , cited in Morgan , 1998 , p . 23 ) . The perspective of machine metaphor is advocated by classical theorists and coined as ‘ scientific management ’ ( Morgan , 1998 , p . 27 ) .

Although the mechanistic model has been successfully applied to fast food industry and assembly lines , it has been criticized as dehumanization ( Morgan , 1998 ). In a comedy film by Charlie Chaplin , Modern Times , Chaplin portrays a factory worker in the industrialized times , who screws nuts on an accelerating assembly line . He is so mechanized by rapid and repeated motion that he screws people’s nose like a nut , and finally he suffers a mental breakdown . Extreme example can still be found in contemporary real world . Foxconn is a Chinese manufacture making products for technology firms worldwide including Apple Inc. , Acer , Intel , Dell , Sony ,Nokia and so on ( Foxconn , 2007 ) . In 2010 , at least 16 workers of the Foxconn attempted to commit suicide by jumping from high building , with 12 people died ( Moore , 2010 ) . The employees of the factory were dehumanized in order to reach the greatest potential of efficiency . According to the organizer of an undercover team of seven Chinese investigators , the workers told him that ‘ their hands continue to twitch at night , or that when they are walking down the street they cannot help but mimic the motion ’ ( Moore , 2010 , para . 14 ).

2. Organizations as organisms

Different from bureaucratic form of organization , the organismic metaphor offers a unique perspective for us to view organisations as living systems , which implies that the survival and development of organizations depend on its external environment ( Morgan , 1998 ). The organismic metaphor overcomes the limitation of the machine perspective and releases managers from narrow -minded thinking implicated by the machine metaphor that there is only one best way of management , which is weak and fragile in adapting to the changing environment ( Morgan , 1998 ) . To the contrary , the organismic metaphor regards organizations as ‘ open systems ’ ( p . 36 ) and emphasizes the importance of organizational needs and their abilities to adapt and survive in varying environment . Specifically , according to Morgan ( 1998 , p .35 ) , ‘ the metaphor suggests that different environment favor different species of organizations based on different methods of organizing and that congruence with the environment is the key to success ’ .

Based on my experience gained from a summer internship in a marketing research institute , I think there are at least two levels of environment that are curtail to organizations as organisms . The first level is the macro environment of organizations , which is parallel to weather , air , temperature and other basic living conditions for human beings . For organizations , the macro environment includes social , cultural , economic , political and technological factors . Take the media industry for example , the advent of the Internet has enormous impact on newspaper groups and the only way to survive is to adapt to the transformation . On Tuesday , March 17 , 2009 , Seattle ‘ s oldest business , the 146 years old Seattle Post – Intelligencer stopped its publishing , instead , shifted to the Internet and became a totally digital news product ( Seattlepi . com , 2009 ) ; The second level is the micro environment , which refers to factors that are specific to organizations’ operation fields , including the markets , the suppliers , the competitors , the customers and so on , among which the awareness of understanding customers is increasingly strengthen that various methods are applied in researching customers , such as interview , questionnaire and so on ( Kotler & Armstrong , 2006 ) .

Additionally , the organismic metaphor emphasizes the important role of people within organizations . As indicated by Lewis ( 2007 , para . 1 ) , ‘ if you take the view of an organization as a living being, then people are its lifeblood. To survive, an organism needs to renew and refresh itself or it will stagnate and die ’. The General Electric ’ s reform in human resource management provides an excellent example . GE re-calibrated the measurements of performance with a rank-based employment evaluation system called the Vitality Curve . The new evaluation system relates rewards to managers’ performance in order to increase their motivations to improve their performance . This reform to some extent helped GE to ‘re-invent itself to survive in a much more competitive world ’ ( Welch , as cited in Lewis , 2007 , para . 7 ) .

3.Organizations as brains

Corresponding to the information era , the brain metaphor enables us to apply modern theories about human brain to create organizations that are adaptable to the digital age . The metaphor of the organizations as brains contains three aspects . Firstly , organizations are information processing system ( Morgan , 1998 ) ; Secondly , the metaphor emphasizes organizations’ ability in learning to learn , which means ‘ the ability not only to correct actions to goal , but also to question the goals if necessary ( Andersen , 1992 , para . 2 ) ; Thirdly , the brain metaphor consider organizations as holographic brains that have abilities in self – organization and regeneration ( Morgan , 1998 ) , which requires that each part of the organization has the function of the whole .

From my own perspective , the most charming character of the brain metaphor is that it provides an insight to design organizations with flexibility , resilience and inventive ability , which is much more proactive than machine metaphor and organismic metaphor as it gives organizations independent vitality . An example about a Norwegian shipping company illustrates the vitality of the organizations as brains ( Andersen , 1992 ) . The shipping company suffered a charter plane crash during which it lost half of its members , however , it was able to recover and function as well as before quickly . The reason was that the employees were able to ‘ pool their knowledge and create new organizational structures ’ based on its memory function ( Andersen , 1992 , para . 14 ) .

4.Organizations as cultures

The metaphor of organizations as cultures allow us to understand and manage organizations through cultures , such as values , beliefs , ideologies and other forms of social practice ( Morgan , 1998 ) . Specifically , referring to Damen ( 1987 , p . 367 ) , ‘ culture is the learned and shared human patterns or models for living ; day- to-day living patterns . These patterns and models pervade all aspects of human social interaction . Culture is mankind’s primary adaptive mechanism ’ . Accordingly , culture is vital as it has great impact on human’s behavior . Besides , according to Hofstede (1984 , p . 33 ) , ‘ culture is the collective programming of the mind which distinguishes the members of one category of people from another ’ , which implies that organizations are distinctive in their cultures . Thus , considering organizational management from cultural perspective , it is important for managers and leaders to take a proactive role through creating a shared sense of reality within organization , which is crucial in guiding and shaping organizational action ( Morgan , 1998 ) .

From my own perspective , organizational management from cultural perspective to some extent is in accordance with the theory named Corporate Identity Management , which is quite popular among organizations since 1990’s ( van Riel & Balmer , 1995 ) . Corporate Identity is ‘ the way in which an organization ’s identity is revealed through behavior , communications ,as well as through symbolism to internal and external audiences ’ ( van Riel & Balmer , 1995 , p . 341 ) . What ’ s more , ‘ the objective of CIM is to establish a favorable reputation with an organization’s stakeholders which it is hoped will be translated by such stakeholders into a propensity to buy that organization’s products and services, to work for or to invest in the organization (van Riel & Balmer , 1995 , p . 342 ). Accordingly , organizational culture can be regard as a form of invisible value , especially in an age when competitions between organizations have involved beyond materials dimension . However , as indicated by Morgan ( 1998 ) that , the cultural metaphor is possible to be used in ideological manipulation . Extreme examples exist in various cases of pyramid marketing scheme , sometimes called multi – level marketing , which usually make use of fake cultural ideas to brainwashing in order to involve more and more members . According to a recent report by China Daily ( 2011 , para . 1 ) , in 2010 , online pyramid selling ‘ lured more than 40 million people involving some 6 billion Yuan ( $913 million ) .


This essay makes sense of organizations by critically choosing Morgan ‘ s metaphors based on my personal lens which is framed by past cognition and experiences . Meanwhile , contemporary examples are used to illustrate the metaphors . Metaphor is an effective tool as ‘ it gives us the opportunity to stretch our thinking and deepen our understanding , thereby allowing us to see things in new ways and to act in new ways ’ ( Morgan ,1998 , p . 5 ) . However , it is worth noting that metaphor results in distortions when it goes extremely , for instance , the suicide tragedy resulted from Foxconn’s extreme mechanistic model . Additionally , according to Morgan ( 1998 , p . 6 ) , ‘ metaphor is inherently paradoxical , as the way of seeing created through a metaphor becomes a way of not seeing ’ . Thus , it is important to realize that each metaphor only accounts partial nature of organizations . Besides , there is no single theory to fully explains the organizations as socially constructed phenomena . Thus , based on the above discussion , I think it is possible to propose a broad metaphor that includes some of Morgan’s metaphors chosen by this essay , which is organizations as human-beings . Specifically , when considering a organization as a human-being , it is a organism (organizations as organism) with mechanistic function (organizations as machines) and it has a brain (organizations as brains ) and an unique personality (organizations as culture).


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