Author & Context

Morgan’s work and ideas have been at the forefront of many contemporary management trends -- developing learning organizations; managing decentralized networks; finding new methods of managing change.


“All theories of organization and management are based on implicit images or metaphors that lead us to see, understand, and manage organizations in distinctive yet partial ways” (p. 4). While capable of creating valuable insights, metaphors are also incomplete, biased, and potentially misleading. The challenge is to “become skilled in the art of using metaphor: to find fresh ways of seeing, understanding, and shaping the situations that we want to organize or manage.” (p. 5)


  • Organizational Metaphors
    • Organizations as Machines
      • AKA bureaucracies
      • Important thinkers: Frederick the Great, Max Weber, Adam Smith, Frederick Taylor
      • “organizations can or should be rational systems that operate in as efficient a manner as possible” (p. 22)
      • “make humans fit the requirements of the organization” (p. 22)
      • Works well – for straightforward tasks, stable environment, precision and efficiency rule
      • Limitations – slow to adapt, creates mindless drones, dehumanized workers
    • Organizations as Organisms
      • Human and technical needs are interdependent
      • Organization is an open system that must adapt to its environment (contingency theory)
      • Danger of the metaphor becoming an ideology
    • Organizations as Brains
      • Pattern and order emerge from the process
      • There is no master, centralized intelligence
      • Holographic, double-loop thinking, innovation, creative chaos
  • The Challenge of Metaphor
    • Metaphors create insight, but they also distort. They have strengths, but they also have limitations. In creating ways of seeing they tend to create ways of not seeing. No single metaphor gives the whole picture. Avoid psychic traps. All models are false, but some are useful.
  • Reading and Shaping Organizational Life
    • Learn how to generate, integrate, and use the insights of competing metaphors. Use them to understand and shape the situations that you are seeking to organize and manage.

Applications to Strategy

  • Organization structure and culture are determinant; understanding these two dimensions within the framework of metaphors can lend insight into the organization’s ability to function, adapt, and innovate
  • Metaphors can give insight into an organization’s strengths and weaknesses; understanding one’s own organization and the enemy’s is key to strategy
  • Morgan’s models are good assessment tools for when things do go perfectly; they can be used to develop prescriptions
  • Watch out for oversimplifications of the enemy based on bad metaphors
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