Metaphors are powerful because they allow us to understand complex concepts by relating them to things that are familiar to us. So when Robert Frost tells us that his love is “a red, red rose that’s newly sprung in June” and that it is “a melodie that’s sweetly play’d in tune,” we understand that love is a pleasant thing. And when George Peele says that, “It is a fire, it is a coal, whose flame creeps in at every hole,” we associate it with lust or passion that could consume our whole being.
Is there space for metaphors in the world of business and management? Definitely. And I am not just talking about those used in advertising campaigns, but also in other aspects of organizational life. “Business is war” is one such powerful metaphor that has, unfortunately, dominated the thinking of managers in many parts of the world. This has led them to adopt competitive strategies that seek to “annihilate the enemy,” sometimes without regard for ethical principles (e.g. predatory pricing, poaching of talent, industrial espionage).
Another metaphor that business schools have propagated is the “organization as machine,” an idea championed by classical management theorists such as Henri Fayoland reinforced by Frederick Taylor’s scientific management principles. These principles greatly increased industrial productivity, as exemplified by Henry Ford’s first assembly line that produced the Model T. According to Gareth Morgan, author of Images of Organization, Taylor’s principles have found their way not only in modern-day factories but also in service organizations such as retail stores, fast-food restaurants, hospitals and schools. The trend is so pervasive, Morgan said, that it is now often described as “McDonaldization.”
However, obsession with the mechanistic metaphor has led to the dehumanization of the workplace, which puts a premium on precision, speed, efficiency, predictability and control. In many factories, for example, workers are treated as cogs and wheels of the organizational machine—cheap, easy to train, and easy to replace.
Clearly, we need new and equally powerful metaphors that will supplant these clichés. For example, should we not consider business as a work of art?
Stan Davis and David McIntosh, authors of The Art of Business, argue that business people “can benefit from seeing the world with both an aesthetic sensibility and a strategic bent.” Businesses traditionally operate in an economic flow of inputs (raw materials, labor, capital), processes (research and development, production, distribution) and outputs (products and services). The artistic flow of business, they explained, operates similarly, but uses inputs like imagination, emotion, intelligence and experience to create outputs that provide customers with beauty, excitement, enjoyment, and meaning. Social enterprises such as ECHOstore, Hapinoy and Human Nature seem to understand the power of these intangibles, and have come up with creative business models that are not only viable, but that also address pressing social needs.
When managers view employees as co-creators and customers (and communities) as audiences, then businesses are bound to respect human dignity and promote the common good. By seeing business from both an economic and artistic lens, according to David and McIntosh, “You can see textures when everybody else is seeing shapes; you can see colors when others see grays; you can see not just what is, but what could be.”
Raymund B. Habaradas is an Associate Professor at the Management and Organization Department of De La Salle University, where he teaches Management of Organizationsand Management Research. He welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed above are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official position of DLSU, its faculty, and its administrators.