Metaphors on organizations


TERESITATANHUECO-TUMAPONMETAPHORS are figures of speech. They help us discover new ideas and the connections among the ideas. They are multifaceted, dimensional and descriptive. They clarify our conceptualization of human life. In using
metaphors, we come to better understand social reality. In this sense, metaphors guide our behavior.
Metaphors omit “as” or “like,” such as when a politician described his wife “a tiger” whom he tamed. Sometimes, we use a simile such as when we say “our minds should be like a summer window, open all day long.” If we have a “summer window” mind, we would be on top of events and issues; we would know the latest about these issues and could even predict what may ensue. Isn’t lack of information a form of poverty?

Analogy – an extended metaphor. When we extend a metaphor, we use an analogy. Synonyms of analogy in a thesaurus include resembling, look like, parallel, semblance, affinity, agreement, associated, etc. These synonyms indicate the different modes in using analogy. It may help for politicians to know these modes to guide them in using analogy. Researchers, too, need competence in analogy. Note that in some research reports, textual translation of statistical results is all that one finds. Tying up research findings to the conceptual framework is a limping attempt. Explaining “significant” or “not significant,” in light of the conceptual framework, falls short of flesh. The so-called research chapter on Analysis and Interpretation is nil of interpretation. It seems minds need the discipline of analogy – to see the “likenesses,” “parallels,” “associations.”

English language and literature underwent changes half a century ago when linguistics as a discipline ruled over English Language departments. A major in English curricula had more of linguistics and very minimal of literature. English language teachers opted to concentrate on linguistics but were assigned also to teach literature to maintain a fulltime load. Those were also the early years of attempts in research as this third function of universities was dawning in most Philippine universities. Liberal arts tended to foster only the sciences. Students hardly chose soft courses. Science clubs boosted contests in investigative projects. Essays were in terse language, cold and crisp sentences with hardly any warmth. There were fewer metaphors at school and in conversations. Could this be why research reports seldom render a well thought out, well-expressed interpretation of results neatly tied up with the conceptual framework? The habit of mind derived from using metaphors develops creativity, seeing deeply into affinities, likenesses, parallels and contrasts. This does not propose a literary style in research reports. We need balance, which a strong liberal arts foundation can provide. This balance exposes us to critical thinking and creativity, improving our ability to discern relationships.

With how fertile discussions through metaphors could take place in understanding organizations, an Organizational Theory course I taught seemed to prove this. “An organizational metaphor is a figurative comparison (a metaphor 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.” < › … › Main Clause – Oxymoron>

Organizations vary in their philosophy, vision, mission and goals. Their institutional statements translate to policies and practices to pursue their goals. Using metaphors, organizational structures may be described as a “cobweb,” or as a “chain,” or as a wheel, or “flat,” and so on. Thus, two of the several Student Learning Outcomes (SLO) I had for the course were to “explain and discuss how metaphors add richness and depth to analyses and interpretations of organization and management” and “to evidence that metaphorical thinking promotes creative thinking.”

The class discussed the standard metaphors on organizations, much discourse of which is available from ISI, Reuters, or hard sources. These are the machine, organism, brain, culture, political system, psychicprison, flux and transformation, domination, theater, and the collage metaphor. The class added their orchestra metaphor.

Throughout the course, students explained in metaphors their discussions on organizations. It seemed fun to them. It showed their creativity. On a few occasions they used metaphors endemic to Cebuano. Several students collected metaphorical quotes on organizations.

Using metaphors need not be confined to a literature class. Articulate speech that we humans have been gifted with is given us to use in a manner that we can more fully communicate our ideas and feelings. Availing of metaphors supports interpretative research discourse such as ontological and epistemological analysis and interpretations of theory and practice in organizations. Metaphors help clarify to students how the classical, the modernist and the postmodern organizational and management theories apply on the operational level. Organizations are multifaceted. Not any one metaphor will suffice to describe organizations. Be that as it may, we could avail of metaphors – providing healthy and challenging insight-gathering class discussions.

Limitations and strengths of metaphors. While metaphors provide us “a range of both competing and supplementing insights about organization, management and leadership,” like any human speech, metaphors have their limitations. As Gareth Morgan points out, “All theories of organization and management are based on implicit images or metaphors that persuade us to see, understand, and imagine situations in partial ways. Metaphors create insight. But they also distort. They have strengths. But they also have limitations. In creating ways of seeing, they create ways of not seeing. Hence, there can be no single theory or metaphor that gives an all-purpose point of view. There can be no ‘correct theory’ for structuring everything we do.”<>

* *

Teresita Tanhueco-Tumapon, PhD, one of the Philippines’ most accomplished educators and institutional management experts, held top academic positions at Xavier University (the Ateneo de Cagayan) before heading chartered institutions. She studied not only in the topmost universities in the Philippines but also in Germany, Great Britain and Japan. An internationalization consultant on call, she is copy editor of the Liceo journals, and professorial lecturer at the Graduate Studies of Liceo de Cagayan University (in Cagayan de Oro City). Awards include a Lifetime Professional Achievement Award from the Commission on Higher Education.(Email:


Please follow our commenting guidelines.

Comments are closed.