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Organisations as organisms


Morgan's second metaphor views organisations as organisms - that is, as living systems existing in a wider environment and needing to adapt to changes in that environment. The organism metaphor has been widely employed over the last sixty years, and we are using it when we talk about corporate survival, product life cycles or organisational health checks. A SWOT analysis of an organisation's strengths and weaknesses and the opportunities and threats in its business environment is based on this metaphor.

Morgan introduces the organism metaphor by talking about different species of organisation in different environments:

Just as we find polar bears in arctic regions, camels in deserts, and alligators in swamps, we notice that certain species of organization are better "adapted" to specific environmental conditions than others. We find bureaucratic organizations tend to work most effectively in environments that are stable or protected in some way and that very different species are found in more competitive and turbulent regions, such as the environments of high-tech firms in the aerospace and micro-electronics industries.

The machine metaphor viewed the design of organisations as a technical problem. Motivating people was largely a matter of paying the right rate for the job. In contrast, the organism metaphor recognises that people have complex needs that must be satisfied if they are to prosper and work effectively. A famous series of experiments at the Hawthorne Works in Chicago in the 1920's and 1930's identified the importance of social needs in the workplace. Psychological and human factors - such as autonomy, having choice and feedback - are important factors affecting morale and productivity.

In a classic work on motivation published in 1954, Abraham Maslow described a hierarchy of needs, represented as a pyramid in Figure 1


Fig 1: Maslow's hierarchy of needs

People need first to satisfy their basic physiological needs - wages and salaries enable workers to put bread on the table and a roof over their heads. Job security and career advancement may help them to meet some of their needs for security and safety. Working in an organisation gives scope for interacting with colleagues, socialising and forming friendships, thereby satisfying social needs to belong. Work that is meaningful and yields personal satisfaction can enhance one's sense of identity and self esteem. At the top of the pyramid, work may become a major expression of one's values and ideals, enabling people to realise their potential and give meaning to their life. Maslow termed this self-actualisation.

The need to integrate both technical and human aspects of work and organisations - raising productivity, improving quality, enhancing job satisfaction, and reducing employee absenteeism and turnover - is the basis of much that is done in Human Resource Management. This dual focus sees an organisation as a sociotechnical system. Any change in the technical system - such as a restructuring or the introduction of a new technology - will have human consequences, and vice versa.

Recognition that individuals, groups and organisations have needs that must be satisfied, and that they exist within a wider environment to which they must adapt, leads to an open systems approach to organisations. This emphasises the importance of the wider business environment - much of corporate strategy is based on understanding what is changing in the external environment and devising appropriate ways for the organisation to respond effectively. Moreover, an organisation is composed of interrelated subsystems which need to relate effectively to each other, just as molecules, cells and organs are subsystems of a body and they must work harmoniously together for health.

Regarding organisation as open systems which need to adapt to the external environment leads to a popular approach to organisation development known as contingency theory. Contingency theory recognises that there is no one best way of organising - the appropriate form depends on the context. A key challenge for management is to achieve good alignment and fit with the demands of the environment, and this can be done in different ways. Management also needs to ensure that the internal relations and structures within the organisation are balanced and appropriate. Morgan writes:

The focus on "needs" also encourages us to see organizations as interacting processes that have to be balanced internally as well as in relation to the environment. Thus, we see strategy, structure, technology, and the human and managerial dimensions of organization as subsystems with living needs that must be satisfied in a mutually acceptable way. Otherwise, the openness and health of the overall system suffer.

Watch this video clip which explores the organisation metaphor of an organisation.