Images of Organisation (Morgan 1995)

Back in 2005, I read Gareth Morgan’s “Images of Organization”. I’ve thought about it many times since and it came up in a recent conversation so I thought I’d write about it here.

Essentially it comes down to the fact that you can view organisations from many different perspectives, gaining insights each time you switch your views, as it were. These views can be broadly categorised in three ways: Unitary, Pluralist and Radical.

Unitary views

This metaphor looks at the organisation as a machine or a living organism. Everybody plays their part. People inside the system are like cogs or cells: resources to be deployed to the greater cause. Dissent is a bad word. Opposition is even worse. The guy (or gal) at the top makes all the decisions, everyone else implements. Value is correllated in the long term to perceived contribution and merit. Strong weight is put on subjects such as “mission statements”, “goals”, “objectives” and “achievement” as instruments to succeed. It’s a simple, clear, classical view of organisations that emphasises loyalty, and as such it has a lot to recommend it. George Bush or the late Pope John Paul II, to me, would exemplify unitary leaders. Other names readily come to mind.

Pluralist views

The pluralist view puts more emphasis on the fact that an organisation is a collection of individuals and that common purpose is achieved through debate, negotiation and conflict. It’s much more tolerant of difference and believes that good ideas are forged from the furnace of active and intense discussion and argument. Pluralist views leave the door open for more socially or politically minded views of organisations: why individuals subsume themselves into a greater entity – what the costs are and what the benefits are. Democratic institutions such as parliaments are obvious examples of pluralist forums, but when you look at it, pluralism exists in most organisations: for instance, how agreement is achieved is a messy thing, often involving power-bases, politics and some behind the scenes in-fighting. Results can often be unpredictable. Pluralist leaders show more willingness to listen to others and have more tolerance for debate and alternative. As a result they can be seem somewhat weak, but great change has sometimes been achieved through the actions of pluralists.

Radical views

Radical views take an extreme approach to organisations. All the niceties are left behind, and the rancid whiff of death and disorder pushes growth and harmony out of the picture. The “instruments of domination” case is pure Marxism – it states that the bosses are out to get maximum output from resources for minimum input and that issues such as safety and employee welfare are just sideshows deflecting from the goal of profits through exploitation. Suspicion and conspiracy is everywhere. Every idea from management has a hidden agenda, involving the deprivation of the worker’s rights. “Common purpose” is replaced by “exploitation”.

The “psychic prisons” metaphor is even more fascinating. In this view, the organisation is like a Freudian nightmare, where all of the neuroses and flaws of the individuals involved are brought into the organisation, infecting the organisation like a virus. You are asked to seek out comfort blankets, purposeless routines, methods for punishment and ridicule (often unconsciously applied). Alliances and enmities are seen as a mother / father thing. Whether you agree with it or not, this particular viewpoint – the organisation as a deranged basket-case – has to be one of the most eye-opening ways of looking at any organisation. In class, when we started talking about it, some cases came to light in all the organisations that we worked in that were truly stunning: examples of people getting upset over the smallest things, of pettyness, of madness in the true sense of the word.

None of the views are particularly better than another: I’m not trying to say that unitary views are bad – they all have their merits and downsides. What is more important to emphasise is that there are many ways of looking at the same thing and that great insights can be gained from taking the time to look differently at your place of work.

Anyhow, it’s a good book. Unusually for a business book, it is very readible with a lot of humour. Well worth checking out if you have the time to spare.