Queen's University IRC

Developing Organizations – A Metaphorical View


Brenda Barker Scott
Queen’s IRC Facilitator

January 13, 2014

Developing Organizations - A Metaphorical ViewCan organizations be designed to grow people? With the emphasis on talent and knowledge management in today’s uber-competitive business context, the assumption certainly seems to be yes. The reality, however, is that many organizations fail to develop or tap the competence of their people. Referring to the problem of pervasive disengagement amongst today’s workforce, Gary Hamel (2012) laments that organizational systems are more likely to “frustrate extraordinary accomplishment than to foster it” (p. 137). Just what is the relationship between people development and organizational development? Can organizations be designed to foster both? How are our views about this relationship evolving?

To ponder these questions, I trace the evolution of how theorists and practitioners have viewed organizations, and the development of people within them. My viewfinder for this journey will be the lens of metaphor. For, suggests Morgan (2006), the images, frames and perspectives we bring to the study of organizations very much shapes what we can know about them. If the way that we understand organizations and shape management practices is based on implicit metaphor, then what might we see—about preferred structures, practices, and models of organizational life—as we adopt alternative worldviews? Just as importantly, with each change of the viewfinder, what might we miss?

I begin with the mechanistic lens, often associated with Frederick Taylor’s (1911) scientific management. Here organizations are viewed as machines and people development is focused on isolating and perfecting skills in service of operational efficiency. With the advent of the human relations movement, an organic view of the organization emerged. Pioneering theorists Elton Mayo (1933), Abraham Maslow (1943), and Kurt Lewin (1947) identified the important linkages between employee aims and motivations, the social and technical environment, and organizational performance. More recently, those espousing the contextualist worldview place practice, within one’s workplace community, as the core lens through which human and organizational development are explored.

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