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Organizations as Machines



Which part in this machine are you?


Gareth Morgan, author of Images of Organizations (2006), tells leaders that looking at organizations through metaphors “can help us navigate some of the ambiguity and flux” (p. xi). While no simple metaphor can provide a clear picture of what is happening in an organization, one or more metaphors can help leaders get a general read on the situation at hand for better understanding and action (Morgan, 2006, p. 3). Metaphors can allude to how an organization is structured and what type of work is done. 


The machine metaphor, discussed here, can quickly inform a leader that there are very structured tiers of workers and that the organization is attempting to produce something with much uniformity. A machine, like the one above, has many parts (some more important than others). Each part does a single job to produce the same outcome each time. In an organization that works like a machine, each person has as a job, some more important than others, and something is produced that looks alike each time. Organizations often described as machines include the fast-food industry, franchising systems, surgical wards, and courier firms (Morgan, 2006, 29-30).


The machine metaphor gives a leader an idea about the motivation, roles, leadership, power and influence, groups, and culture of an organization. Each of these is discussed in more detail below.





Within each organization, large or small, there is a culture.  This culture is what allows a company to build an established business for decades and as a machine becomes the atomized organization.  This culture is made up of many different sub-organizations that when linked together, form the structure of a strong and functioning organization. 


It is within this culture of success, when viewed as a machine, people who have a high aptitude for fulfilling and even willing to work outside of their roles, will move up in an organization. 


The achievement of an organization as a machine can serve to de-motivate its employees.  This hierarchal structure places a focus over the pieces rather than the people. (Morgan, p.30) A designation of different roles seeks to further alienate people to focusing on what are only their job-sanctioned responsibilities.  Contributing to this lack of motivation is a general attitude of boredom and what Morgan describes as a lack of pride.  The individual’s who are determined on fitting in and enjoy competition will be highly motivated in this type of system.  The larger majority do not based on the influence and power of change that constantly takes place within all organizations.







You don’t have to think, we’ll do the thinking for you!!  From deciding how much ketchup to put on a burger down to the last smile, franchisees like McDonald’s represent the well-defined roles of workers in an organization as a machine. 


Many of the early classical management theorists based their ideas on Frederick the great of Prussia who is considered to have created the archetype of an organization as a machine.   His well-defined role’s for military personnel, creation of ranks and uniforms, and many other innovations made its soldiers nothing more than cogs on a wheel that could be replaced and inter-changed at anytime.


Scientific management, created by Taylor, gives five principles which include roles in an organization as a machine.  The very first one shifts all the thinking related to an individual’s job to the manager.  This allows people to be trained and conditioned for their place in the machine.







Leadership is organized through what Morgan details as a scalar chain of command.  In this chain there is only room for one boss.  There is a guide for authority where a designated person has the right to dictate responsibilities.  This style of management is created to ensure that directives given at the top of an organization are received throughout all chains of command.


Power and Influence



 Power and influence in an organization that operates as a machine is very clear. It is hierarchical. There is a structure to the organization and the higher a person is on the structure the more he or she has power and influence. A sample structure (above) shows that the power in a machine-like organization is power over others.  Morgan discusses the power of people in organizations like this as “empire building” and “careerism” (2006, p. 30).  This type of power can hurt an organization.  If people begin to worry more about their own advancement up the ladder than the end goal of the organization, there can be "undesirable consequences" (Morgan, 2006, p. 28).


Groups are defined by rungs on a ladder in machine organizations (this is the “scalar chain of command” described above.  The picture under the “power and influence” title shows a ladder-like structure; groups are formed at each horizontal level.  These groups are each overseen by the group above.  Because "job responsibilities interlock" it is crucial that each person on each rung cooperates with the others (Morgan, 2006, p. 21).  A less formal group is the group of "troublemakers" that forms in these organizations (Morgan, 2006, p. 30).  These are the people "who question the wisdom of conventional practice" (Morgan, 2006, p. 30).  Regardless of which group a person falls into, this sort of group mentality "can result in mindless and unquestioning bureaucracy" (Morgan, 2006, p. 28).  This is a dangerous phenomenon; people who simply follow can be mindlessly engaging in the production of something quite undesirable.


In a machine-like organization there is a culture of "discipline and subordination of individual to general interest" (Margan, 2006, p. 21).  The "general interest" is one of "efficiency" (Morgan, 2006, p. 13).  This word is used repeatedly throughout this chapter and is key to the culture of a machine-like organization.  Further, the culture of such an organization is one typified by unskilled workers. The word “typified” is important here because there are also skilled professions (like education) that can be described as organizational machines, and who wants to think that school workers are “unskilled”?  The clear downside to this culture is that it can be "dehumanizing" to be on the lower rungs of the ladder.  A worker associated with this culture might say, "I'm here to do what I'm told" (Morgan, 2006, p. 29). This and other attitudes become institutionalized.  Even if people come in with a positive view of their work, the culture changes that view to one of responsibility shifting.



Morgan is explicit in his “Postscript” that the rapid changes in theory are working to shift organizations “from a world dominated by bureaucratic-mechanistic principles into an electronic universe where new organizational logics are required” (2006, p. 364). For this reason, evidence that an organization is operating as a machine may be one signal that things need to change. We say evidence of the machine metaphor is only one signal for change because Morgan is clear that while understanding is necessary to guide our practice, it is a broader understanding than that provided by one metaphor that is required.   He says, “managers at all levels must gain comfort in dealing with the insights and implications of diverse perspectives” (Morgan, 2006, p. 365). This means that the understanding sought above does not come from only one metaphor or one assessment. Instead, understanding comes from varied sources and points of view. 

Once a clear picture of the organization is developed leaders need to consider the possibilities for change. Even machine-like organizations can change.   All organizations can change because all organizations are made of people, and people can be creative. Morgan says, “organization is really a creative process of imaginization [sic]” (2006, p. 365). Therefore, when an organization is struggling it is the competent leader who will “imaginize [sic] in new ways” and bring the organization to where it needs to be in the new world (Morgan, 2006, p. 365).




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