Organizational Structure Metaphors

Term Paper, 2003

9 Pages


Table of Contents


Military/Mechanical Model Metaphor:

Organic/Biological System Metaphor:

Cognitive System Metaphor:

Ecosystem Metaphor:

How effective are the metaphors in enabling a greater understanding of organizational processes to be developed?:


Organizational Structure Metaphors


In today’s hyper-competitive world, organizations struggle daily to garner and maintain valuable market share. Thanks to globalization, businesses are experiencing competition from all four corners of the globe. It is now common for competitors to operate in completely different environments, both internally and externally. Despite the increased opportunities offered by globalization, it becomes increasingly difficult for some companies to remain competitive. As such, aspects such as “superior/subordinate relationships, leadership, teamwork, motivation, and conflict management” (Norris, 2000, p. 105) become ever more important, and each of these hinges upon the organization’s structure.

Organizational structure can be defined as "the recurrent set of relationships between organization members" (Donaldson, 1996, p. 57). There are four common characteristics for all organizations despite their structure and design. They all have some sort of hierarchy of authority. They also all have coordination of effort and with this coordination, is a division of labor. In the end, they all also have a common goal the organization is working towards. (Kreitner & Kinicki, n.d.)

In addition, one of the most important sustainable competitive advantages is organizational innovation. Whether the innovation is a new product, service, technology, process, or procedure, Damanpour (1991 in Hage, 1999) has found that with consistent, continual innovation competitiveness was increased. Just as the facets mentioned above, certain organizational structures facilitate this high level of innovation, while others do not.

Lastly, organizational structure greatly affects the efficacy and efficiency of a team. Team members must have multiple tasks coordinated, in addition to attainment of a certain level of interpersonal trust, while still fostering group cohesiveness (Kashima, 1999). Certain organizational structures are more conducive to fostering these attributes, in certain situations.

Understanding how critical an organization’s structure is to an organization’s competitive success, it is imperative that managers fully understand their organizational structure and the others competitors may be using. An organization’s structure is one of the more ubiquitous facets of an organization (Clegg & Hardy, 1996) and must continually evolve to meet the organizations goals. With such a complex set of relationships, the easiest way to bring this understanding about is through the use of metaphors. Organizational structure metaphors help bring an abstract idea about relationships into clearer focus.

Military/Mechanical Model Metaphor:

Military or mechanical organizational structures were developed after World War II. Just as its name implies, it is a metaphor for the military structure that had to be in place due to the massive war effort. During this time, globalization of industries and technology development were accelerating at a phenomenal rate due to the war effort. Hierarchical organization design, complete with critical control mechanisms, had to be put in place at unprecedented levels (Oliver, 2002).

Following the war, businesses realized that they too could utilize this type of structure. The then dominant industrial technologies also influenced the structure. As industrial processes inherently demand mechanistic technologies, structured processes, and organizational hierarchies, these facets were echoed in the military/mechanical structure form (Oliver, 2002).

Just as in the military and the industrial formats, military/mechanical organizational structures are designed to generate predictable responses from its people, and align them in an accountable manner (Dunham, n.d.). Multiple complex levels of bureaucracy typify mechanistic structures. Processes and procedures are formalized and decision-making is centralized. Mechanistic structures are not designed to respond to the unexpected. They typically involve specialized jobs, with centralized decision-making. Coordination of units comes through written process and procedure, and units may be very competitive with one another.


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Organizational Structure Metaphors
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Organizational, Structure, Metaphors
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Kimberly Wylie (Author), 2003, Organizational Structure Metaphors, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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