Book Review: Images of Organization, by Gareth Morgan

Gareth Morgan’s book, Images of Organization, is a challenging look into how organized groups of people can be understood in terms of eight different categories of thinking. These categories or images are tools that Morgan uses to identify, medicate, and reorganize thinking about organizational structure. The example story written in sectional intervals is an example of all eight images in motion (machine, organism, brain, culture, political system, psychic prison, transformation, and domination; in that order) and will serve as an analogy as I go through each of the eight images and explain how Morgan introduces these topics. The eight images Morgan uses in his book are not only methods for understanding current organizational models, but also tools in which the listening can recognize important organizational needs and faculties which normally are ignored due to either being invisible to the naked eye or due to miscalculated beliefs about an organization.


Figure 1: Image of Organization, based on Gareth Morgan’s Images of Organization, modified by Benjamin Seeberger (2012)

Machine. According to Morgan, organizations which run as a machine operate through the foundational principles of scientific management, a top-down method dividing chain of command to the coordination of function and hierarchy so as each particular aspect of the organization fulfills a specific role (pg. 29). Classical management theory, also known as bureaucratic thinking (pg. 25), attempts to precisely define jobs through defined vertical structures of command; in other words, those above control, while those below follow. However, the crux of machine-like behavior deals with the concepts of time and motion. Just as a machine’s parts must function collectively in-time with each other, so the job of management is to train workers exactly how to complete an assignment within a given period of time (pg. 30); in order to do this, the scientific method is utilized and each task becomes an experiment, where each worker is a variable rather than a changeable human being.

As the teacher walks into the classroom, the gears and gyros begin to spin. Heads swivel to the front, eyes locked on the instructor standing before them, and time slows until the first words boom out of the teacher’s mouth, calling the students to attention.

Organism. Another method of understanding organizations is to view them as a “living system” (pg. 39), or an organism that must sustain itself through the satisfaction of particular needs unique to that organization. Morgan defines the Organization as Organism as being required to meet particular “organizational needs” (pg. 43), which he bases on the five pillars of Maslow’s Hierarchy (Physiological, security, social, ego, and self-actualizing in that order) but differ on slight points within the scale based on the particular “open system” (pg. 46) the organization evolves as.

All functional organizations must at some point recognize the futility of attempting to complete tasks in utter loneliness. Although different organizations adopt different attitudes towards shared power, organizations that adopt the concept of a “shared future” can be determined to be operating within the capacity of an organism (pg. 69). Organizations that operate with shared futures, in order to complete tasks, will resort to methods in which for brief moments they adopt other aspects, such as machine-like thinking with the Matrix Organization (temporary teams shifting into particular roles based on the circumstances, pg. 57). Although Organizations as Organisms will often adopt other methods, they are first and foremost concerned with the self-sustainability of their own being, given the unique traits and persons working within that organization.

“Good morning!” At once the visage of sternness and sterility fade from the teacher’s face, his eyebrows arching upward and a smile appearing on his face. “How was your week?” he asks, pacing around the classroom, trying to lock eyes with a stunned audience, unsure of what to return to him for fear of giving an incorrect answer. Although they lay in stillness, they understand what he means: that they can relax, take a breath of fresh air and stop counting the seconds until the beginning of class. They are here together, and there is no reason to worry.

Brain. The key to understanding Morgan’s view of the Organization as Brain is to understanding the concept of cybernetics, in which organizations “engage in self-regulating behaviors and maintain steady states” (pg. 85). Just as memory can reconstitute itself from various parts of the brain if lost by utilizing a part of memory from a different location of the brain (pg. 80), so the Organization as Brain has the ability to use holographic systems embedded within the design and structure of the operation as methodology to inform, reform, regulate, and rebuild itself in times of crisis. The Organization as Brain is able to miraculously self-regulate through the use of negative feedback (pg. 85), which allows members to engage in self-questioning and if implemented in a healthy fashion can result in operations such as the Ringi process where decision-making in the organization is a collective-process rather than a dictatorial process (pg. 93).

The instructor marches to the front of the classroom, puts a stack of papers on the first table, and then tells students to come to the front to pick up graded worksheets from last week. “If you have any questions about the markings on the papers,” he suddenly says midway back to his desk and turning half a face to the students, “please come to my desk at the end of class and ask and I will answer any questions you may have. I am here for you, and I do not want you to struggle through this work. I know it is difficult, but we are all here to learn, so please, ask away.”

Culture. Organizations are naturally like little worlds, in which rules, regulations, rituals, beliefs, philosophy, and archetypes emerge and forge new participatory cultures. While most organizations can be understood in terms of having a unique culture, Morgan stresses that the Organization as Culture actually attempts to reconstruct reality through “interpretive schemes that underpin systems of control” (pg. 132). Whether they recognize the construction of reality or not, many organizations attempt to reconfigure perceptions and assumptions about life not only through direct processes, but through indirect methodologies and expectations of workers. Morgan states that “organizational society” cultivates routines, ethics, and rituals (pg 112), and depending on the amount of time required for a work process to be completed, can consume someone’s life entirely. However, Morgan counters that even within the main organizational society, there exist subcultures formed from individual work groups, departments, and even like-minded individuals which will often enhance the main culture or create a counterculture within the organization itself (pg. 121). In analyzing organizations, it is helpful to carefully understand what kind of culture the organization is encouraging, and how that culture is fashioning a new kind of reality for followers.

The lecture the professor discusses with his class details a very difficult application of using Aristotle’s Categories and Rhetoric to the concept of the modern essay. He tries to weave in these two disparate topics by using pictures and videos, but throughout the lecture he is worried the students may not have understood fully. When the lecture is completed, he hands out a worksheet to the students and asks them to work with a partner and read an article in the textbook. The worksheet is meant to break down the material in the lecture in a practical way, explaining ideas through the practice of observing and remarking.

Political system. All organizations, according to Morgan, follow a “system of rule,” which he divides into seven different types (autocracy, bureaucracy, technocracy, codetermination [sic], representative democracy, and direct democracy, pg. 146). Morgan further divides the seven types of political rule as requiring one of the fourteen sources of power, to which he details a majority of his chapter on political systems. The fourteen sources of power are (in my own words): legitimacy, resource control, regulation delegation, decision influence, information gate-keeping, boundary management, uncertainty buffering, technology manipulation, alliance cultivation, countervailing management, symbolic integration, gender management, ecology of action, and personal charisma (pg. 159-185). Based on only the seven types of political structures and fourteen sources of power, there are almost 100 different kinds of power leaders will utilize in any given circumstance within a particular political association. Morgan maintains that due to the vast differences in political power, it is important for leaders to remember organizations are coalitions of “people with divergent interests who gather together for the sake of expediency,” what he terms “loose networks” (page 154). These networks when gathered together comprise the political makeup of an organization; in other words, the politics are chosen by the people, not by the leader.

The worksheets use the same structure each week, so the students know what to expect; however, the material of each worksheet differs from week to week and reading to reading. In this way, the students understand how to function with the curriculum, but are still challenged by new reading material each week. At one point a student raises her hand and the teacher stands from his desk, hovers over her paper and sees where she is confused. “Remember what I said in the lecture,” the teacher reminds her. “I know it is a tough concept to grasp, but do you remember that image I gave you to help you remember?” The teacher waits for a response while the student taps her pen on the table and then nods after a moment. “Oh,” she flusters, “of course, that makes sense. Thank you teacher.” He nods to her and returns to his desk.

Psychic prison. As much as organizations are carefully designed by leaders and followers (as has been shown in the previous images), organizations are also created unconsciously by dreams, desires, and fears of people involved in them, notably the leader or group of leaders who set the vision for an organization. The unconscious organization is what Morgan calls “the shadow of the organization… a reservoir not only of forces that are unwanted and repressed but of forces that have been lost of undervalued” (pg. 225). Morgan also illustrates how actions people take within an organization are not based on rationality, but rather on “reaction formations” in which repressed feelings and unconscious drivers manage the pool of actions someone takes within an organizational setting (pg. 207). Based on the unreality of the organization and the unreality of action within an organization, Morgan admits to the “illusion of realness” (pg. 213) and how people involved in an organization attempt to preserve an image in their minds based on fantasy and desire for immortality.

As he is waiting for the students to complete the work, he doubts himself. Is he too hard? Are his methods for teaching too difficult, that he needs to sit down and explain every concept to his students? He wonders if the design of his pedagogy, meant to fill a vacuum from his own life as a student back in undergrad, really necessitates the difficulty of teaching students whose second language is English, when native English speakers would most likely have a difficult task of completing his assignments. But even though these doubts plague him, he pushes them aside for the greater goal: to craft beautiful and intelligent writers.

Transformation. When one element in an organization changes, another also changes. The “mutual causality” of action and reaction within the organizational environment is what Morgan terms “holoflux… the flowing nature of implicit order” (pg. 234). Mutual causality is a recognition that within an organization no one person or procedure has full control over the direction of that organization (pg. 250). While an organization’s power can be understood in terms of political systems, the vision in terms of the organization’s shadow, the culture in terms of interpretative schemes and rituals (and so on), the direction of an organization can only be understood when doing a dialectical analysis, a three-pronged survey into the methodology of change: the struggle of the various elements in opposition, the organization’s methods of struggling against that struggle, and plan of action to exact a “totality shift” and force a social organization to abandon particular elements in favor of strengthening other elements (pg. 258). In order to arrive at a point where an organization can even embrace the dialectical method, however, they must first have a “dialectical imagination” (pg. 265), which allows leaders in an organization be not only be aware but open to change.

He understands there is a give and take in the process. Every term he teaches he must scale back the workload and find new ways of challenging his students so that no moment of time in the classroom is wasted and no word written on a page is without meaning. He is commonly criticized by former students as being a very strict teacher, and he tries to amend his classroom assignments and policies by offering help outside of the class, skimming down assignments, and listening to student issues and changes in the university system. However, even though there is a give and take, he is still the teacher.

Domination. The last image Morgan introduces is that of the Organization as Domination. While similar to the Organization as a Political System, Domination differs in that while people based on inherent differences choose a political system and a leader chooses a source of power which to utilize, systems of domination are invisible much like the shadow of an organization. Domination is a form of rationalization (pg. 278), which results in one of three different forms: charismatic, traditional, or rational-legal domination (pg. 276). The modern form of the organization, Morgan argues, developed from the rise of the oligopolistic market (pg. 284), in which a few major sellers controls the decisions of other organizations involved in the same operation.

Additionally, since the advert of diversification, the market has become internationalized, and the once domestic players have become players on a global stage (pg. 302), setting trends for their entire dominated market. Multinational organizations (or organizations which operate across national boundaries) have increasingly used forms of social domination in controlling followers, including using wage slavery (pg. 310), transfer pricing (pg. 311), hard bargaining (pg. 312), and most importantly resource dependencies (pg. 307). Whether the result of social domination is a conscious act or a rational reaction to market forces, organizations still play a huge role in controlling markets and setting cultures for not only followers, but those on the receiving end of organizational services and goods.

Being the teacher, especially in China, requires a certain form of social antagonism. He wants to be there for his students, but the culture demands otherwise; the culture demands without apology that a teacher be not only a practitioner of knowledge but also a bastion of respect and authority, whom the students recognize has a vast amount of knowledge intrinsically, not only extrinsically. To do this he must be stern, give out assignments that challenge not only the mind but also the body, and refuse to back down when a student challenges him in front of the class. He must have confidence and control, and through this gain the respect of his students so that he may come alongside the shining stars in his midst and help them shine even brighter and perhaps if he is lucky, forge a friendship that will last.


Morgan, G. (1986). Images of organization. Sage Publications: Beverly Hills, CA.