Metaphor and Management: Making Sense of Change

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Metaphor and Management: Making Sense of Change

Christine Tyler,


The use of metaphor is considered as a strategy for enabling mutual understanding of complex organisational situations. Many managers involved in the process of transforming Further Education (FE), find their situation ambiguous. This necessitates both dealing effectively with the process of change and helping colleagues to make sense of their working context.

This paper considers Weick’s work on sensemaking (1995), relating it to literature examining the use of metaphor to provide common understanding of situations. A metaphorical concept is applied to a situation in a college, where colleagues clarified the process of developing centralised key skills workshops by discussing it in metaphorical terms.

The activity used as an example here formed part of a year-long case study of the implementation of key skills workshops in a large college of Further Education. The use of metaphor to provide understanding of a complex situation led to the development of a series of situational competencies that were then applied to the wider college context. This paper focuses primarily on the possible use of metaphor to provide management insights.


Roles in further education colleges, at various levels of the management structure, are in flux. For the people involved in this process of transformation, the situation can appear ambiguous, unsettling and unclear. This places an imperative upon colleges to deal with the process of change effectively, and to help those involved to make sense of the context within which they are working. In this paper, one strategy for enabling mutual understanding of complex organisational situations is presented: that of metaphor.

In his seminal work on sensemaking, Karl Weick writes of the idea that “shared meaning”’ is usually portrayed as the glue of organisational culture and cites Smirich (1983) to support this concept. He extends it to claim that, although:

…people may not share meaning, they do share experience. This shared experience may be made sensible in retrospect by equivalent meanings, but seldom by similar meanings. (1995:188)

Weick’s view encapsulates the theme of this paper, as it uses metaphor (the “glue”) and relates it to making sense of a situation and finding a common way of encoding and talking about it. By perceiving an organisational situation through the use of shared metaphor, managers may come to a common understanding and make sense of it before moving to future action.

Taylor expresses this as a process that may assist the formulation of:

…some self-understanding in order to rescue a practice…The point …of the formulation here is to provide the constitutive understanding necessary for the continued, or reformed, or purified practice. (1985:105)

The implication that new understandings could “purify” the practice of management in Further Education may be exaggerated, but resonates in relation to much of the research on the relative failure of planned innovation and the process of organisational change.

Research Context

Further Education students and their subsequent employers have become familiar with the common and core skills of communication, application of number and Information Technology (IT) over a period of time. However, the introduction of General National Qualifications (GNVQs), which emphasised the ‘soft’ key skills of working with others, improving own learning and performance and problem solving (City and Guilds, 1993:4) created new challenges for educators, trainers and employers alike. Tribe (1996) provides a useful brief comparison of different approaches to core/key skills and their development, characterising the dilemma facing curriculum strategists and practitioners in the 1990s.

In a year long detailed case study of the implementation of a college-wide key skills strategy (Tyler, 1999), issues relating to the need for role change in order to meet new curriculum imperatives emerged. By opting to introduce compulsory key skills tuition for all students in a situation physically and intellectually separated from their primary learning context, the college management set a challenging task of curriculum organisation in a context where the value of key skills was unclear and their significance in terms of student employability and academic status was, at best, untested.

The case study examined the college-wide application of key skills and the ethical situation surrounding the entire research year was complex because it was a period of intense change for the college, ending with a complete involuntary reorganisation and replacement of senior management, which also radically affected my position. In order to avoid implicating individual participants in potentially career threatening disclosures, all activities were anonymised and the final research outcome embargoed for ten years.

The introduction of metaphor to enable insights into the complex situation within the college arose naturally as part of the collation of case study evidence. Data were collected from various sources, including external documentation (e.g. Government pronouncements, examination board papers), internal documentation (e.g. Academic Board minutes, specific planning meeting notes) and a series of interviews. These provided a triangulation of evidence, and were held individually with a range of participants in the Key Skills Workshop process – a senior manager; two middle managers (one with key skills responsibility and one without); a key skills tutor; a subject tutor and a student – in four sessions over a year. As the researcher, I managed the interview process and recorded the outcomes, ensuring that all participants approved the final transcripts and the conclusions drawn from them. Details of methodology are fully described in Tyler (2001).

In the final group interview, quotations from previous individual interviews were employed to encourage discussion and the jigsaw metaphor arose naturally from this. The successful outcomes of the discussion led to further examination of the place of metaphor in the development of mutual understanding and consideration of its use as part of management reflection on the process became a significant contribution to the final research.

As a result of the interview outcomes, a major aspect of the practitioner research in which I was involved developed to consider the value of metaphors as a means of clarifying and separating concepts and organising ideas. Taylor’s “constitutive understanding” of a situation can be reached in a variety of ways, including the use of metaphor, thus leading those involved to “throw light” (Taylor, 1985:90) on future FE curriculum interpretation and management, gaining an understanding of what Stones describes as the “strategic terrain” (1991:676).

The Use of Metaphor

Iain Mangham (1996) emphasises that we do not, as Morgan (1986) claims, invent new metaphors so much as:

…illuminate our minds and our practices by extending, elaborating, questioning and compositing basic, everyday conventional, conceptual metaphors. (1996:35).

In defence of this argument Mangham cites Lakoff’s (1993) article on the contemporary theory of metaphor, where the idea of “cross-domain mapping” is central to ordinary language. It involves us in examining:

...the way in which we conceptualize one mental domain in terms of another. (Lakoff, 1993:203).

Mangham’s approach is based on the idea of the organisation as “one overarching metaphor” (1996:27), in Lakoff’s case as a journey. Webb’s (1994) account of managing change uses watercolour painting for his metaphor:

…(even, perhaps especially, forward planning) is not a jigsaw in which everything has a precise place into which it must be slotted, but a water-colour painting in which a general intention is transformed as liquid colours collide and merge in unpredicted ways…I am intrigued by the complex interaction of the planned and the serendipitous. (1994: 43)

In the interviews that formed a central part of the key skills workshop case study, a jigsaw (interestingly rejected by Webb) becomes a useful metaphor for a short but rich interchange of ideas.

Other approaches to the use of metaphor for interpretive purposes include Sackmann’s (1989) work on targeted and adaptive metaphors. She suggests that metaphors can be used to accomplish drastic change in an organisation and comments that:

Successful executives seem to make effective use of the power of metaphor in rendering abstract and vague ideas more tangible, (1989:465)

adding that one of Bennis’ (1984) commonalities of successful leaders is being able to “manage meaning”. As much of the case study focused on the difficulties experienced in translating vision into workable practices, it was appropriate to examine the use of metaphor as both an interpretive and management tool.

Sackmann commends the metaphor as a management tool for its power in communication. The virtues she lists include the transmission of an entire story in visual terms using only one image, with the resulting impact that images have over facts. Metaphors are easily remembered, compact, involve the audience and highlight certain issues through association with feelings and perceptions. Through her examination of the targeted metaphor of “engineering” as opposed to the freer adaptive metaphor of “gardening”, Sackmann demonstrates the power of adaptive metaphors:

…to connote activities and behaviors that are testing, exploring, searching and tentative….They give a more realistic and detailed picture of what occurs than can one single metaphor, (1989:482)

and advocates their ethical use in situations where interpretation of events is required.

Barrett and Cooperrider’s (1990) concept of generative metaphor also deals with its usefulness in organisational transformation. Their paper details the way in which metaphor was used to help a group to liberate itself from dysfunctional conflict and defensive routine. By use of a case study centred on a hotel facility owned by a clinic, they highlight their principles of metaphor as an invitation to see the world anew; facilitating the learning of new knowledge; providing a steering function for future actions and perceptions and inviting active experimentation in areas of rigidity (1990:222-223). Barrett and Cooperrider’s paper illustrates how generative metaphor can:

…enhance genuine dialogue toward building innovative and creative ideas for the future of the organization….that supports the possibility of cognitive reappraisal and new schema development… (1990: 236)

The work of Deetz and Mumby (1985) also encourages the use of metaphor for interpretation. They define the purpose of their article as:

…to explore the relationships among metaphors, information and power in organizations, and to suggest the value of metaphor analysis as a productive means of investigating power relations within organizational cultures, (1985:369).

Their five “Ps” – Perception is Primary; Fundamental Perception is Participatory; Perception is Positional, Perception is Political and Perception becomes Protected Opinion, share the irritating alliterative characteristics of some of the worst management writing. But when they are applied to a concept of the relationships between metaphor, information and power in the heart of the paper, some useful themes emerge. One of these posits that:

The paradigm becomes the ‘interpretive frame’ through which organizational information is created and makes sense, (1985:371)

and this relates to the tendency of managers to see only what they wish to perceive, failing to consider the unintended consequences of their actions. In the case study central to my research, it soon becomes evident that the lack of management clarity and follow-up that accompanies the concept of a “new learning paradigm” in the college where the key skills workshops were being introduced, causes problems with their implementation. By suggesting that in the intrinsically logical culture of organisations the dominant metaphors:

…serve to provide selective information that produces and reproduces certain ideological meaning formations, (1985:373)

Deetz and Mumby indicate the importance of metaphor and its power to contribute to an interpretation of the disparate understandings of key skills practice that are revealed in the case study.

Brown and Duguid (1996) provide a useful link between the literature connected with metaphor as an interpretive aid and Karl Weick’s work on sensemaking (1995). In Brown and Duguid’s work, metaphor is replaced by story telling (Orr’s “antiphonal recitation”). By analysing Orr’s thick description (1987:177) of the practice of photocopier technicians attempting to discover faults in a machine, they recognise the importance of non-canonical practices in responding to a situation. Having applied the rulebook approach unsuccessfully, the technicians revisited the problem by going through the situation like a story, eventually reaching the solution to it by orally reiterating events. The concepts of canonical and non-canonical practice can be used in relation to FE situations where there is a need to make sense of actions or events.

Mangham’s (1996:23) discussion of Lakoff’s views (1993:203) leads to the idea of a basic, ordinary metaphor, couched in everyday terms, rather than in literary or poetic settings. Metaphors related to key skills appear to fit this definition, as they centre on key, core, links and bridges, and the disputed idea that some key skills are actually skills rather than qualities. What Lakoff terms “basic” metaphors have sprung from a system of “cross-domain mappings”, which:

…structures our everyday conceptual system, including most abstract concepts, and that lies behind much of everyday language. (1993:203)

The group interview selected to demonstrate the usefulness of metaphors in extending management understanding of a situation is an example of a basic metaphor that provides Morgan’s “primal means” for forging relationships with the world. Mangham claims that:

Basic, everyday, conventional metaphor depends upon conventional knowledge, (1996:35)

and it is probably fair to assume that all the participants in the focused group discussion shared a knowledge of jigsaws, in common with the reader of this paper. What the use of metaphor by the group did here is to extend understanding in relation to the negotiation and implementation processes involved in setting up centralised key skills provision.

The Jigsaw Metaphor

From the context of the introduction of college-wide key skills workshops (Tyler, 1999) a group discussion between five active participants in the process has been selected to exemplify the theories outlined above.

All participants shared a common knowledge when they started to talk about the centralised key skills workshop provision in terms of a jigsaw. The unforced use of metaphor by the group extended members’ understanding in relation to the strategic negotiation and implementation processes involved in setting up centralised key skills provision. The jigsaw metaphor itself was developed by all participants of the group, with no need for explanation at any stage and has been more fully examined elsewhere from a different angle (Tyler, 2005). Focus on it here is designed to underline the relationship between theoretical perspective and practice: between metaphor and management.

The jigsaw metaphor was introduced as a quotation from an earlier interview with one of the participants, where she had commented that, “…we’ve got the outside in place”. It was established that most people start a jigsaw by ensuring that the border of straight-edged pieces is fixed, then attempt to fill the middle. However, within that “outside” there would be clusters of like-coloured individual pieces, although these clusters might not be combined. Without all central pieces of the jigsaw joined, the picture could not be achieved. Whilst those completing the jigsaw were convinced that it would be worth the effort when it was complete, there were anxieties that, “We need to know what the picture is”, otherwise it would be difficult to join clusters together. Indeed, if the jigsaw had been acquired at a jumble sale in a plastic bag, without a label indicating that all pieces were included, it could become impossible to complete. This led to a further comment that they would not know if all the components were present until they were all used up, and someone interjected the idea that the incomplete jigsaw would then be thrown away.

The whole conversation between the five participants developed naturally, because they independently grasped the similarities between completing a jigsaw and the way in which a curriculum concept could be practically realised, and enjoyed following it through. The establishment of the key skills workshops in the college had taken place very quickly, with the minimum of planning or preparation. There was patchy development, including successful oral communications classes, but all eligible students did not attend these. Because there was a mixed provision of key skills teaching, where vocational students were intended to receive tuition embedded and assessed through their subject and others were timetabled for centralised workshops, some students received accreditation for some key skills in the workshops, some received it from both central and vocational studies and some not at all. When related to the establishment of centralised key skills workshops, the jigsaw image clearly makes sense, (see Figure 1) because several obvious points made about jigsaws apply directly to the curriculum development. These start from the fact that no-one had a clear idea of what the workshops were intended to provide (no picture on the box) and culminate in their closure without comment after a year of struggle to make them, at least partially, successful (admire and keep on display for some time).

Application of the Jigsaw Metaphor

If we consider the jigsaw metaphor in terms of canonical practice (Brown and Duguid, 1996), converting the generally accepted practice of jigsaw construction to a possible manner in which a major curriculum change might be introduced, Figure 1 results. Interesting characteristics emerge from this exercise and the second column of Figure 1 clearly demonstrates where management practice failed in the implementation of this complex curriculum change. Italicised points highlight areas for future management attention.

As managers of an enactive, progressive organisation, the initiators of the centralised key skills provision may have deliberately left the situation without a canonical framework in order to support innovation, encouraging evasion of “the ossifying tendencies of large organizations” (Brown and Duguid, 1996:73). This prospective defence could be seen as a form of retrospective rationalisation (Weick, 1995:24) offered to counter the criticisms of lack of planning and direction that surfaced during such discussions as the jigsaw metaphor, where there was real concern that the absence of canonical practice in place for the establishment of the workshops would lead to their eventual failure. The problem of successful planning and organisation in this case may rest further back than the establishment of the workshops, with the lack of clarity surrounding key skills themselves.

Through the use of the jigsaw metaphor as a means of interpreting the situation, the ideas of canonical and non-canonical practice have emerged. When Brown and Duguid write that:

…the process of innovating involves actually constructing a conceptual framework, imposing it on the environment, and reflecting on their interaction, (1996:60)

they are describing what the college leaders believed they were doing in relation to their college learning vision and its initial operationalisation through the key skills workshops. From one viewpoint, activities may be seen as unplanned, contradictory and frustrating. From another, they may be deemed non-canonical and leading to innovative practice. The problems that arose may well have been connected to the fact that the “conceptual framework” of key skills was not clear and had not been agreed between all those involved in the situation. The application of the jigsaw metaphor provided some constitutive understandings of what is necessary to introduce successful curriculum change through identification of the italicised omissions in the process of setting up complex curriculum change.

As Weick remarks, the retrospective nature of making sense of a situation leads to the problem that:

…there are too many meanings, not too few, (1995:27)

and throughout his work on sensemaking, he stresses the importance of defamiliarising the situation in order to see it more clearly – to throw light on it, in Taylor’s words (1985:90). The literature on metaphor and the example of the jigsaw metaphor described here provide examples of distilling practical ways of using a defamiliarising approach. These assist the sense-giving process that leads to effective changes in management practice.

In the situation presented here, the metaphor arose spontaneously, and was retrospectively used to analyse management practice. This begs the question as to whether metaphors can be deliberately elicited from participants in order to aid sense making and to seek insight into management practice, or whether a ready-made metaphor could be introduced and explored to enable organisational analysis. The example explored here suggests that metaphor has considerable potential as a tool in the complex process of change management.

Figure 1 Comparison between the canonical practice of doing a jigsaw and the establishment of centralised key skills workshops

Ensure that all the pieces of the jigsaw are present before commencing

Examine the picture that the jigsaw will eventually make

Choose a place to do the jigsaw where you know that it will be left undisturbed until it is completed

Form the frame of the picture by placing the straight-edged pieces

Put pieces that share colour characteristics, (e.g. sky, water, trees), together in piles

Construct clusters of pieces that fit to create a recognisable object

Link clusters together across the jigsaw, so that you can begin to see the picture

Refer throughout to the example picture, so that you have a clear idea of relationships

Use the expertise of passing friends and family to help you to do the difficult bits

Maintain a central team of people who understand the jigsaw and what it will eventually look like

Exhibit patience

Show everyone the finished product and thank them for their help

Admire and keep on display for some time

There is no clear idea of what the centralised key skills workshops are, and different views on what constitute key skills themselves. Therefore all the elements cannot be recognised as present

There has been no considered planning of what the centralised key skills workshops should look like. The college is “inventing the future” (College Document, 1997).

There is no tradition of allowing projects to proceed undisturbed

Some form of organisation was agreed originally, but this changed during the case study year – there is no “frame”

Some attempt has been made to group like with like. It has had mixed results

Some clusters have formed into recognisable objects – e.g. Oral communications, Induction

These clusters were not linked successfully

There is no overall plan to refer to. It has been written and re-written until it is difficult to follow

Very little acknowledgement has been given to those who have some knowledge, experience or expertise in the area of planning, delivering or implementing key skills provision

The key skills team had frequent changes of personnel throughout the first year of its operation

Impatience with slow results was demonstrated by college management

The structure of the workshops was changed after the first year and there were criticisms of the lack of success

The centralised approach to key skills has now ceased.


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Bennis, W. (1984), The four competencies of leadership, cited in Sackmann, S., (1989), The Role of Metaphors in Organization Transformation, in Human Relations, Vol. 42, No 6, pp. 463-485

Brown, J. and Duguid, P., (1996), Organizational Learning and Communities-of-Practice, in Cohen, M. and Sproull, L., (Eds), Organisational Learning, London, Sage

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Stones, R., (1991), Strategic context analysis: a new research strategy for structuration theory, in Sociology, Vol. 25, No. 4, pp.673-695

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Tyler, C., (2001), Searching for gold in a mountain of data: an approach to organising case study research, in College Research, Spring 2001, pp. 35-36

Tyler, C., (2005), Beyond Common Sense to a Common Sense, in Hillier, Y. and Thompson, A., (Eds), Readings in Post-compulsory Education, London, Continuum

Webb, A., (1994), Two Tales from a Reluctant Manager, in Weil, S., (ed), Introducing Change ‘From the Top’ in Universities and Colleges, London, Kogan Page

Weick, K., (1995), Sensemaking in Organizations, Thousand Oaks, CA, Sage

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