Rage against the machine

Our vocabulary is littered with words and phrases that pitch an organisation as a military unit – headquarters, division, strategy, officer, policy unit, fostering campaign, tactics and front-line staff. Meanwhile, traditional management theory has relied on the metaphor of the organisation as a machine. At the website www.cabinet-office.gov.uk/machine/index.asp the structure and processes of the “government machine” are expressed as “the mechanics of government”.

So what’s wrong with the machine metaphor? Surely it’s harmless? But it isn’t just a descriptive device – we use it to predict how we expect our organisation to work. This gives rise to several problems.

  • People don’t behave like machines. If you design an organisation expecting that they will, you’re going to be disappointed.
  • It’s demeaning to represent your most valuable resource (people) as parts of a machine: “Hello, I’m one of six M3 bolts that hold the flange that is the community support team onto the input pipe that is adults’ services.” Why waste a good education on being a bolt?
  • Machines don’t learn. Think of a video recorder: you programme it to record X; instead it records Y. It does exactly the same thing the week after – even though you have told it not to. The machine metaphor offers no hope for improvement or self-correction – machines just go on doing more of the same. And if you do what you always did, you get what you always got.
  • Machines are insensitive things. At a time when managers are applying ideas of systems thinking, this metaphor breaks down because machines do not respond and adapt to changes in their environments in the way that natural systems need to in order to survive.
  • Machines do not cope with variety – they are designed to transform given inputs into given outputs. In contrast, social work is full of variety, both in terms of the needs it is presented with and the outcomes it helps to achieve. Even machines of a similar class are inflexible. Try using an electric drill to make a souffl’. But if you have only a drill, every box of eggs looks like a shelving project. If you have only residential care, every vulnerable older person looks like a resident.
  • Machine metaphors emphasise conformity and efficiency over responsiveness and effectiveness. Nineteenth-century industrial philanthropists used their experiences of factory design and mass production as models for early welfare and penal institutions. The vestiges of these ideas remain with us. For example, could the cost efficiencies driving home care turn people’s homes into a new form of institutional care? Remember, it’s possible to do bad with great efficiency and economy.
  • Machines have Fat Controllers. The machine idea suggests that knowledge of what “needs to be done” is located centrally. In reality, knowledge and practice wisdom are distributed across the organisation. Most of what needs to be done is beyond the view and influence of the controller.

We can be thankful there are signs that use of the machine metaphor may be in decline. Commenting on the need to focus effort on failing services rather than on ones that appear to be succeeding, James Strachan, the new head of the Audit Commission, says: “If you’ve got a beautiful flowering plant, why would you pull it up by the roots every day to check its progress when over here there are some plants that are on the verge of death and in need of attention?” (“It’s about more than money”, 8 January.)

For the 1990s manager, raised on dreams of care-management machines – gleaming nitro-fuelled, turbo-charged V8 organisations – the idea of being likened to a pansy by the head of the Audit Commission must be a bit like Formula One fans being urged by Michael Schumacher to dig up the smooth tarmac of the race tracks and plant salad leaves.

But the idea of an organisation as a smallholding opens up rich metaphorical possibilities that allow us to explore organisational life from a different perspective. This metaphor sees the organisation as an “open system” that affects and is affected by its environment. That environment is predictable up to a point – but we can never predict how favourable or hostile conditions are going to be.

Metaphors based on natural systems are far more suited to exploring organisational change. Change in nature can take many forms – from evolutionary to catastrophic. Natural metaphors also encourage ideas of growth, renewal, balance and cyclical change. They allow us to see our roles in terms of stewardship and husbandry rather than as Fat Controllers.

These images are not just about creating romantic, pastoral images of organisational rose gardens. Natural systems are also ruthlessly efficient and unforgiving. So if everything in the rose garden begins to smell too sweet, we can easily introduce an element of adversity – blight, pests and, of course, that old favourite, over-manuring.

Mike Pinnock “gardens” for North Lincolnshire Council where he is head of learning development and support.

Top Tips

  • Use exploration or journey metaphors, but go easy on the maps – you’ve not been here before.
  • Use music (jazz) metaphors. Managers improvise on themes: they can’t be cherubic choristers “singing off the same hymn sheet”.

Rubbish tips

  • Stick to military metaphors: they depict activities as directed and regulated through command systems.
  • Staff like to follow orders.

More from Community Care

Comments are closed.