Brain as Metaphor for Organization

Since Kurt Lewin’s founding work, organizational behaviorists have viewed the organization as an “organism” which exists in an interacting system. “Open systems theory,” in turn, looks at the organization as an organism with permeable boundaries between its internal capabilities and competencies and the external environment, from which it draws sustenance (customers, investors, suppliers), restrictions (regulators, industry structures) and hostility (competitors).

In their textbook Organizational Development , French & Bell, C. provide the following characteristics of open systems:

  • Open systems are input–throughput–output mechanisms. They take inputs (e.g. people, resources, information), change them in some way, and then return the processed input to the environment as an output.
  • Open systems have permeable boundaries, which separate the organization from the environment.
  • Open systems have goals and exist for a purpose. These purposes must be compatible with environmental needs otherwise the system will cease to exist.
  • Open systems are homeostatic—they seek to achieve a state of equilibrium and minimize the impact of disruptive forces, whether internal or external.
  • Open systems are predisposed to becoming increasingly differentiated, getting more elaborated, complex and specialized over time. Thus increased co-ordination and integration are needed to manage systems as they develop.

Organization as organism, of course, is an excellent example of the power of metaphor. By examining the properties and characteristics of one concept, such as a living, breathing animal, we seek to understanding that we can apply to another concept, such as the complex nature of today’s organizations. Literature falling out of the open systems tradition of organizational development have generally depicted the organization as a one-celled organism interacting with its rather primordial environment.

Linguists and literary critics tell us that metaphor consists of two parts: the

  • tenor


  • vehicle

. The tenor is the subject to which attributes are ascribed. The vehicle is the subject from which the attributes are borrowed. (I.A. Richards in

The Philosophy of Rhetoric,

1936). Thus, open systems theorists in the domain of organization behavior typically deem the one-celled organism as the vehicle, and seek to extract learning about the organization as tenor. While the analogy has yielded considerable and useful insight about organizations, the simplicity and limitations of the vehicle - the simple-minded organism - diminish the potential utility of the metaphor.

Fortunately, the field of Neuroscience offers a much richer vehicle for understanding living systems: the brain. Like the tenor of our metaphor, the organization, the brain is composed of constituent systems that decide upon purpose and strategy (the frontal lobe of the cerebrum), motivate action (the amygdala), manage the flow of key information (the hippocampus), and enable communication from one sub-system to another (the corpus callosum).

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