Monthly Archives: March 2016

Models, Metaphors and Analogies.

It is common to consider business structures by metaphors to other things. For instance, some people discuss organisations as if they are machines, where if you were to pull a handle a specific outcome will happen. Others consider societal models – battalions, tribes and so on. (Business leaders in particular seen to like military metaphors. Perhaps they like to imagine themselves as generals deploying the troops. Misguided, I’d say.) Yet others see medical metaphors, discussing organisations as if they were diseased bodies with issues to be cured.

Metaphors do serve a purpose: they help us to understand an organisation by thinking about it in a different way.

But they can also confuse. Organisations are made up of people, they are not strictly controlled and limited machines. They rarely work in the way you expect them to.

The more you know about the original subject of the metaphor, the weaker the metaphor can seem. There are two biological – botanical – metaphors that I have regularly come across that baffle me. Because I have been knowledgeable of botany (I have two degrees in the subject); and when I hear people using them, it seems that maybe the words don’t mean what they think they mean.

Let’s start with “rhizomes“. Rhizomes are, botanically, underground stems. They grow through the soil, occasionally putting up the visible bits of the plant. Iris have rhizomes; banana plants have rhizomes; bracken, the plant I am most familiar with, has rhizomes. I spent five years working with rhizomes. Whole hillsides can be covered by bracken, the visible fronds rising up from the subterranean rhizome. The rhizome grows through the soil, occasionally dividing, unseen. It divides and divides, growing on. The old rhizome rots away, and, reaching a dividing point, the divided rhizomes become two separate (though genetically identical, save for any random mutations that might have occurred).

Not a rhizome.
Photo by Tylerfinvold on Wikimedia, used under CC free licence GFDL.

When people talk to me about organisations with rhizome structures, what I see is a hillside covered in bracken, the rhizomes underground. True, it might be that my knowledge of bracken and other rhizomatous plants fogs the discussion somewhat. I’m sure that’s not the meaning they intended. But then I can’t help thinking maybe I know more about rhizomes than they do. And perhaps they should use a different model.

Not a “mycelium“, though. Mycelia might be considered to be the fungal equivalent of rhizomes. They are one of the fundamental parts of many (though not all) fungi: they grow as unseen filaments through a substrate – the soil, a dead tree, your skin. (Athlete’s Foot is a fungal infection, the fungus mycelia growing in your skin.) Mycelia are multi nucleate – fungi have a very different form to most organisms we’re familiar with – and they divide and reconnect. The visible parts of fungi we’re familiar with, mushrooms and toadstools growing above the ground, are specialised reproductive structures formed from mycelia: the fibres of the mushrooms we eat are composed of mycelia.

Not a mycelium.
Photo by chris_73Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

When business people talk to me about mycelium organisation structures, what I see is athlete’s foot, or a fairy ring, the outward sign of fungal mycelia growing out from a point in the soil.

I can’t help but wonder what it actually is that they’re trying to describe, but I’m pretty sure it’s not that. (I have tried to understand, but the use of the word seems woolly; I got several pages in on Google before I found a definition, unclear as it is.)

The thing is, the mental models we create to explain and describe the world matter. If we think of organisations using a doctor-patient metaphor, it will lead to examining them in that way; if we instead use a mechanical metaphor, or a military one, we will find something different.

There’s no right answer, of course. Models, metaphors and analogies help us investigate the world around us. But they also skew our thinking. And they need to be used with care.