Use of metaphors LO5652
Thu, 15 Feb 1996 12:56:10 -0500

Replying to LO5602 --

Gray Southern writes in responce to Hurst: Why use metaphors when we can
use reality?

Hurst writes: We must push metaphors until they break. They are all we
have to communicate about reality.

If one looks up the root definition of the word metaphor it refers to
carrying across a boundary. The boundary of concern with humans is our
ways of seeing and knowing the world. So Hurst's point (that when a
metaphor doesn't break it is a useful candidate for a helpful model) has

A good example of this is Stafford Beers book (1981, John Wiley and Sons)
" The Brain of the Firm" (latter the points extracted from it were made a
bit more readable for managers and consultants in "Diagnosing the System
For Organizations", 1985). Beer very rigorously examines the human nervous
system and neurophysiology. Brain and management structures are
effectively compared and a theory of effective organization is evolved.
This process should not be thought of as 'analogy' but as the pursuit of
fundamental principles whereby self-regulatory systems are necessarily
constructed. Beer was attempting to map across from an examination of the
human nervous system (arguably the most complex communications structure
nature has evolved at this point) the scientific laws that govern any
viable (ie capable of surving) system.

It is also true that any metaphor will likely have missing elements when
applied to reality. That is okay for the contexts within which it is
workable. Newtonian physics works fine in many contexts and would need to
be jettisoned in the contexts where Einstein's theory of relativity took
precedence. Or in the above example of Stafford Beer his model leaves out
the political nature of human systems and the critical human requirements
for effective work as articulated by Dr. Fred Emery in his Socio-Technical
Systems theory.

I found Beers work very useful in understanding system-environment
relationships (for instance the importance of having properly designed
homeostatic regulators to absorb an immense proliferation of variety from
environmental forces in order to remain viable. And yet when I attempted
to apply his work in my consulting practice to help organizations renew
themselves by facilitating a self-organization process to become actively
adaptive I ran up against the limits described above and had to look
elsewhere for models and metaphors which would address the roadblocks I
had encountered.

As creatures of context, we first understand the world by the act of
transposing what is outside to a corresponding something inside. We make
the familar strange and the strange familiar when we use a metaphor or way
of thinking in one area that borrows from another one where it would not
normally be used. And that is how we learn, grow, adapt and make sense of
the world.

Steven Cabana
Whole System Associates
P.O. Box 254
Lincoln, MA. 01773
508 466-6884 phone and fax

Helping organizations set direction and redesign themselves to get there.


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