The Organic Metaphor in Knowledge Management

Yasmin Merali
University of Hull, ENG


Information technology has enabled the world to become increasingly interconnected. The competitive context is growing more complex and dynamic as the terrain for competition assumes global dimensions and the focus of competition extends from the occupation of physical space to that of cyberspace. An associated spatio-temporal contraction (resulting from the speed with which information traverses the globe and the ability to coordinate geographically distributed processes and activities across organizational boundaries in real time) means that changes in the competitive environment affect organizations more quickly. In many industries, this phenomenon is marked by an increased rate of organizational transformation, with firms developing or acquiring capabilities that often lie outside the traditional trajectories of their native industry sector. Organizations are both of and in the competitive context: while they are affected by changes in the competitive context, their own actions influence that context and the behavior of other players within it.

As communication constraints are rapidly diminishing, some material and physical constraints are becoming more pronounced, with the impact of environmental and economic disasters being transmitted more directly across the world. For example, the recent Far Eastern economic crisis had significant impacts on the West, while the impact of dumping First World technology rejects (like CFC refrigerators) on the Third World is rapidly catching up with us. Global warming and other environmental issues are perceived to be important for the futures of the First and Third Worlds alike. According to media coverage, the future of the planet is uncertain at a macro level. Although this pronouncement of uncertainty does not generally drive businesses to behave more responsibly for the greater good, it does promote an awareness of the interconnectedness of individual (personal, organizational, national) actions and global outcomes.

The notion of success in this type of uncertain and dynamic environment raises three issues. The first is related to change: How can an organization organize itself to change quickly enough, efficiently, and appropriately in an environment that cannot be predicted? The second issue is one of sustainability: How does an organization ensure that any transformation it undertakes leaves it with the requisite capabilities to deal effectively with future changes in the environment? And finally, how can an organization ensure that its actions do not diminish those aspects of the environment that favor its survival?

Biological systems display many of the characteristics that appear desirable for organizational survival in this type of context: coordination, robustness, requisite variety, and adaptability in the face of significant changes in the environment. The organization of such systems is therefore of interest to those who believe that emergent properties arise from relationships and interactions of constituent components of systems with each other and with their environment. In the following sections we look at the utility of metaphor in general and that of the organic metaphor in particular to gain insights into the organization and being of socially constructed intelligent organizations in transformational contexts.


There is no “real” expression and no real knowing apart from metaphor. But deception on this point remains … The most accustomed metaphors, the usual ones, now pass for truths and as standards for measuring the rarer ones. The only intrinsic difference here is the difference between custom and novelty, frequency and rarity. Nietszche (1872: 50-51)

There is a substantial body of work propounding that the use of metaphor is necessary for any conceptualization of reality (e.g., Nietszche, 1872; Lackoff & Johnson, 1980; Morgan, 1986; Lackoff, 1987). In this section we consider the role of metaphor in the development, articulation, and establishment of knowledge claims.

At a fundamental level, metaphor facilitates an understanding of complex things by making reference to a known concept in a direct and implicit way. Because it implies a comparison between two apparently unconnected things, it invites the recipient to construct at an abstract level a meaningful (to the recipient) attribution of aspects of correspondence between the two things. By promoting exploration (the search for suitable attribution) and participation (by the recipient taking the sender's metaphor and making it work), the metaphor provides the vehicle and substrate for the evolution and diffusion of thought and concept.


The use of metaphor to articulate common knowing and shared experience enables the establishment of common points of reference for the positioning of new concepts in the knowing of the participants. While the map is not the territory, establishing a map enables mutual exploration of the territory. The explicit use of metaphor can facilitate the individual and collective action-learning cycles (Merali, 2000) through recursive experiential mapping: the metaphor is used to conceptualize the experience and the validity of the concept is tested empirically. The cycle is repeated until the metaphor ceases to be useful or valid.

For the purposes of communication, the utility of a metaphor that works is illustrated by words and expressions absorbed into our everyday linguistic coinage (e.g., “daisy” [day's eye], “time flies”). This represents the intersubjective consensus about the validity of specific metaphors, bounded by common semantic usage.

One commonly cited danger of the metaphor that works too well is that its domination may lead to mistaking the map for the territory. This, it is suggested, will lead to the bounding of the concept space. As a consequence, when people turn from using the metaphor to conceptualize reality in abstraction to realizing the concept in the world of action, they get a nasty surprise from running into characteristics of the real world that were not presaged by the metaphor.

At this juncture, it is useful to distinguish between metaphor and analogy. A metaphor operates referentially, whereas an analogy is powerful because of its representational efficacy. The mapping between the concept/object pairing in a metaphor is effective if there is a striking correspondence of some property (or quality) between the pair. An analogy, on the other hand, provides a model of the object/concept that it seeks to explain. Metaphors can be, and are, used to generate analogies that can then be embodied in models that appear congruent with real-world objects and behaviors. The use of ant colony behavior patterns to solve aircraft routing problems and that of insect locomotion patterns in the design of robots are examples of this type of work, demonstrating the exploitation of concepts emanating from biological metaphors.

For the purposes of exploration of ideas, the metaphor is useful while it works and when it breaks down. Exploration with the metaphor that works consistently generates incremental development of contiguous concepts and may give us new vocabulary for the articulation of emergent concepts. When a metaphor is stretched to breaking point, it reveals the limitation of the associated concept space and catalyzes the search in a new direction. We see this happening in knowledge management, with the breakdown of the machine metaphor (as embodied in Tayloristic management practice) and the surge of engagement with the organic metaphor.


An interesting aspect of competition in cyberspace is the emergent nature of the space itself and of competitive structures within that space. The associated management rhetoric is dominated by notions of uncertainty, change, regeneration, and dynamism. The importance of sensing and making sense of the dynamic context, and of adapting strategies and behaviors that promote viability and sustainability of the organization in interaction with that context, is reflected in the contemporaneous births and deaths of ventures, and is theorized about in the strategy and organizational development literatures.

The properties required to survive in the new context are:

The intellectual appeal of the organic metaphor lies in its easy accommodation of these characteristics. It is wide ranging: It embraces living systems from primitive unicellular organisms through to humans, and it scales from very simple, isolated life forms through to complex ecosystems. There is a plethora of relevant concepts at our disposal when utilizing the organic metaphor to explore emergent problem domains.

Like organizations, the living systems at the heart of the organic metaphor are complex adaptive systems: they are self-organizing, self-producing open systems capable of maintaining stable states under nonequilibrium conditions. Viable systems appear to have a sustainable balance between requisite variety (necessary for responding to changes in context), redundancy (necessary for robustness), and efficiency.

Self-organization represents considerable design elegance, accommodating responsiveness to local changes while maintaining the organization and integrity of the global form through relational contiguity and intelligence networks. The capability for globally positioned, locally generated action supports speed, high granularity, and fineness of control in interactions with the environment, and generates a robustness in the face of changing conditions.

Of particular interest for designers of organizations is the metaphor of self-organizing networks (q.v. Maturana & Varela's, 1973, self-producing networks of production, Luhmann's, 1990, self-producing networks of communication). The use of the self-organizing network metaphor for the phenomenon of intelligent organizational behavior is significant because it enables insights from a wide range of other disciplines (including physics, computer science, artificial intelligence, biology, economics, and organizational science) that have used the network metaphor to make analogies that have been mapped down to the structural level for emergent systems behaviors. Employing the self-organizing network metaphor has the additional advantage that it provides a dimension for congruence with other work in intelligence (e.g., the use of neural nets in artificial intelligence) and complexity (e.g., Kauffman's, 1995, NK networks).


Many of the writers on knowledge management highlight the importance of shifting our focus from knowledge to knowing (Cook & Brown, 1999) and from being to becoming (Juarrero, 1999), underlining the context sensitive and transitory nature of organized states. For emergent behavior in dynamic contexts, we can think of knowing and being as coupled in a recursive relationship engaged in organizational becoming.

The emergent nature of the world coupled with the need to react quickly has challenged the efficacy of traditional programmatic decision-making modes (entailing the explicit definition of the problem, assembly of all relevant information, analysis of the information, generation, and evaluation of options, selection of the best option) as the sole means of deciding to act in organizations.

At a fundamental level, there is a problem with the notion that the appropriateness of action in the present can be honed to perfection by perfect knowledge about the present, encapsulated in the concept of specious present. Knowledge of the present only exists in the future: we can know what has passed and we can make judgments about what may come, but we have knowledge of the present only when we have lived through it and so it becomes known as knowledge of the past. For organizations that need to react quickly, the emergent pattern of actions has to be based on something other than logical derivation from what is already known.

The traditional knowledge management concept (of learning from action, codifying what is learned, incorporating it into best-practice guidelines, and disseminating it throughout the organization) is challenged not only because it is too slow as a mechanism, but also because relevant knowledge is context-dependent knowledge; in rapidly changing contexts the selection and reframing of what is known must happen in conjunction with what is dynamically learned (discovered about, or revealed by) in the contingent context.

So while some situations can still be dealt with effectively by basing actions on the analysis of what is known about the past, the need to react to contextual changes in real time demands that we find a different way of looking at intelligent action.


Against this background, the organic metaphor of complex self-organizing intelligent systems becomes a very compelling one. In these systems, action is based jointly or variously on reflexes, learned reflexes, and considered decision making, involving different functional aspects of the nervous system. The concept of learned reflexes is particularly interesting, exploiting as it does the synergies between path-dependent learning and experience with the real-time contingencies of being in the world.

Learning to drive or becoming a world-class champion table tennis player are examples of instances where conscious thought is engaged to the degree to which it is providing overall strategic direction. The learned reflex (especially in the instance of the world-class champion table tennis player) is faster, more detailed, and more precise than purely conscious thought would allow.

This degree of coordination and speed in acting appropriately to externally generated contingencies is supported by the underlying self-organizing network (comprising different functional aspects of the sensory, nervous, and motor systems) that recognizes relevant external contingencies and generates the appropriate stroke, which not only connects with the approaching shot but also positions the return strategically in relation to the opponent's position and form.


The notion of a recursive relationship between knowing and being resonates with Heidegger's notion of Dasein (Heidegger, 1962). Being in the world is inevitable; it is not conditional on doing, or on making decisions about becoming. Choosing to act in different ways may lead to different outcomes, but being is persistent regardless of whether decisions are made, acted on or not. This highlights the importance of self-awareness. To be is to have some impact on the world, and understanding the nature of this impact is fundamental to making choices about how to act in the world.

Metaphors based on primitive organic systems clearly have no parallel in this context of organizational being and doing. To develop an organic metaphor for organizational being and doing presupposes some concept of organizational self-consciousness and self-identity. Powerful, relevant organic metaphors must of necessity come from higher organisms, i.e., those that can be described as sentient. The most complex (and possibly the most interesting) sentient beings are humans, and it is quite common to find metaphorical reference to human qualities and behaviors (such as identity, values, and choice) when describing organizations. This type of usage carries with it the danger of becoming excessively anthropocentric. If we remain mindful of this danger, the human metaphor is a very powerful one, as we have first-hand knowledge of its referent domain.


The “real world” exists in its entirety. We choose a set of attributes to define the world and to describe the behaviors that we see around us (q.v. Nietszche's “There is no ‘real' expression and no real knowing apart from metaphor”). The world is not governed by Newtonian physics or quantum mechanics or thermodynamics. There are features and behaviors that we attribute to the world. We attempt to describe and explain them by alluding to various bodies of knowledge as diverse as Newtonian physics, quantum physics, miracles, and divine intervention.

This is particularly important in view of the current polarization of the holistic and reductionist schools of thought. Within the holistic school there is a tendency to reject the fruits of reductionist labor on the grounds of ontological incompatability, and the reductionist school is dismissive of holistic sentiments on the grounds of incommensurability.

When attempting to make sense of something as complex as systems of human activity embedded in dynamic contexts, multiple viewpoints give the widest possible insight. Polarization of viewpoints (e.g., the reductionist/holistic division) is limiting and potentially dangerous. There is nothing wrong with the reductionist point of view (so far as it goes), nor is there anything wrong with a holistic open systems view (so far as it goes). Both are useful in so far as both have recognized limitations. Lose sight of the limitations and Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (Carroll, 1865) becomes closer to reality.

The organic metaphor is useful in bridging the chasm between reductionist and holistic views in knowledge management. Although it is favored by the holistic camp, there is no reason that it cannot be used in a reductionist way according to appropriateness and awareness of limitations. The concept of the self-organizing network is an example of a metaphor whose meaning and utility has wide applicability. It is, on the one hand, used in a holistic manner for understanding communities of practice in knowledge management and, on the other, reduced to an analog for the design of automated language-recognition software by computer scientists using reductionist programming techniques. Both endeavors are valuable for the realization of viable, intelligent organizations.

This article has focused on the use of the self-organizing organic network metaphor in knowledge management, and, as a specific example, shown how the learned reflex, with its integration of multiple functional aspects of the sensory, nervous, and motor systems, constitutes a powerful and apposite metaphor for looking at real-time knowledge management in dynamic contexts.


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