The Role of the Machine Metaphor in Mixed-initiative Organizational Leadership

"Can This Marriage be Saved?" So reads the title of the cover story in the August 15, 2005 issue of BusinessWeek ( The article describes the seven-year (1998-2005) story of the merger of Daimler and Chrysler Corporation. As of this writing, the board of the merged companies decided to terminate the reign of the current chairman, Jürgen Schrempp. At the end of this year he will be replaced with Dieter Zetsche, the current head of the company's operations in North America. The article identifies the following five critical challenges facing the new chairman:

1. Improving product quality and worker morale.

2. Securing union support to gain flexible labor agreements.

3. Impressing on company executives to promote flexible and productive operations in North America.

4. Developing and executing a more coherent partnership strategy in Asia.

5. Addressing investor pressure to break up the merger.

The five challenges listed above clearly show that more people related problems (i.e., social issues) will need to be addressed than technology issues. The new chairman must embrace a mixed-initiative leadership style with a proportionate focus on both the technical and social aspects of the organization for the company to survive. This leadership style demands some proficiency in the science of complexity (i.e., the principles of managing the organization as a complex adaptive system) and the machine metaphor (i.e., the routine aspects of modern organizational life-job descriptions, corporate policies, strategic and operational plans, etc.)*. Organizational leaders cannot afford to place disproportionate focus on the machine metaphor in a complex organization.

The Machine Metaphor

The machine metaphor takes an objective view of an organization in which the interactions among the elements are predictable and controllable. Given that premise, organizational leaders take a mechanistic view of organizational management. The mechanistic view considers the organization as a combination of manageable components with organizational charts, job descriptions, policies, operational plans, people, etc. The machine metaphor is based on an organizational management belief that effective management can be realized by managing all organizational components.

The Flawed "People Management" Mindset

In some instances, this metaphor is incorrectly applied to people management. In her advice column for the Twentysomethings in the July 17, 2005 issue of the Washington Post, Career Track section, Mary Ellen Slayter wrote about why young professionals resist the offer to move to management. "I am not good at managing people" is the reason provided by a 49-year old lady for resisting the offer. In defending the new Department of Homeland Security's merit pay system, Clay Johnson III, the Deputy Director of the Office of Management and Budget asserts "The Federal government as a rule is pretty bad about managing people" (Washington Post, National News, July 19, 2005).

This mindset of people management is entrenched in our social and organizational systems. It is very important for organizational leaders to know that machine control techniques apply to things, not people. Except for the military, we manage things. We lead people. The role of a manager is to provide a rich and rewarding environment to enable workers to do their work. A human being is an agent in an organizational context. This agent's behavior is unpredictable. The agent must interact with other human agents, within a team, whose behavior is also unpredictable. The team must interact with other teams in a department. Next, we have inter-departmental interactions, which can lead to inter-divisional interactions, and so on. The result of the interactions is a complex organization, which must adapt to its environment to survive, because the organization is a living system. As articulated by Richard T. Pascale, Mark Millemann, and Linda Gioja in their book: Surfing the Edge of Chaos, (Random House, 2000), as a living system, the organization must abide by "the laws of nature and the new laws of business".

Whether managing a corner store or a global conglomerate, the manager/leader must always remember that an organization is a socio-technical system and the machine metaphor should be applied only to the technical or machinistic elements. To ensure the survival of the corporation, the leaders need to identify and understand those elements of the organizations that exhibit unpredictable behaviors, and those elements whose behaviors are predictable. They need to master and apply the management science of complex adaptive systems to the former and machine metaphor to the latter. These two approaches constitute the essence of a mixed-initiative perspective.

*(Plsek, PEP&A, Inc; Lindberg, VHA, Inc; Zimmerman, York University; 1997-Some emerging principles for managing in complex adaptive systems).

Dr. Odubiyi is the author of Blueprint for a Crooked House-a book that reflects on the factors that caused the collapse of a $10 billion global joint venture between AT&T and British Telecom. He is an associate professor of computer science at Bowie State University in Maryland. He was a Principal AI Researcher and R&D Manager at British Telecom North America/Concert Global Communications (USA).

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