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Introduction to the Use of Organizational Metaphors

In: Business and Management

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Module 1 – Introduction to the use of organizational metaphors One of the visions of the future I was given as a child growing up was that of totally automated factories where computers control every aspect of the operation, and robots executed every function required. Humans would no longer be needed to do mundane or dangerous tasks, and we could instead spend our days sitting by our pools, sipping cocktails and pondering what else we could do with all of our free time that technology provided. Fast forward in time to our modern reality. Computers and robots have indeed modernized production lines, and technology has permeated nearly every facet of our lives. Modern factories and businesses have become so technological that it is the roles of humans and machines have blurred. The truth is, however, that no matter how sophisticated machines may be; human intervention and participation is still essential to the smooth functioning of any organization. The subject of our case study, the Telebank call centre, is a very flat organization that is based on a functional structure. They have three categories of employees, so there aren’t the successive levels of supervisors or managers found in many other types of organizations. I think that this company replicates a “machine” in many ways. The work is repetitive and monotonous. Except for inputs of emotion to customize the experience for callers and to demonstrate some empathy to their plight, the basic tasks remain the same. Every aspect of the job is recorded, measured and analyzed, so as an engines diagnostic computer provides data so that engineers can maximize performance, so too is data produced. In fact the problem becomes what data is important because there is so much of it. Additionally, because the pace of work is controlled through automatic call distribution systems and individual tasks are controlled by other software, the people handling the calls become mere sensors and transmitters of the large machine.

In an odd bit of irony, the major technical components of the Telebank machine replicate its human creators. The individual phone terminals with which the machine gathers information resemble our nerves which gather inputs to our bodies. The call distribution system is the machine’s nervous system which transmits the data and input from the sensors. The system to record, analyze and capture all of the employee’s actions during the day, and manipulate and analyze the statistical data that is generated, is the brain of system. Just as the technical components of the machine replicate humans, so too do the social aspects of the machine. The work environment is a sectioned off area of the building that each team “lives in” and can customize to a certain extent. This bears a remarkable resemblance to the row houses or buildings that sprouted up in cities during the turn of the last century as more and more people moved from rural farming communities to cities. The living structures all looked the same from the outside, but could be somewhat customized on the inside to suit a team or families preferences. The other social components the status of the employees – whether full time or “key” time, which can be associated with “status” of a worker in a blue collar neighborhood, as well as the teams that the Telebank employees are organized into, which can be thought of as the neighborhood that the person lives in. The training in the 19 core standards of behavior is the final and perhaps the most important social component as they symbolize the rules and values that the people in the “neighborhood” must live with and abide by. One of the big fears that surfaced regarding the promulgation of technology into every aspect of our lives was the “big brother is watching” syndrome. People were afraid that the government or others in charge would monitor everything we did. While we now have the capability to do this with computers that monitor every keystroke we make, miniature cameras that record every move we make, and miniature recorders that record everything we say, this practice isn’t common. It is a fact of life, however in the Telebank call centre. Every keystroke and every second is recorded, measured and analyzed. Managers thus have mountains of statistical data with which to establish “norms” and set forth expectations of employees. Additionally they can specify how the automatic call distribution system routes call to control the tempo of work. They do this to maximize efficiency of their organization. The effect of exercising that control is customer and employee satisfaction. As in many other industries, there is a direct and inverse relationship between quantity and quality, and there is definitely a point of diminishing marginal returns where the benefit of doing one more call per hour is not worth the additional stress on the employee and the poor call quality that will result causing decreased customer satisfaction. It also has to wear on employees to know that every aspect of their work is being constantly monitored by the management Just as in Orwell’s novel where “big brother” had nearly complete control over everything that the people did, so too does the management at the Telebank call centre, and likewise, they exert that control with the best of intentions. The Telebank call centre exerts their control over the “lives” of their employees through a variety of means. They monitor and adjust the pace of calls that are routed to each employee, as well as provide codes that can be punched into individual terminals to temporarily divert calls to enable an employee to take care of personal needs., thus allowing the company to control the tempo of work. They monitor calls to ensure proper customer service. And, although call centre work is on an individual basis between the customer service representative (CSR) and the customer, the CSRs are formed into teams to foster teamwork, prevent feelings of isolation and to use team competitions to improve productivity. Additionally, they put their employees through extensive training where they institutionalize the workers into the social and organizational framework of their company. This type of environment has its merits in certain types of industries, but the philosophy of molding the entire company into a “machine” does have its limitations. The management realized early on that people are social creatures and although the work at the Telemark call centre is individual based, they formed the CSRs into teams to both foster a spirit of cooperation, but also to lessen the possible feelings of isolation. They also realized that people are individuals and not machines with individual needs that occur spontaneously, and not on a given schedule, hence the capability to input terminal codes to account for time away from their primary function. Perhaps the biggest challenge for management at the Telemark call centre and in similar companies is that although they can try to monitor and regulate employees and the work environment, they can only do so for a part of each day. Unlike machines, people leave the work place and go home where they have lives. People are not emotionless robots, but have emotions. They have good days and they have bad days. Management cannot control influences outside of the work place. People have personalities, brains and lives. While that may present a challenge to some in management, it is also the biggest strength that we have. Our intellect, curiosity and drive have resulted in our rising from club carrying hunters, to the most sophisticated beings the world has ever known. Machines are an important part of our culture and our Society. They accomplish many tasks that we as humans cannot, or choose not to do. It takes humans, however, to give machines life.
Cliff's Notes (N.D.) Concepts of Organizing. Retrieved November 10, 2008, from
Cliff's Notes (N.D.) Five Approaches to Organizational Design. Retrieved November 10, 2008, from
Callaghan, G. (2001) Socio-Technical Systems and Call Centres: A Case Study Investigation. Open University. Retrieved August 14, 2008, from Why a Socio-Technical System? Retrieved Sept. 23, 2007, from
Clark, S. (2000) Knowledge Management: A Sociotechnical Perspective. Keynote paper, OR42. Retrieved Sept. 23, 2007, from
Concluding Comments. Retrieved Sept. 23, 2007, from
Thorn, R. (1999) The Influence Of Organizational Structure On The Effectiveness Of TQM Programs. Journal of Managerial Issues. Retrieved Sept. 23, 2007, from

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