Are you an elephant or a chameleon? Melvin Prince and Mark A. Davies consider whether animal metaphors can inspire fresh approaches to corporate thinking and behaviour.
The ability to understand how different stakeholders make sense of organisations is a key managerial competence. However, employees and customers may be reluctant to offer negative views of their organisations for fear of repercussion. How can managers who want to change the way their employees work find ways of bringing unspoken problems to the surface? Organisational metaphors are one way to generate succinct meaningful perceptions about an organisation and its activities.
There are several reasons why animal metaphors can help us understand corporate strategy. Animals suggest an ample range of choice and forms (size, shape, movement, temperament, agility, ability to adapt, etc.) We are familiar with a wide range of animals and can easily recognise their presumed characteristics. Thus, animals can be a helpful device for contrasting the strengths and weaknesses of organisations.
A recent survey asked employees to compare their organisations with an animal. Organisations likened to elephants were considered as big, slow and cumbersome, high in need for change. Centipedes, on the other hand, were associated with frantic and excessive energy, and characterised as low in need for change.
JA Belasco, in Teaching the Elephant to Dance, illustrated the fact that large companies, much like elephants, behave in traditional and habitual ways and fail to adapt to environmental changes. But former IBM chief executive Louis V. Gerstner argued that being an elephant was not necessarily a bad thing. According to Gerstner, elephants can use their natural advantages to be nimble and responsive. If elephants can do this, so can IBM. “Size can be leveraged,” he says. “Breadth and depth allow for greater investment, greater risktaking, and longer patience for future payoff.” The animal within Winter 2004 Business Strategy Review 49 Business Heroes Classic Thinking Are you an elephant or a chameleon? Melvin Prince and Mark A. Davies consider whether animal metaphors can inspire fresh approaches to corporate thinking and behaviour. Describing some of IBM’s competitors as ants, Gerstner claimed: “It isn’t a question of whether elephants can prevail over ants. It’s a question of whether a particular elephant can dance. If it can, the ants must leave the dance floor.”
Can animal metaphors offer sharp and clear messages? Or do such descriptors serve only to create a diffuse and confusing imagery between subjects?
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