An Organization cognitive map



di Laudadio, M. Amendola, G. Montalbano, R. Porcelli, A. Grimaldi 

As in many science areas (Cipolla, De Lillo, 1996), even in the organizational culture analysis it is possible to notice a contraposition between quantitative and qualitative methods (Lucatelli, Avallone, 1998). The contraposition, started in the research phase, has then moved into the practical one, developing two macro methodologies of cultural analysis: the first one focused on quantitative techniques; the other one based on interview techniques (Macrì, Tagliaventi; 2000).

However, considering the new epistemological point of view about the research, this contraposition seems to be overcame (cfr E. Pessa 2004).

A research area which seems not to be enough explored yet, refers to representations that individuals have about the organizations in terms of members and their relations. This document deals with the quali-quantitative instrument “Organizzazione”, projected in order to explore the representations that individuals have about organizations. It is composed of 25 cards; each one symbolises an individual. Each individual is described with some characteristics (gender, personality, the way we behave in group). The individuals are requested to set the cards in order to build an organization. They can choose the form, the relations and the number of cards. The data have been inserted in a matrix based on the relation of each card-profile to another one. Some cluster analysis have been done on this matrix trough traditional methodology as well as trough a neural one. The results, which are presented by a hierarchical tree plot and a flow chart, have highlighted two interesting indications: the first one concerns the representation of organisation, which seems to be enough stable and accessible for individuals;  the second one refers two the differences, which seem to be related to the difference of gender. In detail, women are distinguished by men by the card selected, in order to design the organization, and by the “average” shape of the organization built.

Macrì D. M., Tagliaventi, M. R; (2000), La ricerca qualitativa nelle organizzazioni, Carocci Editore, Roma

Pessa E.; (2004), Statistica con le reti neurali. Un’introduzione, Di Renzo Editore, Roma

Cipolla C., De Lillo A. (a cura di); (1996), Il sociologo e le sirene. La sfida dei metodi qualitativi, Franco Angeli, Milano

Lucatelli E., Avallone F. (1998) “Cultura nazionale e cultura organizzativa. Il contributo di Hofstede” in F.Avallone (a cura di) Conoscere le organizzazioni. Strumenti di ricerca intervento. Guerini Studio, Milano

This research paper was undertaken in response to a question we had been asking ourselves. What concept do people have of an organisation? Or, to put it better, is there a stable organisation framework within each one of us?

To clarify the question I will ask each of you to make a small effort of imagination. Close your eyes and try, if you can, to imagine what the Board of Directors of Microsoft is like. And what about that of Coca-Cola.

If you have managed to conjure up a picture, and particularly if you have two different pictures in your mind, we can now ask what caused the appearance of these images. Are there individual dimensions that determine how we imagine an organisation?

I work in a research institute where groups of ‘permanent’ colleagues are joined at various times by people who work at the institute for only a few months – typically on work-placement or training periods. The idea for our research came to us from observing some of their reactions and comments. Finding themselves in an organisation about which they know little or nothing, they can often be seen, much to our amusement, getting people’s roles wrong – for instance, mistaking secretaries for managers – or battling to understand personnel organisation in their new environment.

The same difficulties arise when we have to deal with new technology – a new television or mobile telephone, for instance – and we cannot find the functions that came so easily to hand in the old model, even though the packaging tells us they are there. Ergonomics ascribe this difficulty to the failure of our mental image of the menu to ‘match’ the actual menu. The more remote are the images, the harder it is for us to navigate within them.

If you have managed to follow me so far, you will realise what the aim of our study is: to explore the individual map of the concept of organisation.

To achieve this objective we developed the following procedure. A number of people – the survey covers just under 200 subjects, as I will explain in detail later – were shown, separately, 18 cards representing people. There were therefore 18 people in all. The participants were asked to follow precise instructions: they had to arrange the cards on a flat surface in such a way as to create (build) an organisation. They did not have to use all the cards; some could be discarded. It was later calculated that the participants took around 40 minutes (s.d. 17 minutes) to complete the task, the slowest taking 110 minutes and the quickest 10 minutes. After the participants had finished, the arrangement of the cards was photographed. To give you an idea, I will show you some of the photographs we took.

Immediately afterwards, the participant was asked to answer a behavioural survey while the interviewer made some notes on a card which was later used to establish how long it took the person to complete the task, what difficulties they encountered, how many cards they used and how many they discarded.

Before discussing the actual results we need to explain three points: what the cards were like; who they were given to; and what was asked in the questionnaire.

Description of the Cards

 The cards are basically square pieces of cardboard representing a ‘person’. They contain the following information: name (designed to indicate gender), age, educational qualification, and some descriptive adjectives (three or four).

Briefly, 8 of the 18 cards represent women and 10 men. The average age of the people on the cards is 40.

I will give you a few examples of the sort of adjectives used to described the people: ‘reliable’, ‘absent-minded’, ‘creative’, ‘demotivated’. We had only one concern while preparing the cards: that they should bring the people to life, in other words that they should have a high degree of internal coherence. We decided to draw the cards randomly from a database which already included other cards created earlier from spontaneous descriptions given by the interviewees. Several experts thought the cards were credible, in the sense that they had a high degree of internal coherence. Why 18 cards? We thought that this number was large enough to build an organisation and small enough for the participants to recall the cards while they performed the task.

The cards were distributed randomly among the participants and the task was of course conducted in a protected environment.

The Second Question

Who Were the Cards Given To?

 The nature of the project did not require us to use a sample that was representative of a specific universe, so it would be correct to speak of a sample of convenience. The following slide gives some information on the 179 participants in the study.

46.93% of the subjects are men and 53.07% women. Their average age is 42 years and 10 months (s.d. 12 years and 6 months). The oldest participant is 77 years of age and the youngest 20. 70.95% say they work in an organisation, while 23.59% say they do not work in an organisation.

79.33% of the participants are employed, 6.70% unemployed, 13.41% are students and 9.50% are retired.

55.87% hold an upper secondary-education certificate, 33.52% a university degree, 9.50% a lower secondary-education certificate and 1.12% a primary-education certificate.

58.39% are clerical workers, 8.03% free-lance workers, 5.11% entrepreneurs, 5.11% teachers, 4.38% blue-collar workers, and 2.19% retailers or wholesalers (16.79% fall into the category ‘other’).

68.84% have permanent jobs, 8.70% are working under fixed-term contracts, 9.42% have ‘project-by-project’ contracts (maximum 2 years, renewable for a further 2) and 13.04% have replied ‘other’.

The Last Question

What Was Asked in the Questionnaire?

 The questionnaire is divided into 4 areas of content: Section 1, personal information; Section 2, concept of an organisation (a sample question is: What do you think an organisation is? Can you name the first three that come to mind?); Section 3, life in an organisation (Do you work in an organisation? For how long? What do you do? What is your role?); Section 4, notes and comments on the arrangement (What organisation did you think of? Which card made the most impression on you?), including a semantic differential to explore the participant’s attitude to the organisation they mapped.


We can now present some results.

Our first finding is as follows: not only were the participants able to complete the task of creating/building an organisation, but it seems that they enjoyed doing so. This is not something to take for granted, we feel. I don’t know if any of you were able to imagine the Board of Directors of Microsoft or Coca-Cola. All I can say is that the people we interviewed for this study found the task easy and enjoyable.

On a scale from 1 (very easy) to 7 (very hard), the average answer was 3.58 (s.d. 1.19) (Neither easy nor hard). On the other hand, on a scale from 1 (very enjoyable) to 7 (very boring) they answered 2.93 (s.d. 0.91) (fairly enjoyable), with no distinction as to gender or employment status.

The second interesting observation relates to the concept of organisation as described by the participants after completing the task with the cards. The questionnaire explicitly asked the respondents: ‘What do you think an organisation is?’

The slide you are now viewing shows the outcome of the text analysis carried out on the replies.


Struttura = Structure

Raggiungere = Achieve

Lavoro = Work

Obiettivo = Objective

Insieme = Set

Persone = People

Collaborano = Co-operate

Comune = Shared

Coordinate = Co-ordinated

As you see, the output makes it easy to single out a small group of key words that can be used to arrive at a collective definition of organisation: an organisation is a SET (or a GROUP or TEAM, which the content analysis treated as synonyms) of PEOPLE (or INDIVIDUALS –  for the same reason) who WORK to ACHIEVE an OBJECTIVE.

Another point can be made if we consider which cards the participants used for the task.

We explained at the start that the participants were not constrained in any way in their choice of cards. They were free to use anywhere between 1 and 18 cards. On average they used 12.18 cards (s.d. 4.25). The smallest number of cards used was 3 and the largest 18.

If we apply the ANOVA test to separate men and women, we find a significant difference between the genders. On average the women used fewer cards than the men. 11.44 cards were used by the women (s.d. 4.23) and 13.02 by the men (s.d. 4.14).

Dividing the sample by other variables, we find differences in the use of the cards that are worth noting.

There is a substantial difference as regards age. Participants under 40 years of age used on average 13.40 cards (s.d. 3.80) while those over 40 used 11.35 (s.d. 4.34).

There is also a significant difference between those who work in an organisation and those who don’t. The participants who work in an organisation used 12.60 cards (s.d. 4.22) while those who don’t used 11.15 (s.d. 4.16).

Contrary to expectations, there is no significant correlation between the number of people working in the organisation to which a participant belongs and the number of cards used.

We can also draw some conclusions regarding the actual cards used as opposed to their number.

The cards used most often were Samantha, Antonio and Gianna. The ones used least often were Francesco, Giuseppe and Sara. One wonders why. To try to interpret the result we built a co-occurrence matrix in which the lines and the columns show the cards and the cells contained the number of times each card was used with each other card. The correspondence-analysis method was then applied on the matrix.

The chart below gives the result. The correspondence analysis identified two factors. The first, which appears horizontally in the chart, can explain 38% of the variance; the second, running vertically, explains 17%.

Along the first axis, the cards appear to be arranged according to frequency of use. In fact, on the right we find the least used cards and on the left the most used cards. We thought the explanation might be a general criterion of assessment (positive versus negative) adopted by the participants. The cards that were judged to be the most positive overall would therefore be the ones used most often; on the contrary, the most negative cards would be the ones least used. Alternatively, another theory is that the use of the cards might also indicate their compatibility with the organisation. If we accept the concept of an organisation as a SET of PEOPLE who WORK to ACHIEVE an OBJECTIVE, then Sara and Giuseppe do not appear to fulfil this requirement.

Sara is conceited, lazy and inexperienced.

Giuseppe is bossy, forgetful, stressed and well-dressed.

On the other hand, the traits that are highly compatible with the life of an organisation appear to be those of Samantha (understanding, helpful and sensitive) and Antonio (practical, fussy and tidy).

The second, vertical axis refers to the ‘personality’ of the cards. The cards at the bottom are the ones associated with Sociability – Creativeness; those at the top with Realism – Conventionality.

Rita is cold, punctual and faultless.

Davide is reserved, orderly and boring.

Bruno is straightforward, inflexible and individualistic.

On the other hand, i.e. below, Francesco is likeable, lazy and idealistic.

Claudio is imaginative, informal and absent-minded.

Gianna is dynamic, creative and absent-minded.

As I said before, on average the men used more cards than the women, but which cards specifically were used differently by the men and the women?

Unlike the women, the men used Davide, Rita, Nicola and Marco more frequently, all of which are close to the realistic – conventional pole.

The men did not, however, choose to make up more ‘male-dominated’ or ‘female-dominated’ organisations, and nor did the opposite happen, that the women decided to create more ‘female-dominated’ or ‘male-dominated’ organisations.

The most interesting information came from the forms chosen, in other words the way each participant arranged the cards when asked to create/build an organisation. We have 179 representations of an organisation, i.e. 179 photographs that we have transformed into charts of the same scale.

These charts were shown within a focus group to 7 research workers who suggested possible categories for describing the forms of the organisations. For example, they would say whether the structure was hierarchical or in the shape of a pyramid; whether it had a linear (flat) shape or was ‘monolithic’, i.e. when all the cards are represented inside a single, square or parallelepipedal block.

As far as the ‘structure’ of the organisation is concerned, for example, the descriptors refer to the possibility of identifying separate sub-structures, a separate management body and a single head.

At this point, for each photograph, three judges outlined the characteristics of the organisation on a grid.

Overall, in 90% of cases some form of hierarchy can be detected and in 69.27% of cases it is possible to pinpoint the management. In 33.33% of cases this hierarchy is topped by a single head.

The pyramid was present in 31.76% of cases; the monolith in 16.26%.

At the start of the study, we expected to be able to identify a larger number of ‘circular’ structures, but instead they were extremely rare (only 4 cases).

Regarding gender, two significant differences were found (Chi2 Test). The men (40.50%) represented pyramid-shaped organisations more often than the women (24.17%).

Another contrast emerged regarding the differentiation between structures. Significantly more men (43.03%) than women (23.33%) distinguished clearly between different sub-structures in their map of an organisation.

Major divergences were found between the over-40s and the under-40s. 87.30% of the under-40s depicted a clearly separate management, compared with 58.25% of the over-40s. Furthermore, 44.44% of the under-40s identified a single head, whereas among the over-40s the percentage drops to 26.47%.

Final Comments

Overall, the research study did not provide results so much as to offer a number of suggestions.

The pilot study I have just presented – despite the limitation of some generalisations – seems to highlight the possible existence of cognitive maps linked to the concept of organisation. These maps are apparently in some way related to dimensions such as gender and age. Moreover, the participants seemed to map organisations that were in some respect internally consistent as far as ‘personality’ traits are concerned. At this point, we must ask ourselves how stable these maps are, how much they influence the professional and organisational life of the participants, what events might alter or reinforce them and whether there are cognitive styles underlying the conceptual map of an organisation. For example, the distance between the cards (compact organisation versus broad organisation) could be a dimension of this cognitive style.

This preliminary phase of the study was mainly intended to test the general framework. The next step could be to test specific stages of the research. In the first place, the participants could be given more specific initial stimuli so that we can make a better assessment of some of the dimensions that emerged during the pilot study. In fact, at a later stage the participants will probably not be asked to imagine an organisation as they wish but to imagine one that is somehow more defined (sector of production, years in business, mission, and so on). In addition, some steps will be repeated with a different pack of cards to check how far (we hope as little as possible) changes in the cards will entail significant changes in the ‘form’ of the organisation.