Metaphors in Managerial and Employee Sensemaking in an Information Systems Project

Riitta Hekkala, Mari-Klara Stein, Matti Rossi

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This longitudinal study looks at the metaphors used in a public sector information systems development project from the perspective of cognitive metaphor theory (Lakoff & Johnson,). We examine the use of metaphors by project team members, including representatives of the users, software developers and the managers guiding the project work. The findings indicate that project team members and managers use a rich set of metaphors to make sense of the project and the records management system they are working on. Notably, distinct sets of metaphors are used in different project phases and among the project personnel and management. As the differences in the metaphors also coincide with key events in the trajectory of the project, we contend that metaphors have significant power in sensemaking, influencing action and project outcomes. In particular, we find that in highly ambiguous, knowledge-intensive situations, metaphor use with unclear intentions and purpose hinders learning and creates more chaos than order. From a practical perspective, our study highlights the relevance of metaphor use for project management. We suggest that intentional selection of metaphors by management could be beneficial for many complex information systems projects.
Original languageEnglish
JournalInformation Systems Journal
Issue number1
Pages (from-to)142-174
Number of pages33
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2018


  • Cognitive metaphor theory
  • Information systems development
  • Metaphors
  • Qualitative case study
  • Sensemaking

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