Identity is one of the most prominent issues of contemporary organizations. Like individuals, organizations increasingly talk about “having” identities, seeking identities, expressing identities, and even changing identities. And the emphasis on identity is not idle talk. Having become an arena of managerial attention and concern, identity-related activities consume a growing amount of organizational resources and involve a wide variety of disciplines and practices across the organizational spectrum.
In spite of this development, the question of what identity means in the context of an organization is far from settled. It is commonplace to think of corporate or organizational identity as an answer to the question: who are we as an organization? Yet, this question immediately raises additional questions: who poses and answers this question? What purposes does the answer serve? Does an organization only have one identity? And (how) do organizational identities change over time? These questions and a number of conceptual issues occupy a remarkable place in the literature and indicate that corporate or organizational identity has become a highly contested terrain.
Our everyday language is often equivocal when we talk about identity. On the one hand, we use the notion of identity to describe the special or unique features that characterize a social entity and set it apart from its surroundings. In this sense, we think of identity as something solid, reliable, and continuous, in other words, something deeply rooted in the “personality” of the social entity. On the other hand, we frequently talk about shaping and changing identities, leaving the impression that identity is an ongoing project that can and should be planned, manufactured, and communicated into existence.
This equivocality is reflected in the managerial literature where descriptions of organizational identity as essence and continuity coexist with discussions of identity as projects of communication. With their now classical definition of organizational identity as the “central, distinct, and enduring dimensions of an organization,” management scholars Stuart Albert and David Whetten represent the former perspective. More specifically, Albert and Whetten refer to organizational identity as the inviolable core of an organization that shapes its choices and defines its integrity (Whetten 2006). By contrast, management scholars Blake Ashforth and Fred Mael regard organizational identity as more fluid and malleable. In line with the work of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who conceived of identities as ongoing stories, Ashforth and Mael define organizational identity as “unfolding and stylized narratives about the ‘soul’ or essence of the organization” (Ashforth & Mael 1996, 21). From this perspective, organizations enact their identities through the stories they, directly or indirectly, tell about themselves, their past, their ambitions, and their perceptions of the environment.
In the hope of circumscribing conceptual confusion, some writings try to establish a clear distinction between “corporate identity” and “organizational identity,” reducing the former to the sum of symbols that organizations seek to manipulate in order to shape their identity, and reserving the latter for the “deeper” layers of identity, that is, the organization’s “intrinsic” traits or characteristics. From a communication perspective, however, such a definitional solution is problematic for several reasons. First, because it implies a clear division line between the world of communication and the world of reality “behind,” excluding the possibility that corporate symbols and messages are significant forces in the transformation of organizational identities. Second, because it suggests that some observers have a privileged access to a deeper layer of identity – a layer untouched by corporate communications and other symbolic representations. When, for example, a scholar or a consultant of organizational identity points out that some corporate symbols (logos, architecture, advertisements, etc.) do not match the true character of an organization, they claim to have access to a world behind those symbols, a world behind appearances or beyond representations. From a semiotic perspective, Christensen and Askegaard (2001) point out that our access to organizations is always mediated by representations, some of which are more carefully designed and managed than others. Following this line of thought we can define corporate or organizational identity as the way an organization is commonly represented.
Because different audiences refer to different representations (products, logos, stories, behaviors, reputations, etc.) when they describe an organization, it is evident that the identity of an organization is not a given feature, but a reference point or a theme that we activate whenever we try to express what we believe an organization “is.” Obviously, some versions of this theme are more powerful than others – at least in the short run – backed up, for example, by corporate advertising campaigns or managerial decisions. Still, such official readings of organizational identity are frequently challenged by alternative interpretations provided, for example, by inquisitive journalists or critical interest groups who claim that their description of the organization is more true or realistic than the official version.
Such conceptual complexity characterizes also the related notion of corporate or organizational image. While some writings seek to reserve “identity” for the sender side and “image” for the receiver side of the communication process, the picture becomes fuzzier when we acknowledge, along with social psychologists, that identities are shaped through the perceptions of significant others. In an often-cited study of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, management scholars Jane Dutton and Janet Dukerich (1991) illustrated how the issue of identity is entwined with the ways organizations define, diagnose, and respond to problems in their surroundings. In their study of the organization’s reaction to homelessness in the 1980s, Dutton and Dukerich found that the organization’s self-perception at the time was affected by how organizational members thought outsiders viewed their organization. Corporate images and reputations, in other words, play significant roles when organizations develop and articulate their identities, just as their identities unavoidably influence the images they discover in their surroundings (e.g., Cheney 1992).
The Social-Historical Context
The explicit preoccupation with identity, which we find intensified in contemporary western societies, is historically speaking a fairly recent phenomenon. In tribal or so-called “traditional” societies, identity is not an issue that is constantly discussed, enacted, and negotiated. As social theorists have pointed out, a person’s identity was given by the local community based on, for example, the lineage and the status of their family, the authority of the sovereign and the church, and other social institutions. Identity, in other words, was relatively fixed, ascribed by traditions and practices beyond the influence of the individual person.
In modern society, by contrast, identity is an ongoing issue, pursued and contested at many different levels. The rise of modernity implied a questioning of traditional practices and authorities that gradually eroded the institutions through which people previously had defined their roles and positions in society. Without stable markers of orientation, the modern individual is constantly in search of answers to the question of who they are and who they want to be. While modern institutions like the nation-state, democracy, economics, rationality, and bureaucracy provide some points of guidance, the question of identity is an ongoing concern for the individual. This is especially the case in today’s latemodern or postmodern society, where these institutions are frequently challenged.
Increasingly, individuals define and shape their identities through practices of consumption. Their choices of clothing, electronics, food, health-care, music, housing, etc. have become important dimensions of their extended selves. With their provision of products, messages and stories, organizations (workplaces, sports clubs, interest groups, etc.) play an important role in this project of identity. In fact, the organization may be one of the most important sources of identity for the modern individual. Accordingly, the pressure on organizations to stand out and supply its members, customers, and other stakeholders with clear signs of community and belongingness is more pronounced today than ever before.
This, however, is a precarious role. At the same time as contemporary organizations find their boundaries blurred by globalization, mergers, new information technologies, inquisitive stakeholders, and new types of organizational arrangements, they are expected to articulate clearly and unambiguously who they are and how they define their role in society. Simultaneously, organizations face the challenge of being heard in a communication environment saturated with corporate messages crying for attention and interest. Yet, since the communication “explosion” has only intensified their urge to stand out in this environment, identity management has become an organizational imperative in almost all sectors of society (Cheney & Christensen 2001a).
The management of corporate or organizational identity is defined especially by the fields of design management, marketing, and public relations, although insight from human resources management and corporate culture plays a role too (e.g., Cheney & Christensen 2001b). The objective of these disciplines is to manage corporate design (logos, uniforms, architecture, etc.) corporate communications (commercials, manuals, publications, etc.) and corporate behavior (corporate values, norms, attitudes, customer contacts, etc.) in order for the organization to build a single, unified, and consistent identity.
The notion of integrated (marketing) communications refers to the ambition of aligning everything the organization says and does (its symbols, messages, procedures, and behaviors) so as to help the organization communicate with clarity, consistency, and continuity across different media and different audiences. Without such consistency, it is argued, contemporary organizations will have difficulty in sustaining visible, credible, and legitimate identities in a world of growing complexity. The integrative efforts are often centered on the identity of a strong brand, for example Levi’s, McDonald’s, or Coca-Cola. In recent years, the notion of “corporate branding,” defined as the systematic effort to develop and present the organization as one unified brand, has gained momentum as a response to the notion that consumers increasingly “buy” the organization behind its products (Balmer & Greyser 2003).
In the effort to streamline all symbols, messages, and behaviors, the communicative roles of organizational members attract growing managerial attention. While organizations have been significant sources of individual identity throughout modernity, identification has today become a far more explicit managerial strategy. Organizational identification refers to situations where people define themselves in terms of an organization, including its products, its missions, its slogans, and its values. When organizational members identify with their workplace, they internalize its customary ways of doing things and eventually develop a feeling of oneness with the organization. In the hope of stimulating such behaviors and feelings, contemporary organizations launch a wealth of employee programs designed to manage the hopes, fears, and aspirations of their members. Such attempts to foster, regulate and control processes of loyalty and commitment, however, are frequently challenged by employees who fail to see, or reject the notion, that the identity defined by management is inclusive enough to embrace the differences among organizational members (Alvesson & Willmott 2002). Such resistance calls attention to the problems of managing multiple selves under the umbrella of a single, unified organizational identity.
In a world where many corporate and organizational identities call for attention, there is a real danger that such constructions are ignored, disapproved of, or resisted. Under such circumstances, organizational projects of identity may have a tendency to develop a world of their own, where corporate symbols and messages become autonomized signifiers without reference to anything else but themselves. Although identity is fundamentally social, inasmuch as it rests on its reflection and accreditation in its surroundings, we see today a tendency for corporate or organizational identity projects to become rather self-centered undertakings that reduce the ability of organizations to see and respond openly to their surroundings (Christensen & Cheney 2000).
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- Balmer, J. M. T., & Greyser, S. A. (eds.) (2003). Revealing the corporation: Perspectives on identity, image, reputation, corporate branding, and corporate level marketing. London: Routledge.
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- Dutton, J. E., & Dukerich, J. M. (1991). Keeping an eye on the mirror: Image and identity in organizational adaptation. Academy of Management Journal, 34, 517–554.
- Whetten, D. A. (2006). Albert and Whetten revisited: Strengthening the concept of organizational identity. Journal of Management Inquiry, 15(3), 219 –234.