Organizational Identity and History

Since milestones in our lives might have long- lasting effects on how we behave and how we define ourselves, one might draw a parallel between individual identity and organizational identity in terms of being affected by the past: organizations too have history and this might influence their identity. But what do we mean by identity in this con- text?

The quest to establish a consensus on the definition of identity has remained one of the biggest challenges in philosophy and psychology. Identity is a widely-debated concept, which has important implications in organizational theory. Although organizational identity (OI) is still one of the most important tools in order understand an organization and its interaction with its environment, as He and Brown (2013) reviewed, it is “suffering an identity crisis”.

Originally, OI referred to claims about the organization’s central, distinctive and enduring features. This was followed by further definition attempts, like “the theory that members of an organization have about who they are” or „the combinative construal of firm culture, history, structure, characteristics, status and reputation”. In addition, in the last three decades, with the beginning of a postmodern approach, some also started to look at OI as constructed by continuous processes of narration.

Interestingly – as Zundel, Holt and Popp (2016) discusses – organizations use „historical resources to forge identities and actively manage perceptions of internal and external audiences”. Although OI and history are intertwined elements in reacting to environmental changes, we still do not know much about how they affect each other.

So, how can an organization use its history to manage perceptions of its identity?

  1. Some suggest using history as a leadership tool, while indicating a strong relationship with identity: “The history of the enterprise can instill a sense of identity and purpose and suggest the goals that will resonate” (Seaman and Smith, 2012).
  2. Other researchers use the concept “identity work” to indicate that it is a negotiated process, while focusing on how history can be used for strategic changes in the organization, e.g. “how the past was used by executives of the LEGO group to articulate claims of a future identity“ (Suddaby, Foster and Trank, 2014).
  3. History can also increase the awareness of the employees that they are members of a changing community which can be an important element of strategic change (Zundel, Holt and Popp (2016).

These examples do not attempt to provide a comprehensive over- view. However, they can indicate that our history is not only a static element with a fixed influence on who we are as individuals or organizations. Moreover, it can be a dynamically applied tool to change perceptions on how we define ourselves or how we are defined by others.

While the interaction between history and identity remain somewhat unclear and unspecified in general, some approach this Gordian Knot – like Alexander the Great – with an easy cut:

“I define nothing … I take each thing as it is, without prior rules about what it should be.”- Bob Dylan

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