What is organizational identity and what have blogs to do with this?

Spending my days in the library and reeling in between insight and confusion, I’d just like to use this as a little sketch of what organization identity might be, in science and in practice.

Science

Ever since the ground-breaking article by Albert & Whetten, defining organizational identity as what is central, distinctive and enduring about an organization, a wide range of scholars have emerged, trying to theoretically describe and analyze this field. In their views, organizational identity serves as a cognitive frame for understanding reality, as shared assumptions about the world that lead to collective actions (just like in organizational culture), as a discourse about sense and reality (therefore there can be multiple identities to organizations), as collective claims about the contents of the organization and room for personal identification (e.g. “I am with Boston Consulting now, boy, I’m proud, we are so going to do a good job on this project!” social identity theory).

This can be found in organizational artifacts, like documents, visions and mission statements, but also in email exchanges or conversations, basically in any kind of communication – also in weblogs. A very interesting idea is looking for identity in narrations which are basically stories or conversations about organization (Brown and Czarniawska are known for that and here’s a cool narration about the company ERCO in a weblog with discourse).

And while I am still trying to understand, more and more a systemic approach seems to be able to integrate the various fields:

1.) The boundaries of an organization are the frontiers of its identity. What is perceived and what not, who is a member and who not (because he or she does or does not meet the shared expectations), the unique form and set, that differentiates an organization from its environment are clearly what makes it distinct from all other organizations that thus become environment.

2.) Organizations are autopoietic social systems that keep themselves alive by communication and decisions, always reproducing their boundaries and creating possibilities for connecting operations. That is what is enduring about an organization, the necessity to connect the operations to the past and create possibilities for the future.

3.) Social systems exist to reduce complexity and therefore create boundaries to decide what is relevant and what not for them and in what it is perceived. Identity is the central medium in which decisions can be made, it shapes a space of contingent possibilities and reduces complexity. It’s like shared views of the world, things that “don’t need to be mentioned” or actions “you just don’t do” (e.g. some organizations might be tough on crime, like corruption, others might consider it for the good of the firm – the trick is to understand that it’s not alone people that make decisions, but that the exact same person might act differently in different environments, like using corruption or violence or not)

4.) Constructing identity is an ongoing, self-reflective process, it’s a self-observation and thus always has a blind spot. Organizational identity cannot be perceived to its full extent from the inside of the organization. But neither from the outside, there will always be something missing. Dissapointing but true.

Organizational identity in practice

..means the usage of identity or what is claimed than to be identity. Corporate identity tries to shape a consistent image for the outer side of organization, controlling every interconnection from the inside to the outside: Buying awareness as advertising, shaping products, trying to control what the media say, educating staff how to communicate with the outsiders.

Using identiy on the inside is a matter of power: Who is powerful enough to decide what is central and distinctive? Which people stay long enough to make it enduring? How much tension is an organization able to take before fights burst out, not only about interests but also about what holds the team together and what common goals unite the members?

Conclusion

On a theoretical level many approaches to identity can be integrated by a systemic view that sees organization as self-referential, autopoietic social system that uses identity to maintain its boundaries and as a medium for communication and decision. It can be found in organizational communication like mission statements, blogs or conversations.

On a practical level, these blogs can be a decisive point for discourse about organization: They create public awareness and places for communication that have not been existed before. They change the boundaries and the power balances because public communication about organization that for a long time has been the central domain for corporate communication now becomes available to everyone, members or stakeholders of the organization.

1.) Weblogs can be a source for analysis about organizational narrations or even discourse about what is central, distinctive and enduring.
2.) Weblogs shift the power of deciding about the content of organizational meaning and behaviour because they create a public space for communication
3.) Let alone the way of dealing with weblogs (offensive, defensive, ignoring, open or controlling) is organizational practice that tells us about organizational rules, power, worldviews and attitudes.

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