My Departure to Organisational Identity.

Why are we?

Those of you who have been involved with the evolution of my thinking and practice around Organisational Theory and Organisation Development know that I have been working on a model of organisations that attempts to answer the question, “Why do organisations become what they become?” My work in that area has led me through a great deal of Organisation Theory in general, and resulted in a bit of a love-affair with Anthony Giddens’ Structuration Theory. The practical outcome of that work has been the development of the Establishment and Adaptation Landscape of organisations which has been applied in various settings by people including OD practitioners, line managers, and HR practitioners in relation to a variety of organisational issues. It turns out that having a practical way to think about why the organisation is doing what it is doing is helpful. The Establishment and Adaptation Landscape brings notions of social structure and human agency together in a way that practitioners find useful in figuring out why the organisation does what it does, and furthermore figuring out which interventions might be useful for one purpose or another.

I am co-authoring a paper on the Establishment and Adaptation Landscape with Dr Petro Janse van Rensburg, which we hope to publish through the University of the Witwatersrand. Having said that, the Establishment and Adaptation Landscape has gone some way towards doing what I set out to do – it helps to answer the question, “Why do organisations become what they become?”

Who are we?

My recent work has brought me to a body of knowledge known as “Organisational Identity” where the core question is, “Who are we”? For various reasons I am delving into that literature. The biggest of those reasons (in the interest of full disclosure) is that my PhD research is leading me there – and I will not be able to divorce that work from my day to day thinking and practice. I wanted to take a moment and record this slight turn in my road, and share what I am seeing and thinking.

I see a clear link between my work on the Establishment and Adaptation Landscape and the Organisational Identity research area. In fact, there is a solid core of theorists who have in one way or another applied Structuration Theory to Organisational Identity. I hope to be able to add something to that work over the next few years. To begin, though, I have a few months of reading and sense-making ahead of me as I come to grips with the 30-year old body of existing knowledge (dating from Albert and Whetten in 1985).

There is a point in every organisation’s life when decisions cannot be made without being able to answer the question, “Who are we?” That point comes when the standard approaches to making sense of the issues facing the organisation are no longer helpful, and something more fundamental is needed to guide decision-making. It may be that certain decisions challenge the basic identity of the organisation, instead of just challenging a process or a policy of some sort. This is the move from “Why are we doing this?” to “Who are we that is doing this?” The body of knowledge developed in response to this question in organisations is known as Organisational Identity Theory. Organisational identity has been the subject of academic interest at least since Selznik (1957) said:

“Despite their diversity, these forces [various elements that form the social structure of the organisation] have a unified effect. In their operation we see the way group values are formed, for together they define the commitments of the organization and give it a distinctive identity. In other words, to the extent that they are natural communities, organizations have a history; and this history is compounded of discernible and repetitive modes of responding to internal and external pressures. As these responses crystallize into definite patterns, a social structure emerges. The more fully developed its social structure, the more will the organization become valued for itself, not as a tool but as an institutional fulfilment of group integrity and aspiration.” Selznick (1957:16)

In 1985, almost 30 years later, Albert and Whetten delivered what has become the seminal article that set out the field of Organisational Identity. For the first time, the construct was defined, albeit in a way that left a lot of room for divergent application. What was central to the definition was the idea that certain attributes are Central, Enduring and Distinctive about an organisation, and this became known as the “CED” attributes of organisational identity. After twenty-one more years of theorising, in 2006 Whetten came back to the subject and proceeded to set the construct out more clearly. Given that this is foundational, I am not going to attempt to paraphrase Whetten just yet. In his words:

“The concept of organizational identity is specified as the central and enduring attributes of an organization that distinguish it from other organizations. I refer to these as ‘organizational identity claims’, or referents, signifying an organization’s self-determined (and “self”-defining) unique social space and reflected in its unique pattern of binding commitments. In practice, CED attributes function as organizational identity referents for members when they are acting or speaking on behalf of their organization, and they are most likely to be invoked in organizational discourse when member agents are grappling with profound, fork-in-the-road, choices – those that have the potential to alter the collective understanding of “who we are as an organization”. In these settings and for those purposes, identity claims are likely to be represented as categorical imperatives – what the organization must do to avoid acting out of character.

This conception of organizational identity rests on two core assumptions, extracted from organisational theory and identity theory (Whetten, in press; Whetten & Mackey, 2002). First, organizations are more than social collectives, in that modern society treats organizations in many respects as if they were individuals – granting them analogous responsibilities as collective social actors (Bauman, 2990; Coleman, 2974; Scott, 2003; Zuckerman, 1999). This view of organizations suggests a distinction between organizational identity (the identity of a collective actor) and collective identity (the identity of a collection of actors). It also highlights important functional and structural parallels between the identity of organizational actors and individual actors (Czarniawska, 1997). Second, I equate identity with an actor’s subjective sense of uniqueness, referred to as the self-view or self-definition and reflected in notions such as self-governance and self-actualization. Framed in this manner, the identity of individuals and organizations is an unobservable subjective state – a causal attribution that is inferred from its posited effects or consequences, especially an actor’s “identifying commitments” or “distinctive behavioural signature” (Baumeister, 1998; Baumeister & Vohs, 2003; Leary & Tangney, 2003; Mischel & Morf, 2003).”

Given that backdrop, here is where I am in this journey. My understanding so far is as follows:

Organisational Identity is fundamentally concerned with an entity’s definition of itself as a collective entity (Scott & Lane, 2000). This is explained as the central, distinctive and enduring “self-referential meaning” given in answers to the question, “Who are we?”(Albert & Whetten, 1985) (Corley et al., 2006). These answers may be explicit or implicit (Corley et al., 2006).

Organisational Identity exists within a social setting and is comparative, in that the identity is framed as similar to certain organisations and dissimilar to others  (Glynn & Abzug, 1998, 2002; Glynn & Marquis, in press; Porac, Thomas & Baden-Fuller, 1989) in (Corley et al., 2006). Valid epistemology and ontology exists for the study of Organisational Identity either as a metaphorical or phenomenological notion (Corley et al., 2006), arising from the collective internal perspective of organisational members such that it is recursively related to but distinct from:

  • Individual identity (Stets & Burke, 2000)
  • Organisational culture (value-centred) (Albert & Whetten, 1985; Hatch & Schultz, 2002)
  • Organisational climate (proximate affective) (Albert & Whetten, 1985)
  • Organisationally based identity (aspect of individual identity) (Corley et al., 2006)
  • Organisational identification (process of individual-organisational identity) (Ashforth & Mael, 1989)
  • Organisational reputation (external perception)
  • Organisational image (external perception)
  • Corporate identity (external perception)

An important thread in Organisational Identity research adopts a phenomenological stance, either setting out the Organisational Identity phenomenon as socially constructed or as “a “social actor” with a social and legal status (W. R. Scott, 2003; Whetten & Mackey, 2002).  Ashforth, Rogers and Corley (2011) invite researchers to understand Organisational Identity as both socially constructed and as a social actor, conceptualising organisational identity as “a bird with two wings”. In so doing, they draw on Structuration Theory (Giddens, 1986) to integrate social construction and structuralist views (Ashforth, Rogers & Corley, 2011).

Various conceptualisations of the formation of Organisational Identity have been proposed. For example, Hatch and Schultz (2002) set out a model of Organisational Identity as the outcome of negotiations between members of an organisational culture and external stakeholders (Hatch & Schultz, 2002). Gioia, Price, Hamilton and Thomas (2010) set out a stage model of Organisational Identity (Gioia, Price, Hamilton & Thomas, 2010).

“After approximately 20 years of expanded identity research in organization studies, there remain opportunities and challenges to deliver on its promise—to develop novel and nuanced theoretical accounts, to produce rich empirical analyses that capture the intersubjectivity of organizational life in a thoughtful and empathetic fashion, and to demonstrate how individual and collective self-constructions become powerful players in organizing processes and outcomes.” (Alvesson, Ashcraft, & Thomas, 2008)

That is a challenge I intend to take up, and I expect that my writing and speaking will be affected by this research. I have already found application of this thinking in some of my consulting work over the last few months, and I look forward to sharing this journey with my colleagues at WorldsView™ Academy , at the University of Pretoria and in my consulting practice. I hope to accept assignments to help clients understand their Organisational Identity and to make sense of the forces that drive them toward change, or hold them back from change, where those forces are as fundamental as Organisational Identity. In addition, there is room to help young companies create the enduring identity constructs more consciously, in order that they might not regret later what they planted now.

Craig Yeatman

25th November 2015



Albert, S., & Whetten, D. A. (1985). Organizational identity. Research in Organizational Behavior, 7, 263–295.

Alvesson, M., Ashcraft, K. L., & Thomas, R. (2008). Identity Matters : Reflections on the Construction of Identity Scholarship in Organization Studies. Organization, 15(1), 5–28. doi:10.1177/1350508407084426

Ashforth, B. E., & Mael, F. (1989). Social Identity Theory and the Organization. The Academy of Management Review, 14(1), 20. doi:10.2307/258189

Ashforth, B. E., Rogers, K. M., & Corley, K. G. (2011). Identity in Organizations : Exploring Cross-Level Dynamics. Organization Science, (October). doi:10.2307/41303108

Corley, K. G., Harquail, C. V., Pratt, M. G., Glynn, M. A., Fiol, C. M., & Hatch, M. J. (2006). Guiding Organizational Identity Through Aged Adolescence. Journal of Management Inquiry, 15(2), 85–99. doi:10.1177/1056492605285930

Giddens, A. (1986). The Constitution of Society – Outline of the Theory of Structuration. Contemporary Sociology, 15, 344. doi:10.2307/2069992

Gioia, D. a, Price, K. N., Hamilton, A. L., & Thomas, J. B. (2010). Forging an Identity: An Insider-outsider Study of Processes Involved in the Formation of Organizational Identity. Administrative Science Quarterly, 55(1), 1–46. doi:10.2189/asqu.2010.55.1.1

Hatch, M. J., & Schultz, M. (2002). The dynamics of organizational identity. Human Relations, 55(8), 989–1018.

Scott, S. G., & Lane, V. R. (2000). Fluid, Fractured and Distinctive? In search of a definition of Organizational Identity. Academy of Management Review, (2), 143–145.

Stets, J. E., & Burke, P. J. (2000). Identity Theory and Social Identity Theory. Social Psychology Quarterly. doi:10.2307/2695870