Identity Formation, Newcomer Dynamics and Organisational Change in a Higher Educational Institution
This research looks at the dynamics of identity formation in a higher education organisation during a strategic branding project, the arrival of a newcomer and my role as the dean of a school of art and design. Most branding literature focuses on the key stages of how a brand proposition is formed and assumes the straightforward roll out of the identity for the organisation. In this research I focus on what goes on around me as ideas are formed and presented back to the organisation, rather than on the idealised process of what should go on. The method takes a “withness” approach to the narrative rather than a synoptic case study approach, focusing on my experience and practice. This highlights the social context of organisational life – the context of human power relationships in which people enable and constrain each other on the basis of human attributes such as identities, anxieties, values, emotions, fear, expectations, motives and interests. The research shows that intention is only a part of the narratives about strategy and identity in organisations. I argue that notions of certainty that are inherent in intentional brand strategies are often based on arbitrary inferences and that by nature brand propositions are abstractions and therefore only representative of a partial reality. To present them in a rigid sense and develop vigilant strategies for identity preservation seems artificially limiting and devoid of context. Branding has played an important role in the world of objects and transactions. It has indicated a sense of ownership, a promise of quality and performance, and more recently an indication of self-image and identity. Yet when branding is applied to organisations it is problematic. Taking principles from a context of objects and applying them to social life has led to branding often being about the preservation of a specific concept of identity and not about the ongoing dynamic process of identity formation in organisations. It is frequently seen as manipulative and controlling, yet is also seen as an important indicator of personality, differentiation, togetherness and is linked to notions of loyalty and trust. Paralleling Mead’s notion of the “I-me” dialectic, an organization can also be seen to be emerging in the context in terms of its presentation in everyday life. The notion of certainty in this sense of organizational identity denies the dynamics of the situation and one could argue that vagueness is present in all aspects of social life and essential for creative action as it allows space for newness. Any articulation of identity is a simplification of an identity that is constantly evolving. But at what level are these simplifications and abstractions useful and not debilitating? This is not to argue that intention and strategy are not essential parts of joint action. The process of negotiating is an essential part of working together towards joint action. It is a process in which we reveal our intent and discover important aspects about each other and ourselves as we emerge in the social; it is about intention and attention. However we cannot really know how people will respond to our gestures and actions, and it is in the actions that we reveal the sincerity of our intent. Managers and strategies do not solely determine organisational identity, and neither are employees free to choose their identities, attitudes, expectations and actions. We are both enabled and constrained by our own pasts and social relationships. We inform the organisational identity as well as being informed by it in an on going process of relating. This way of thinking has implications for the way that we think about brand strategy in organisations – it is not a deterministic process of control, and neither is it a process of anarchic behavior, of open resistance to management intention. Branding is a social act and is performed by human agents who are inherently complex, individual and collective at the same time. The role of the practitioner is to make sense of what is going on between us and pay attention to what emerges – after all, it is not what a brand is but what a brand does.