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The effects of organizational change on organizational identity Following Albert and Whetten (1985), the organizational structure and the organizational culture, or architectural and cultural codes (Hannan et al., 2007), provide the answer to the basic question of (internal) organizational identity: “who are we as an organization?” These central, enduring and distinctive elements of an organization constitute the requirements for a shared belief structure, a set of more or less consensual expectations about “how an organization such as ours should behave in a situation like this” that makes consistent and coherent organizational action possible ( Jacobs et al., 2008; Van Rekom and Whetten, 2007).

Shared expectations can successfully influence, sometimes even orient, organizational action, because the formal procedures are typically incomplete and partial, and they cannot deal with all possible contingencies. So, answers to the question “What should we do in a situation like this?” are often derived from the common understanding of who we are as an organization, and default rules on “how an organization like ours should

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behave in a situation like this.” Taken-for-granted behavioural patterns, reflecting the distinction between expected and unexpected acceptable and non-acceptable behaviour, are key components of organizational identities (Ravasi and Schultz, 2006).

Some organizational changes are well aligned with the organizational identity, and do not go beyond a formalisation and refinement of already existing but not yet formalized practice. Others, however, are partially in conflict with organizational identities, while still others, are or can be experienced as fundamental challenges to valued organizational identities (Gioia et al., 2000; Van Knippenberg et al., 2002; Rousseau, 1998).

To the extent that individuals identify with their employing organization, the organizational identity reflects on how people see themselves – organizational membership and organizational identity are merged with the employees’ sense of self (Ashforth and Mael, 1989; Glynn, 2000; Van Knippenberg, 2000). Changes to the organization’s identity are therefore often experienced as threats to members’ individual identities (Dutton et al., 1994; Fiol, 2002; Jacobs et al., 2008).

When internal audiences such as groups of employees observe that the taken-for-granted expectations concerning an organization are not complied with, they often reduce their identification and loyalty to the organization. Hannan et al. refer to this as assigning lower grades of membership to the organization. Consequently, this internal audience will find offers of the organization intrinsically less appealing, contributing to HRM problems like sick leave and the potential inability of the organization to mobilize additional human resources. People value a sense of

Figure 1. A unified framework of

organizational change

A framework of organizational





continuity of identity (Ravasi and Schultz, 2006) – a sense that across past, present and projected future they essentially are the same person or collective (i.e. organization) – and therefore often strongly resist organizational changes affecting this sense of continuity. Thus, a key challenge for change process leaders is to act, not only as change agents, but also as agents of continuity – a challenging balancing act indeed (Van Knippenberg et al., 2008).

Organizational identity not only matters for internal audiences such as employees, but also for external audiences. If stakeholders perceive code violations and if they recognise that their expectations are not met, the organization may lose legitimacy in the eyes of key external audiences. This can have serious consequences as some stakeholders may control vital resources. In the case of police forces, politicians may reduce their political support if the police fail to perform according to the expectations of the public, or the media may undermine public trust in the police by focussing on perceived failures or violations in standards.

A quite significant change process in many European police forces was connected to the implementation of management methods from the private sector into police organizations. In times of severe budget restrictions and in times of frequent criticism of supposedly slow and inefficient bureaucratic procedures, pressure grew in some European countries to increase efficiency in police forces by introducing performance measurement and cost accounting systems, management by objectives, benchmarking and other instruments derived from the private sector. Many police officers, however, felt alienated by the attitude of some politicians and consultants that apparently did not seem to distinguish between a police force and a private company. Their identity as police officers implied serving the common good and fighting for security and justice. Being subjected to questions of efficiency was considered by many as an unjustified and inappropriate equalization of the police with a private sector that was, in their eyes, primarily interested in selling goods and making profits (Christe-Zeyse, 2007a).

The need for a cross-national comparison of organizational change We aim at developing a general theory, applicable to all kinds of organizations in all types of environments. The precise nature of the role of organizational identity can only be seen if we can control for the impacts of other cultural differences, such as those deriving from nationality, geography, ethnicity or religion (Pettigrew et al., 2001). More specifically, these local cultures, in combination with the history of these types of organizations in different countries or regions, establish interpretative frames that are used to disambiguate and complete the otherwise partial procedures and regulations of organizations – that is, so to speak, to fill the inevitable gaps in the organizational structure by imposing informal cultural codes.

Cultural difference can refer to something as “soft” as the tone in which an order is given. In some police forces, an order is understood to be something that does not allow for any kind of debate, interpretation, or disambiguity, whereas in other police forces an order can also be understood as a consensual decision after a cooperative and reciprocal process of deliberation and advice.

It is important to recognize that although the same organizational categories, forms or types (with respect to police appraisal and promotion systems, ranks, arms, uniforms, the right to search and arrest, etc.) may be available in all countries, which should provide a good basis for common organizational identities, daily organizational life comes with different interpretative schemata to make sense of codes, practices,

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procedures and values (Sorge, 2005; Magala, 2009). Thus, a seemingly universal template tends to be moulded into local practices, producing idiosyncrasies in the process.

A case in point is the way police officers approach citizens. It makes quite a difference whether a police officer acts in the role of a service provider or as the armed representative of the executive power. The setting may seem similar: A police officer stops a car and asks the driver for his or her driver’s licence and registration. But depending on traditions, cultural norms, self-perceptions, legal requirements etc. the situation may in fact be very different, ranging from a friendly chat to a rather aggressive looking demonstration of dominance and submission (Martin, 1999).

What holds true when comparing organizations from different cultural settings with each other also holds true when looking at the relationship between an organization and other actors from the same cultural setting. Each audience within the organization (i.e. different departments or specialized units), but also outside the organization (i.e. the public, the ministry, the prosecutor) has a different cultural interpretation of expectations or relationships. Ambiguous procedures and regulations are interpreted in numerous different ways and different parties develop different responses in relation to procedural ambiguities. In this sense, idiosyncrasies develop in each specific work relationship and (organizational, national) culture provides a general setting by providing a lens for sensemaking (Magala, 2009; Weick, 1995).

All European police forces have explicit anti-corruption rules, but when it comes to very specific situations in which officers interact with citizens, these rules are sometimes not as unambiguous as they might seem. Being helpful and friendly, exchanging information and returning favours might be part of a cultural tradition in one context and a case of corruption in another. What is acceptable and what is not, may not be entirely determined by formal rules or cultural traditions, but very often needs to be disambiguated with respect to individual audiences and specific situations (Punch, 2000.)

Next to (organizational and national) culture, we explicitly integrate into our framework the more tangible aspects of the environment, which are often ignored in the literature on organizational change (see also Bayerl et al., in this issue), but are nevertheless of high importance. The direct environment of actors influences their sensemaking (i.e. ecological sensemaking; Whiteman and Cooper, 2012) and frames the meaning they give to practices, technologies and forms. Hard facts such as budget cuts, legal constraints, or political instability co-determine organizational identities and are therefore included in our framework of organizational change. This implies that we have to integrate insights from “hard” contingency and strategy theories into our “soft” identity-based theory of organizational change. This is precisely what we do in our unified input-throughput-output framework of organizational change, to which we turn now.

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