At the heart of any successful organisation lies a powerful conception of identity: the coherent way in which it presents itself to its stakeholders and employees, containing its purpose, goals and key characteristics. However, the traditional idea of identity as a stable, solid and reliable concept may not be the best way of approaching and managing your organisation. Rather, Majken Schultz and Steve Maguire argue that organisations would benefit from adopting a process-based view of identity, which integrates history, on-going change and market instability into its definition.
Reflections on the questions of “who am I?” and “who are we?” are as old as mankind and address something fundamental – how we understand ourselves, and how we imagine ourselves in relations with others. Increasingly, identity issues are also preoccupying organisations, leading them to pose existential questions about “why do we exist?” and “who are we and what do we stand for?” Other questions of identity, such as “what makes our key stakeholders feel a belonging to the organisation, whether they are employees or consumers?” and “what makes our organization unique and different from others?” are also relevant to organisations, as their answers underpin the practices that can make organisations stand out and become competitive in the marketplace. For example, a company like Apple has been able to attract and mobilise consumers all over the world based on an identity of being different. Time will show whether the attraction will endure, as Apple’s identity is transformed from ‘cool challenger’ to ‘global giant’ exploiting its dominant market position.
Both the scholarship and practice of how organisations should ask – and seek to answer – questions of identity have changed in recent years, as theoretical and empirical understandings of the organisational processes underpinning identity have developed. In this article we outline a contemporary view of identity – one in which identity is no longer conceived as a stable, enduring entity but, rather, as an unfolding process always in the making. Our perspective is built upon an emerging process-based view of organisations, which, in challenging conventional assumptions, has important implications for management as we illustrate here.