Deep Thoughts on: Identity (Part 2a – Narrative)

(Image courtesy of Philanthropy News Digest)

In the last post I suggested a method of approaching organisational identity that divides the concept into a series of interrelated ‘Facets’. I would not go as far as to say these three Facets are wholly sufficient to explain the concept, but I do believe that we would struggle to get a handle on the concept without reference to these three:

I. Present Engagement: Your purpose, values, employee and customer views, and the unique way in which these interact. The way in which you are presently engaging with and receptive to the world. Concerned with present instantiation of brand.

II. Narrative: The story that your organisation has written and continues to write for itself. Without reference to the past, generating any notion of identity seems empty, and much of a brand’s strength lies in its history.

III. Projection: Future goals and desires for the organisation. Natural evolution as well as intelligent planning will be a part of any successful organisation and will invariably impact on identity in a number of ways.

I think these are clearly individually significant, and each is worthy of consideration. However, taking one without reference to the other two is not just of limited value, it is practically impossible. Such is the interestedness of these Facets. I thus wish to avoid assigning arbitrary favour to any one of these, for their individual value is practically indeterminable, but I feel our enquiry could best be started by a reflection on Narrative.

The Narrative of an organisation charts its ‘life’. It is concerned with telling a story, and that story will very often be a composite of fact and fiction. Invariably, that ‘First Idea’ behind the organisation itself, in part at least, heavily influences the subsequent Narrative. Whether a collection of abstract thoughts or desires, or a discussion about ‘what the world needs’, at some point there is this First Idea. This arguably marks the start of that organisation’s Narrative; it is the pen that puts ink to paper, as it were.
As an organisation evolves, different owners, CEOs etc. will have different Ideas to contribute. These must be well articulated and justified, and not incompatible with the First Idea. An excellent example of this is the John Lewis Partnership, which has stayed true to those early notions of ‘Employee Shareholding’ and ‘Partnership’ laid down by Spedan Lewis. This was not the First Idea, but rather a development in thinking at the top of the organisation over a generation.

These Ideas seem to contain a formulation of the organisation’s ‘Purpose’; what it is for, what it sets out to do. This may change with time, and a by-product of narrative is that it enables an organisation to chart and explain its evolution. Changing socio-economic landscapes among other factors, can and will lead to an evolution in Purpose, but this need not sever the tie with evolving Ideology. Very often, that First Idea and the Ideas that follow it continue to influence an organisation’s Purpose, and enable its identity to survive through evolution. I am not saying that we must embalm ourselves in history, but surely in order to understand and explain our present situation and our hopes for the future, we must be aware of what came before.

Narrative then is the story an organisation tells. This story is not just aimed at an external audience, but to those who contribute to its continued operation; its employees, its shareholders, its directors etc. An awareness of this narrative is just as important for the organisation itself as it is for those the organisation is trying to reach. Human beings are innate storytellers, and we weave these tales into everything that we produce. Organisations are no different, and in many ways, they are a product of narrative as much as they are a product of Ideas. Narrative, when properly understood and appreciated, enables an organisation to define and be defined by its Purpose, to remain consistent and provides the bedrock for its Identity.

F. Roe