Deep Thoughts on: Identity (Part 2b – Present Engagement)

(Image courtesy of Peter Liversidge & Linda Nylind Photography)

So far our enquiry has led us to suggest a conception of Organisational Identity that is predominantly comprised of three distinct yet interconnected Facets. In the last post we discussed the notion of Narrative, and I sought to justify why I believe it to be a key Facet of our conception of Identity. The concepts of Idea and Purpose also came out of this discussion, and these will be of equal importance to the second Facet I wish to discuss, namely that of ‘Present Engagement’.

This is perhaps the most complex of the Facets, and is in many ways the hardest to fully conceptualise. By Present Engagement I am talking about a (potentially bewildering) variety of associated phenomena, which define an organisation’s current state. This will of course include instantiations of concepts like Idea and Purpose, but will also involve the collective impressions and beliefs of current employees, customer viewpoints and the values the business holds.

As I have said above, central to this are Ideas; as discussed in the last post, the organisation originates from a First Idea, and continues to be heavily influenced by subsequent additions or alterations thereto. Intrinsic to these will be some form of Purpose, i.e. what the organisation is for, what it will do, etc. In this way, the Purpose of an Organisation is a both a manifestation and an intrinsic feature of these Ideas. An organisation must remain aware of the significance of these concepts, if it is to really deliver upon them. It is not merely sufficient for those at the top to be familiar, but for every strata of the organisation to be immersed and thus be able to be consistent in delivery.

This the complex nature of the relationship between Ideas and Purpose manifests in a number of different ways. That having been said, these are linked by a shared interactivity. For example, the Purpose of an organisation is perhaps most obviously viewed through that organisation values. Ideally, these will be regularly monitored to ensure that they are not just consistent with the Ideas and Purpose of the organisation, but that they are understood and agreed upon by all relevant parties. In this way, an organisation can establish a set of values true to those Ideas and it’s Purpose, that enable its employees and its customers to engage with it and to really understand it, while being self-defined.
This is crucial, and necessary to a continuously relevant set of values, but not I think wholly sufficient. An appreciation of the Narrative that the organisation continually constructs is also important (as we saw in the last post). As is understanding the way the organisation engages with and responds to the world around it. In a way this is achieved through the above ideas on employee, customer and supplier engagement, but should also involve notions such as corporate social responsibility, competitor awareness, regard for employees, market share etc. The basic idea of all of this is to give as complete-a-picture as possible of what it is that constitutes your organisation, not just the material composition but the reach and impact it has, and how that relates to the purpose the organisation is endeavouring to pursue.

What does this have to do with Identity? In a word: everything. Identity is an incredibly complicated concept in humans, and is most certainly far from simple in an organisational sense. If we look at Identity as being a composite concept in the way I have outlined above, we must also appreciate that a good portion of it implicitly lies in the actual relations between these different Facets. Present engagement as a key feature of Identity is concerned not just with those salient concepts like values, market share, employee/customer/supplier opinion, but the unique interrelationship of them all– this is where you are really defined.

In this way, we can see the importance of awareness, not just of organisational self, but of the organisation’s position in the world, how it engages with the world, is receptive towards it and so on. It requires intimation with the internal working of the organisation itself (implicit in that an understand of the historical narrative and the ambitions for the future) as well as an appreciation of the external factors that so strongly influence identity.

To summarise this rather complicated notion, this Facet of Identity (and indeed Identity as whole) is as much about the many different concepts a business has, as it is about an awareness of those concepts and how they interrelate. For example, saying “our values are X, Y and Z…” is all well and good, but can they stand up to real scrutiny? Do they reflect your Ideas and thus your Purpose? Do they reflect the continued composition of your organisation? Are they born out of thoughtful and continued internal and external awareness, or are they just for show? It is questions like these that this Facet of Identity demands that we ask.

F. Roe