Academic Organization Theory Organizational Change Past, Present & Future

University Change: Academic Identity and Organizational Change

A reflection on how concepts of identity help understand university organizational change.

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An academic enthusiastically working with Blackboard intranet

I am an academic, or perhaps I am academic

In organizational change studies ‘identity’ has become the new ‘culture’, a way of engaging with that old chestnut ‘the way we do things around here’.  In organizational change practices, there is less talk of identity, I suspect culture remains an influential mental model. I am going to use myself as an illustration of why individual transitions, identity, and psychodynamics increasingly inform understanding of the way we do things around here.

I am an academic

At a recent external workshop, I used myself as an example of the concept of individual identity explaining that my work as an academic was a major part of my identity.  One of the workshop participants responded that her identity was far more than what she did at work. 

I thought how lucky she was. She made the point well that our identities may relate to sports, hobbies, families etc, we are far more than how we earn our living. Interest in organizational, group and individual identity can be traced back to the 1950s, but I have only been engaging with it over the last few years.

The organizational culture debate moved on

In understanding why identity is so important to theories and practices of organizational change the writings of Andrew Brown are informative.  I have been around long enough to remember when culture and cultural change were in fashion, particularly in the late eighties and nineties.  At that time the promise of changing cultures was exciting, there was alchemy at work.  However, beyond the smoke and mirrors, academic concerns remained that the promised cultural change was not being delivered.

Despite such concerns the rhetoric continued, particularly in the practitioner orientated literature.  Brown’s (1998) Organisational Culture drew together research, scholarship and most importantly critical thinking. I would use it as my key text in workshops and his approach appeared to go down well with workshop participants.

As the years went by, I’d say to workshop participants ‘it is dated now, but it is still a good book’.  I slowly began to realize that there would never be another edition of this book. There never could be another edition.  Andrew Brown had moved on and the organizational culture debate had moved on, or more specifically had quietened down.

Managing culture or changing identities

Through my literature reviewing, I was aware that Andrew Brown was increasingly focussing on identity work amongst other things.  Initially, I didn’t make the connection between his early work and his later work, but today it appears obvious.

Identities, people’s subjectively construed understandings of who they were, are and desire to become, are implicated in, and thus key to understanding and explaining, almost everything that happens in and around organizations. (Brown, 2015: 20)

Understanding organizational identity becomes a logical progression from understanding organizational culture.  It offers a more sophisticated way of understanding, although it isn’t an either/or choice. Ideally, we engage with organizational identity as well as organizational culture.  Brown’s (2015) identity literature review is a wonderful starting point for anyone interested in these debates.

Universities changing cultures or changing identities?

In the example, in the opening paragraph, I was seeking to convey in the workshop how integral being an academic was to my own identity.  In the university sector, we are rather belatedly going through transformation and change. I struggle with some of it on many levels.  Today the large business consultancies who advise all universities seem to still have a nineties mindset. This is long after academic thinking in universities has moved on. 

Although consultants and university leaders talk far less about culture and cultural change, it still seems to be their mental model.   Between the lines of their carefully crafted corporate communications, I read ‘we need to change the culture around here’.  In some ways, they create the resistance to change which apparently strong university leaders then overcome. A case of framing the problem and then offering a solution. Or as the anarchists more crudely used to suggest – they break our legs and then offer us crutches!

On trying to become a ‘happy robot’

However, if we frame this scenario in terms of identity work it is easier to understand my struggles and potentially engage with such struggles in a more collaborative and collegiate manner.  For example, universities are experiencing what is breathlessly described as a ‘digital transformation’, it is going to happen, it has to happen. 

Apart from when I am in meetings or facilitating workshops all of my work is focussed on peering into this computer screen. Every aspect of work appears to begin and end with peering into this ****ing screen.  Assignments and dissertations are submitted and marked online. I get that … however the structure and style of feedback are increasingly prescribed, all the autonomy that characterized being an academic is being sucked out of the job. 

I sometimes feel like a skilled call centre worker, or a happy robot (if robots had feelings). My so-called resistance to change is more about my struggle to change my academic identity into someone more malleable and compliant in thinking in a more standardised manner, rather than independently and autonomously. I am trying (some say very trying), but what is required is a significant identity change.

A simplistic textbook treatment of individuals

I wrote my first textbook on change management at the beginning of the last decade. My big idea was a strong focus on individuals and individual transitions and bringing in more critical thinking. Today, the individualistic focus seems rather naïve and simplistic.

Thankfully we all change and writing the first textbook enabled the later writing. Even happy robots can grasp the concept of learning.  I began to realize that there was something missing in my preoccupation with individuals and individual transitions. In writing the new textbook (Hughes, 2019) my thoughts oscillated considerably on introducing the concept of identity. 

A chapter on individuals and individual transitions would have been conceptually easier for readers and to be honest easier to write. However, I use draft versions of chapters as workshop resources and identity seemed to go down relatively well in workshops, so I am glad I have included it in the new textbook.  Again in the spirit of honesty, normally at least one or two workshop participants perceive identity as another academic abstraction.

You are going deeper, deeper into your earliest memories

There was still something missing from the chapter, think back to Mark’s struggles with university change. His struggles could partially be explained in terms of his individual differences informing this individual transition.  Individual identity offered another informative lens to explore what was happening. However, still, there was something missing in terms of what was happening at the least observable level – the unconscious. Psychodynamics help to explain what is happening at this level offering another means to understand how individuals experience organizational change, through drawing on resources from psychoanalysis.

An organization, in essence, is a collection of individuals invariably focussed on a task. In seeking to understand the very different ways individuals experience organizational change we need to look at individual differences, psychodynamics, and identities. Twenty years ago, I didn’t get that, but thankfully today I do, individuals change as well as organizations.

Further Reading

Brown, A. (1998). Organisational Culture. London: FT Pitman Publishing.

Brown, A.D. (2015). Identities and Identity Work in OrganizationsInternational Journal of Management Reviews 17(1): 20-40.

Hughes, M. (2019) Individual differences, psychodynamics, identities and organizational change. In Hughes, M. (2019) Managing and Leading Organizational Change. London: Routledge.