The Effect of Organizational Memory on Organizational Identity Strength.

AuthorLahiri, Mohua


Organizational identity (OI) has been intrinsically linked to the past, whether as the central and distinct characteristic of the organization that endures over time (Albert & Whetten 1985), or as being central and distinct but in a state of dynamic instability because it is constantly moving away from the past in order to adapt itself to changing contexts (Gioia et al., 2000). In the first definition, the past is the bedrock on which OI stabilizes and gets deeply entrenched and continues into the future. The present adds on to the past, often seamlessly. It is this unobtrusiveness of the past attached to identity that makes it endurable. This gets problematized during some major changes (Brown & Humpherys, 2002). In the second, the past is somehow different from the future and the present is where the two get reconciled. The past is seen to hold the organization back, and because of this tension the OI gets destabilized. These positions illustrate two dominant discourses in OI studies--social actor theory (Whetten, 2006; Whetten & Mackey, 2002) and social constructionist theory (Gioia et al., 2000; Brickson, 2000; Corley & Gioia, 2004). In the third metatheory that Haslam et al. (2017) identified as permeating identity discourse--social identity and self-categorization--the past remains a subtext (Ashforth & Mael, 1989). The focus is on the present, the identity that exists and there is an assumption that it is enduring (Albert & Whetten, 1985).

For employees who draw their social identity from the various groups to which they belong, with the organization being one of them (Ashforth & Mael, 1989; Mael & Ashforth, 1992), the past of the organization would be an important factor on which they repose their faith. In order to understand the role of the past in OI we have conceptualized the past as organizational memory (OM). OM has been defined as the "stored information from an organization's history that can be brought to bear on present decisions" (Walsh & Ungson, 1991: 61). Walsh and Ungson conceptualized OM as being stored in five retrieval bins individual, culture, transformation (i.e. the processes through which various things were transformed in the organization), structure and ecology. It is not surprising that OM literature has remained steeped in studies of organizational performance (Moorman & Miner, 1997) and learning (Huber, 1991). It is only in 2012 that Anteby and Molnar (2012) explored how the narratives about the past are constructed to shape OI.

In this paper we argue that it is not just the narrative structures by which identity is framed and sustained, but culture, transformation, structure and ecology also influence OI and are critical to the debate on the endurance of OI. We however debate about whether OM is a composite construct, whether the five retrieval bins represent the factors of OM or whether the factorial structure underpinning OM is different, especially when we talk of their effect on OI. As Anderson and Sun (2010) have pointed out, though most scholars of OM evoke Walsh and Ungson (1991) very few engage with them. This is also the first study of OM in India and for that reason we critically examined the structure of OM at a conceptual level and followed it with an empirical study to validate our understanding.

The significance of the past to OI studies in the current context becomes even more relevant because of new forms of organizations emerging, spurred by the internet. Our study shows that OM has a positive effect on OI and contributes to existing literature by adding a new perspective to OI literature.

The Past in Social Actor Theory

The theory tends to take an anthropomorphic view of the organization which is supported by the legal status conferred on it. The organization comes into existence on a particular date (Olins, 1978) and is legitimized by institutional norms (Meyer & Rowan, 1977). Therefore, the past stands as a proof of the authenticity of its claims of distinctiveness and continuity --it existed in the past as it exists in the present. The past not only sanctifies the present but also validates the future. "Identity is thus conceived of as those things that enable social actors to satisfy their inherent needs to be the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow and to be unique actors or entities" (Whetten & Mackey, 2002: 396). There is a strong teleological undercurrent that links the past to OI.

All events that have occurred in the past become part of the organization's history. As Haslam et al. (2017) have noted many psychodynamic theorists have attributed ego defenses and the unconscious to organizations (de Vries & Miller, 1984). So, the past exists in the present either in its acknowledged form or as a repressed force that can disrupt the smooth functioning of the organization. Therefore, OI exists not only because of the remembered past but through deliberate acts of forgetting that detract from its glory.

The Past in Social Identity Theory

The social identity theory and its companion social categorization theory, were conceptualized in the 1970s and were developed through a series of experiments by Tajfel and associates (Tajfel et al., 1971; Tajfel & Turner,1979). The focus of these studies was the way people connected with the identity of the collective and through the process of identification formed their own sense of their social self. Ashforth and Mael (1989) adapted this to organizations. OI is treated as an emergent property of the organization that is more than the aggregate of the identities of the individuals in the organization (Mael & Ashforth, 1992). As Sveningsson and Alvesson (2003) observed, most of this literature deals with the static aspect of identity work and correlations. The endurance of the past was uncritically accepted.

The Past in Social Constructivist Theory

The social constructivist view of identity sees it as primarily a construct that reflects the way "organization's members' collective understanding of the features presumed to be central and relatively permanent, and that distinguish the organization from other organizations' perception ofthe employees" (Gioia et al., 2000: 64). It is relatively permanent because even if the descriptive words remain the same, the meaning changes over time. Identity has continuity, morphing to adapt itself to changing times. The focus is really on the processes of identity formation, recalibration, and adaptation. If the two theories above focused on the state of being, the social constructivist theory focuses on becoming.

OI as Perceived by Employees

The past, therefore, poses a dilemma in OI studies. Whether people will align and appropriate the identity of the organization, as they say they are IITians (studied in the Indian Institute of Technology) depends a lot on how they perceive the past. People want to be a part of successful organizations so their being a part of that organization confers success and pedigree on them. OI has been seen as a constructed narrative (Chreim, 2005) through which the organization projects desired identity to even its own employees (Christensen & Askegaard, 2001).


The influence of collective memory on identity of the collective is well established in memory studies (Halbwachs, 1992; Schwartz et al. 1986; Schwartz 1996; Assmann & Czaplicka, 1995; Olick ,1999). The organization is, like the nation, an imagined (Anteby & Molnar, 2012). Anteby and Molnar found that the memories residing in the narratives that were documented as well as in individuals were seen to affect OI. There is a deliberate attempt to preserve only certain aspects of the past to construct and...

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