Digital Transformation and Organisational Identity Construction

To examine how digital transformation challenges organisational identity construction: it is the goal of the project "New Ways of Making Sense of Who We Are: How Digital Transformation Challenges Organizational Identity Construction," led by Dr Alessandra Zamparini, professor-researcher at USI Faculty of Communication, Culture and Society. The study is one of eight USI projects that received positive feedback from the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) in the second annual round.

Dr Zamparini, the project focuses on organisational identity. What is it about?

Organisational identity answers the question, "Who are we?". More specifically, it concerns shared perceptions and understanding of the central and distinctive traits that make the organisation a unique entity distinguishable from all others.

The concept of identity satisfies the need to develop a collective sense of self, articulate the organisation’s core values, and act on deeply rooted assumptions about "who we are now" and "who we can become." In this sense, a clear organisational identity develops a sense of common purpose and a good level of identity and involvement.

Organisational identity has important implications for individuals and has also proven to be a key concept at the corporate level for guiding strategic decisions, communicating with external stakeholders, and finally coping with major changes without losing connection with one’s past and core values.

What is the objective of the study?

The research project examines how digital transformation is affecting and challenging the traditional ways in which organisations and their members build a sense of collective identity.

The project does not look at digitisation in itself but at some organisational aspects that digital transformation brings. Such aspects seem to be affecting the traditional processes underlying the intersubjective identity construct of members of an organisation, particularly how people attribute meaning, and to their reality and influence the attribution of meaning by others (sensegiving).

Why focus on this topic at all?

Although knowledge about organisational identity is well established, current transformations in the competitive landscape and organisational practices enabled by digital technologies seem to challenge what scholars have observed so far.

What questions do you want to answer?

The first question concerns the blurring of organisational boundaries internally (e.g., agile models facilitated by digitisation) and externally (e.g., participation in digital ecosystems of production and consumption). Boundaries are a basic concept for the social construction of identities, as they allow one to distinguish one’s group from other groups and develop a sense of belonging.

A second question concerns employees’ work identities, which increasingly develop within inter-organisational project teams and often outside the traditional corporate perimeter, with a loss of relevance of what were traditionally the main social referents (e.g., superiors, stable colleagues).
A third question concerns interpersonal interactions that, thanks to flexible and remote work, are becoming increasingly virtually mediated, thus changing the typical rituals of "staging" organisational identity and its founding values in everyday interactions.

Finally, the last question addresses the issue of temporal imbalance in corporate communications, asking how the pervasive futuristic rhetoric that characterises the communication of companies involved in digital transformation affects the construction of organisational identity.

What does the research consist of?

The four-year research will be based on analysing a revealing case study, a (anonymous) company that was born traditional and is undergoing a digital transformation process. A context that will thus allow for live observation of those processes that are the subject of interest in the research questions and develop new theories on identity construction processes.

The research adopts a grounded theory approach in line with a tradition of study that sees organisational identity as a social construction. This qualitative method aims to generate theory from data collected in the field, which is particularly useful for studying organisational phenomena from the perspective of the subjective interpretations of the actors who are part of them.

Data will be collected from multiple sources within the company through various ethnographic methods that often go hand in hand with grounded theory. In addition, the research will involve two external partners, Kevin Corley and Ileana Stigliani, from Imperial College Business School in London, who are internationally renowned experts in organisational identity and qualitative research methods.

What are or could be the theoretical and practical implications of this work?

At this moment in history, we often wonder what organisations are becoming, how people interact to organise themselves, and what we should expect from the rapid evolution of digital technologies. We are still looking for an answer. I believe that identity is a key concept for examining these broader questions and contributing at least in part to the answer.

From a theoretical standpoint, the project aims to contribute primarily to organisational identity theory by reexamining how identity sensegiving and sensemaking work in light of the changes brought about by digital transformation. In addition to this main area of contribution, through an ethnographic focus on digitally mediated interactions, the work aims to contribute to broader theoretical debates on the role of digital materiality in the organisation. Finally, the study of the rhetorical uses of the future in identity sensegiving will allow for contributions to a greater understanding of temporal processes in identity construction and communication and a broader debate about futuremaking practices in the organisation.

From a practical perspective, the research findings will provide useful data for understanding organisational identity management challenges with relevant managerial implications. The results may also provide valuable insights for institutions and professional associations active in policies to support digital transformation.