Discovering Organizational Identity
The globalization of international markets and businesses over the past two decades has sparked many trends. One of these trends is for companies to define their organizational identity. Among other things, organizational identity involves establishing attributes that represent an organization. Researchers of organizational identity categorize these attributes into central, enduring, and distinguishing qualities.
However, organizational identity is not to be confused with brand identity. While marketing establishes a company’s brand, organizational identity reflects its core character. It answers a simple question: Who are we?
Furthermore, a company’s organizational identity is in constant motion and influenced by its operational environment and actors. At first, many companies unconsciously experience organizational identity on the merits of cultural affiliation with their country of origin and their founders. But as companies grow and mature, they become geographically and culturally diverse. This also expands the operational environment and the composition of internal and external actors. And that is usually the time when managing organizational identity moves into focus.
Indeed, many longstanding companies with a global presence have taken this journey over time. Furthermore, they have realized that managing organizational identity plays an important role in today’s business world.
The challenge is to determine whether a single identity or multiple identities are appropriate. In addition, organizational identity has internal and external audiences. Therefore, managing organizational identity requires careful consideration to avoid contradiction and misrepresentation.
Communicating a Consistent Message
Effective communication is vital for any business. And with the wide range of today’s communication channels, companies have tremendous opportunities to deploy their communication strategy. Likewise, it is much easier these days to reach internal and external audiences due to social media and social networking. However, it is also much easier to communicate a conflicting and misaligned message because of the many options.
Therefore, managing how, what, and with whom a business communicates is critical. For example, a company newsletter intended for employees has a different objective compared to a customer newsletter. Also, the same communication might require adaptation to deliver the right tone and message.
Equally important, what communication language should a company choose? Should a company deliver the message in its perceived native language, another language, or multiple languages? Furthermore, next to the linguistic characteristics of a language, communicating in a specific language is personal. Consequently, it affects how internal and external audiences perceive company communications.
Also, it is quite common in global organizations that both native and non-native speakers prepare original communications. This can add another layer of complexity as non-native speakers might prefer a different tone and wording based on their cultural background and command of the language.
In other words, internal actors can reinterpret their company’s organizational identity and influence its representation. Therefore, companies must clarify core values and articulate behavioral patterns for the organization. This is an ongoing process because organizations are living systems where change and opposing forces are ever present.
Impact of Context Culture
We sometimes forget that our communication style and interpretation of organizational identity are based on our experience and cultural background. In addition, there is a significant difference in how low-context and high-context cultures communicate. The concept of context as a communication structure refers to the shared communication characteristics of a particular group of cultures. This can include gesture, body language, and verbal/non-verbal communication.
Simply put, low-context cultures tend to say more to convey less, and high-context cultures tend to say less to convey more. Thus, our respective connection with a low-context or high-context culture defines our instinctive communication style.
In general, many European languages and countries with predominant Western-European heritage represent low-context cultures. In contrast, most Asian languages are associated with high-context cultures. Similar traits apply to Central/South American, Arabic/Middle Eastern, and African cultures.
To provide an example, German represents a language of a low-context culture. While some interactions between Germans might seem perfectly fine to Germans, they can feel very direct or intrusive to other people. But even for people with a similar context culture, communication styles can vary.
A good illustration is American small talk to break the ice and put people at ease. The expression “breaking the ice” itself is very revealing about the practical intent of such behavior. Still, for the average German small talk feels unnatural and requires effort. Thus, the German mind can perceive small talk as wasted time and unnecessary.
Fortunately, one of the great things about globalization is our exposure to different cultures and people. The positive side effect is that we grow together by learning with and about each other. And this can also reshape our communication style to become more culturally aware.
Choosing a Business Language
At the center of all business interactions is language as a linguistic communication framework. Historically, English has emerged as the primary business language of globalization. One reason is that English is more likely spoken as a secondary language by more people. This makes it a universal go-to language for global communications and business interactions.
Nevertheless, there are several other languages, such as Mandarin and Spanish, that have significance in a business environment due to the number of worldwide native speakers. However, it would be too simplistic to look at the population of native speakers alone to define significance.
In general, the significance of a business language is the outcome of business activities across economic regions. Moreover, as markets, demographics, and economic activities change over time, so can the significance of a particular language. In addition, some companies might have greater presence in specific regions. This can elevate the importance of a regional language for them.
Therefore, many companies select one or more business languages as part of their organizational identity. This can include a primary language as their global business language and a few secondary languages for their regional identities.
The scope, type, and purpose of a communication usually determines which language(s) apply to reach an audience. More importantly, defining organizational identity is just theory unless people can identify with it. Therefore, managing organizational identity must be part of a broader communication strategy. It also requires active participation and promotion by leadership to instill authenticity. Otherwise, it might come across as arbitrary and artificial.
Organizational identity is often an overlooked and misunderstood concept. In fact, companies sometimes confuse organizational identity with brand image. While a brand image is part of a marketing strategy, organizational identity reflects who we truly are as an organization.
Furthermore, organizational identity is influenced by an organization’s operational environment and its internal as well as external actors. This means that organizational identity is in constant motion and requires much more careful management. In contrast, the scope of a brand image is generally narrower and easier to confine.
Most larger organizations with culturally diverse and geographically dispersed operations have multiple organizational identities. The challenge is to identify and proactively communicate shared attributes to establish consistency across the organization.
Therefore, a communication strategy should reflect a company’s organizational identity to convey an authentic mission. If done right, a communication strategy becomes a tool that can help manage organizational identity.
In larger organizations, a communication strategy is often a cumulative effort of multiple and diverse participants. At the same time, our experience and background affect our personal communication style. In addition, our connection with a low-context or high-context culture determines the tone of a message. The same applies to recipients of communications: We interpret tone and wording based on our context culture.
Essentially, organizational identity and communication strategy are fundamental frameworks for today’s global businesses. Consequently, business success is also an outcome of how companies manage their organizational identity through an aligned communication strategy.