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The Importance of Organizational Identification

Identification is a means by which organizational members define the self in relation to the organization (Turner, 1987). Thus, identification represents the social and psychological tie binding employees and the organization – a tie that exists even when employees are dispersed. An organization’s identity provides members with an answer to the question, “What is the nature of this organization?” Furthermore, by defining the organization, an organization’s identity guides members’ feelings, beliefs and behaviors (Dutton & Dukerich, 1991).

Research on member identification (which refers to the strength of an individual’s cognitive attachment to the organization (Dutton, Dukerich & Harquail, 1994)) suggests that strength of identification determines some critical beliefs and behaviors. Among them are employees’ feelings of interpersonal trust, goal-setting processes, internalization of organizational norms and practices, desire to remain with the organization, and willingness to cooperate with others (see, for example, Dutton et al., 1994; Kramer, 1993).

Identification defines the norms and conventions that individuals utilize to coordinate their behavior, and it creates opportunities for organizational learning by creating convergent expectations among organization members (Kogut & Zander, 1996).

Identification may be essential to sustaining virtual organizations because it facilitates critical organizational functions that pose a particular challenge in virtual contexts, such as:

  • coordination and control of dispersed organizational actors;
  • work group functioning;
  • encouragement of extra-role helping behaviors;
  • retention of valuable employees.

The importance of organizational identification in meeting the challenges of virtual organizations may be best illustrated through the use of an example. Consider one challenge that arises in the virtual context: difficulty in maintaining coordination and control when employees are dispersed. Coordination and control are essential to organizational efficiency and effectiveness because organization members’ productivity depends upon their ability to formulate reliable expectations about others’ behavior and to rely on others to perform the functions that they are assigned in a consistent and timely manner.

Many virtual workers (such as salespeople) must serve as representatives of, or emissaries for, the organization. In such instances, it is critical to an organization’s competitive position that different virtual employees represent the organization in a consistent manner. Achieving coordination and control is increasingly difficult as more organization members are expected to perform functions that are not fully predictable, not easily measurable, and that require high levels of interaction with others, factors which may complicate workers’ ability to perform virtually (e.g.,DeSanctis, 1984).

To achieve coordination and control, traditional organizations rely on various means of performance monitoring such as direct supervision and the enforcement of rules and procedures. However, traditional means of coordination and control may be ineffective and even dysfunctional when employees are dispersed in a variety of workplaces (Blake & Suprenant, 1990). For example, direct supervision is generally an expensive means of insuring coordination and control. The fact that supervisors and subordinates are not co-located in a virtual setting means that even greater time and investment in technology is required to facilitate performance monitoring. As a result, supervision may be more costly and less likely to be effective in a virtual context (a fact that may contribute to findings from previous research which indicate that supervisors have less positive attitudes to telecommuting than lower-level workers (DeSanctis, 1984; Duxbury, Higgins & Irving, 1987)).

When employees are dispersed, it is also more difficult to enforce organizational rules and adherence to standard procedures.Because the virtual context complicates efforts to externally control employees, research suggests that virtual organizations should replace external controls with internal controls such as trust, employee motivation, and the convergence of individual and organizational goals (e.g., Blake & Suprenant, 1990; DeSanctis, 1983; Lucas & Baroudi, 1994). Organizational identification, which provides a psychological link between workers and the organization, facilitates coordination because it leads to convergent expectations (Kogut & Zander, 1996). Identification motivates members to coordinate their efforts to achieve organizational goals by enhancing interpersonal trust and cooperation (Brewer, 1981; Kramer & Brewer, 1984, 1986).

Additionally, research suggests that members who identify strongly with the organization are more likely to accept organizational goals as their own personal goals, are more likely to attend to superordinate goals, and are more likely to be loyal and obedient (Dutton, et al., 1994). Organizational identification is expected to correlate with work effort, willingness to perform extra-role behaviors, and task performance (Dutton et al., 1994). Thus, through its impact on employees’ motivations, organizational identification facilitates coordination and control without the need for costly (and possibly ineffective) systems of supervision and monitoring. In sum, we argue that organizational identification may help organizations meet some of the most critical challenges of the virtual work context, such as ensuring coordination and control.

Organizational identification accomplishes these feats through its influence on employee expectations, motivations and consequent behaviors. Thus, we suggest that organizational identification may be a particularly effective and efficient means by which a virtual organization can accomplish its goals and insure performance. These arguments provide evidence of the usefulness of organizational identification among virtual employees. What remains unclear is how identification can be strengthened in a virtual context, particularly because the traditional means by which member identification is created and sustained (i.e., shared dress, architecture, and other artifacts) may not be available to virtual workers. Thus, virtual organizations may find themselves in a catch-22 situation: on one hand, maintaining the organizational identification of virtual employees is especially critical because it helps organizations meet the challenges of managing dispersed employees (i.e., obstacles to coordination and control).

On the other hand, virtual employees are the least likely to be exposed to organizational factors that have traditionally strengthened member identification. Thus, it is important to identify the factors that create and sustain identification of virtual employees, recognizing that the determinants of identification may differ from those of non-virtual employees. Communication and organizational identification. Research regarding the effects of communication on individuals’ attitudes toward the organization (e.g., Huff, Sproull & Kiesler, 1989; Sproull & Kiesler, 1986) provides a theoretical link between communication and organizational identification. Specifically, research has found that communication can affect employee attitudes that may be strongly related to organizational identification.

First, communication can strengthen member identification because it provides organization members with an opportunity to create and share their subjective perceptions of the organization’s defining features – its norms, values and culture. Knowledge of these facets of the organization creates a sense of shared meaning among employees. Communication helps create shared meaning because it provides social context cues (Sproull & Kiesler, 1991), which leads to the perception of social presence (Fulk & Boyd, 1991), and creates a shared interpretive context among organization members (e.g., Zack, 1993). Shared meaning provides organization members with a clear sense of the organization’s identity, and thus may strengthen member identification. A complementary way that communication strengthens employees’ organizational identification is by providing workers with a feeling of ownership in the shared meaning that has been created because they feel that they have helped develop it.

Supporting this argument, research suggests that the frequency with which individuals communicate with others in the organization enhances organizational commitment because frequent communication leads individuals to feel that they are active participants in the organization (Huff et al., 1989). This sense of active participation may lead employees to feel that they have greater control in the organization (Huff et al., 1989). Furthermore, the public act of participating without being coerced to do so may lead individuals to feel more positively about the organization and, therefore, to identify themselves with the organization more strongly (e.g., Huff et al., 1989; Kiesler, 1971; O’Reilly & Caldwell, 1981).Properties of communication media and their effect on organizational identificationIn exploring the link between communication and organizational identification, it is important to note that individuals’ virtual status (i.e., the degree to which they operate from traditional offices or from dispersed locations) leads them to utilize different communication media. For instance, face-to-face communication is an important medium available to employees working in traditional offices. For those working virtually, however, face-to-face communication with organizational members is less likely. Instead, virtual workers have to rely on e-mail and phone as the medium of necessity.

Early research investigating the effects of alternative means of communication on organization members was guided by information richness theory (e.g., Daft, Lengel & Trevino, 1987). This perspective implicitly assumes that communication media inherently possess characteristics that make them more or less effective on various dimensions (Fulk, Steinfield, Schmitz, & Power, 1987). For example, face-to-face communication tends to convey social context cues very strongly (Sproull & Kiesler, 1986; 1991), and has been found to be particularly effective in creating social presence (Fulk & Boyd, 1991) and a shared interpretive context among organization members (e.g., Zack, 1993). In contrast, e-mail and phone communication are not as rich as face-to-face communication in their ability to convey social context cues (e.g., Sproull & Kiesler, 1986; Trevino, Lengel & Daft; 1987), and therefore e-mail and phone may be less effective as a means of creating and maintaining organizational identification.

Recent research complements and extends information richness theory by considering the effects of the social context in which communication is embedded (Markus, 1994). Markus suggests that, in addition to the inherent properties of the media itself, the social context (e.g., norms, culture) must be considered in order to determine the impact of different communication media on individuals. For example, although face-to-face discussions seem most appropriate to executing unstructured and ambiguous tasks in general, some workgroups may develop norms of utilizing relatively lean media (such as e-mail) for such tasks. In these instances, emergent norms allow e-mail to convey more meaning and have greater impact on communicators than it would in a different context.Extending this idea even further, research on technology in general (e.g., Barley, 1986; Garud & Rappa, 1994) and communication technologies in particular (Orlikowski, 1992), has taken a structuration perspective, acknowledging the reciprocal and co-evolutionary dynamics between technology and organizations. From this perspective, not only does the social context (e.g., norms and patterns of use) influence technology and its impact on individuals, but, in turn, technology may also determine the evolving social context by influencing the creation of norms in use. That is, technologies and how they are used co-evolve with their social contexts. This perspective emphasizes the role that the virtual context and member identification plays in influencing communication technology as well as the role of the technology in creating the virtual context and member identification.

To summarize, different communication media have different properties with respect to qualities of the media per se (i.e., the extent to which they contain social context cues and create a shared interpretive context), and with respect to predictors of how the media will be used (e.g., the level of accessibility and level of informality that they provide. These four properties, in turn, have important implications for the impact of particular communication modes on the strength of members’ organizational identification. Most interestingly in this regard, what one medium lacks in one dimension (for instance, the apparent paucity of social context cues in e-mail), it may make up in another (for instance, the high informality and accessibility of e-mail).

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