I went to the cinema with my family to see the new Pixar movie about the planet-saving robot Wall-E a few nights ago. After the initial ‘wow’ factor had died down and I had got over the in joke for Apple users of hearing Wall-E’s Mac-like reboot sound (what is that sound called?) I started thinking about a scene near the end which raised for me some thoughts about the nature of identity. This is a tricky enough issue when applied to humans and even more so for robots, but I started thinking about the nature of organisation’s identity.
After Wall-E is badly damaged, EVE (another robot but more iPod-like – I’m not going to explain the whole plot so just go to the movie!) is trying to repair/save him by replacing numerous damaged external parts and his badly damaged circuit board. When he revives he appears to be suffering from amnesia having forgotten everything that has happened to him during the period covered by the movie and the previous 700 years during which he has been compacting waste and evolving a ‘personality’. There is, of course, a happy ending when his ‘memory’ returns – this is a Disney movie after all!
It left me thinking about the nature of identity and where it resides. Starting with a robot, could you replace all its component parts but still have the ‘same’ robot? Technically, yes. You can try it yourself with a Lego Mindstorms robotics kit. What about a robot with a ‘personality’ like Wall-E? Hmm, a bit more complex especially given that the movie is fiction but bear with me. It seems that at least in the minds of the movie makers the answer is also ‘yes’. Wall-E’s identity resides as much in the sum total of his experiences and how others relate to him as in his physical components (even including his combined ‘brain’ and memory – the circuit board). It is physical contact with EVE that re-kindles his memory and his sense of identity.
So – what about humans and groups of humans in organisations? As individuals, I believe our identities are as much extrinsic (dependent on how others see us and relate to us) as intrinsic (how we see ourselves). Identity seems to be a complex mix of appearance (which changes), behaviour (which can be unpredictable), our experience (which shapes us intellectually, physically, emotionally and spiritually), our sense of belonging (although our allegiances may change over time), the meaning we make of our experience and our memory … and probably a number of other things besides.
I’m interested in how all this might relate to organisations. What gives them their sense of identity? Organisations can be very dynamic but they can also retain a very strong sense of identity. For example, they can generate deep mistrust and inspire incredible loyalty even when many aspects change. Organisations can and do re-structure, re-locate, re-engineer, re-focus, re-strategise and adopt new names and logos and yet somehow yjtough all of this retain their identity (even when they are trying to shake it off as Exxon has tried to). They may change what they produce in the way of goods and services, attract new leaders, alter direction, and even change their staffing like a complete blood transfusion but what they can’t change (though many try to forget it) is their history. In other words, their collective experience (which involves outsiders as much as insiders). So where does an organisation’s collective identity reside? Some would say that the essence of organisational identity is the ‘brand’. It’s an interesting thought. But somewhat depressing if the marketeers have managed to achieve what philosophers have been pondering over for centuries! So how much of an organisation can change without its identity being irreparably altered? And does this really matter?
I think it matters a lot. It is essential that organisations working for social and environmental change continue to maintain loyalty and inspire action. It is their vision, core values and track record that are most likely to be the continuing source of this loyalty and inspiration. Of course, many things in an organisation can and should change: organisations need to be able to adapt to new challenges and take advantage of emerging opportunities. Adaptability and change require those involved in an organisation to collectively understand and learn from their experience. It seems to me that it may be the collective ability to understand and learn from experience that offers an organisation the chief means of sustaining its identity. If this is correct, then an organisation’s capacity to learn not only facilitates change but also provides stability – both of which are necessary for and contribute to a strong sense of identity.