Academic journal article Administrative Science Quarterly

Identity, Image, and Issue Interpretation: Sensemaking during Strategic Change in Academia

Academic journal article Administrative Science Quarterly

Identity, Image, and Issue Interpretation: Sensemaking during Strategic Change in Academia

Article excerpt

This study investigates how top management teams in higher education institutions make sense of important issues that affect strategic change in modern academia. We used a two-phase research approach that progressed from a grounded model anchored in a case study to a quantitative, generalizable study of the issue interpretation process, using 611 executives from 372 colleges and universities in the United States. The findings suggest that under conditions of change, top management team members' perceptions of identity and image, especially desired future image, are key to the sensemaking process and serve as important links between the organization's internal context and the team members' issue interpretations. Rather than using the more common business issue categories of "threats" and "opportunities," team members distinguished their interpretations mainly according to "strategic" or "political" categorizations.(*)

Higher education is an industry that has experienced significant shifts in recent years. Less than a generation ago academic institutions thrived in an environment of predictable funding and student enrollment with little overt competition among institutions (cf. Cohen and March, 1974; Keller, 1983). Recent economic, demographic, and political changes, however, have cast colleges and universities into an ambiguous arena that looks more and more like a competitive marketplace. Such a dynamic environment calls for institutions to change to meet these new conditions--behavior that is virtually taken for granted in business but is still relatively unfamiliar in academe. There is a growing insistence not only that change occur but that it be accomplished quickly in institutions that historically have been comfortable only with slower, self-paced, incremental change. Given the market character of the environment, with its attendant emphasis on competition, many academic institutions are trying to adopt a more business-like orientation to accomplish intended changes (Milliken, 1990). Administrators are reexamining longstanding notions of egalitarianism in an effort to prioritize departments, colleges, and programs according to new strategic goals. Thus "strategic change" in academia is a phrase that introduces its own ambiguity into institutions not accustomed to thinking and acting strategically.

Parallels with business approaches to strategic change are not exact, however. Most notably, there are few bottom-line measures like profit or return on investment that apply to the generation and dissemination of knowledge. Therefore, assessing an institution's standing and establishing its competitive advantage depends on more subjective factors. For this reason, perceptions of an institution's prestige or ranking come to the fore, often taking precedence over measurable substance (Alvesson, 1990) in an institution's attempt to achieve prominence (Fombrun and Shanley, 1990). Under such conditions, the management of image becomes a critical strategic issue. As Dutton and Dukerich (1991) noted, image (i.e., perceptions of how others perceive the institution) is often tied to identity (i.e., how members perceive their organization). Therefore, it is unlikely that a change in image can be sustained without an associated change in identity. The assumption that image and identity can be altered within the compressed time frame demanded by modern academic environments implies that these concepts must be more fluid than the organizational literature has suggested. Identity, in particular, is typically taken to be that which is central, distinctive, and enduring about an organization (Albert and Whetten, 1985). A key question thus becomes: Can identity be enduring if strategic change is to occur?

Managing change requires a consideration of the effects of change on the interpretive schemes of organization members (Ranson, Hinings, and Greenwood, 1980; Bartunek, 1984). Unfamiliar expressions and actions that are consistent with a new vision for an institution and clearly inconsistent with the taken-for-granted way of seeing tend to destablize existing identity and image (Gioia et al. …

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