Clark, Gioia, Ketchen, and Thomas (2010) Transitional Identity as a Facilitator of Organizational Identity Change during a Merger

Shawn M. Clark- Penn State University
Dennis A. Gioia- Penn State University
David J. Ketchen Jr.- Auburn University
James B. Thomas- Penn State University

Eliana Crosina- Boston College
Andrea Tunarosa- Boston College

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Question 1. The main finding of this fascinating paper is that a critical step in marshaling radical inter-organizational change (such as a merger) involves the emergence of an “interim sense … about what the organizations are becoming.” As you state in the paper, this is both “simple and profound” (p. 428).

The central notion of our ASQ paper was the discovery of transitional identity. We certainly think that this notion is a theoretically useful and practically applicable concept. As noted in the paper, transitional identity served the purpose of smoothing the path of a merger of approximate equal partners.

How does this finding affect the dominant understanding of organizational identity as something that is “central, distinctive, and continuous over time” (Albert and Whetten, 1985)? What role, if any, do you think transitional identity may play in a hostile takeover situation – that is, when two entities do not have equal bargaining power, and their leadership teams do not share the understanding that “becoming one” is desirable?

Albert and Whetten introduced the notion of organizational identity in 1985. The terms that caught on in academic circles relating to identity were those cited above: central, enduring, and distinctive. In that paper, however, they also referred to identity as central, distinctive, and continuous over time, which is more in line with the findings of the paper. One contribution we made to the identity literature was to say in essence, folks, the idea that identity is enduring and unchanging is a myth. Identity can be construed as enduring, but it is also changeable. So when the question comes up, as stated above, we agree that identity is central, distinctive, and continuous. In the context of a merger, merging parties must find a way to retain elements of identity that are simultaneously distinctive, and continuous, while also adaptive. Transitional identity simultaneously changes and maintains identity. The transitional identity retains some vestiges of who they were before the merger and who they are becoming. Transitional identity maintains the illusion of something enduring via a label, while the actual meaning of the label changes over time. One might go so far as to say that transitional identity provides the illusion of enduringness. When we study a merger we should attend to what is enduring and what is changing, whether implicit or explicit in nature. In sum, participants attached meaning to the label that was derived from their old identity in hopes of forming a new identity to which they could relate.

When we talk about grounded theory, we also have to talk about the boundary conditions on the theory. Our conditions on the notion of transitional identity are that it pertains to equal partners. In my view, the notion of transitional identity is less relevant in contexts involving a dominant merger or acquisition partner. Having said that, focusing on transitional identity during the negotiations of unequal partners may facilitate the integration and transition of two organizational identities, as well. Perhaps transitional identity might enable the lesser partner to believe they don’t have to surrender who they are.

Question 2. A notable methodological aspect of the paper is the vast amount of qualitative data – including interviews, participant observation, and archival materials – collected from two organizations that underwent a merger. How did you handle the complexity of analyzing these expansive data? What role did historical sources play in your theorizing?  

This was a long term research project involving longitudinal data from multiple sources, multiplied by two organizations. The volume and complexity of the data was addressed, to a large extent, by looking for emergent themes in the early stages of the investigation. Gestalt analysis was used to determine the dominant patterns of thinking of individuals involved in the merger, and surface relevant themes. We then quickly moved into a theoretical sampling mode, that is, we let the early stages of analysis guide subsequence waves of data gathering and analysis. By engaging in theoretical sampling we were able to make the voluminous quantity of data manageable. Additionally, we also applied rigorous coding techniques and a qualitative software application to track and manage our primary sources of data, including the interviews and meeting notes.

Question 3. One of the strengths of the paper is that you started collecting data before the merger between the hospitals was even announced. What was your initial research question when you first approached the site? How did it evolve over time? 

We were inspired by Alan Meyer’s “environmental jolt’s” paper to seize the opportunity to study something quite unique, unexpected, and of strategic importance. Grounded theory and interpretive approaches are flexible enough to exploit opportunities for theory building as the nature and dynamics of the situation unfolds. The initial research question focused on understanding the role of cognitive change among top managers involved in strategic planning. We were well positioned to study top management team issues in one organization when the intent to merge was announced. Having gained the trust of one set of top managers, we were able to negotiate access to study the merger partner in similar depth.

Question 4. Based on your experience in working on this manuscript, can you share with us some tips on collaborating successfully with co-authors (with and beyond your institution)? What were some of the roadblocks you encountered as you were preparing this manuscript? How were you able to move beyond them?  

We had the usual head-butting contests that accompany most collaborative research efforts. During the later stages of the research we decided to add a fourth investigator, someone who could provide information and modes of analysis that pertained specifically to the merger context.
Any merger situation is delicate. We went to great lengths to earn the trust of both top management teams and others involved in the merger process. We signed non-disclosure agreements to protect the confidentiality of our participants and agreed to withhold publication of the research until the merger was complete due to the sensitive nature of the information we obtained.
Consulting services were offered once the study was concluded to help smooth the integration and alignment of the merging entities. In essence, we became advocates for the success of the merger.

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