Breaking away: An empirical examination of how organizational identity changes during a spin-off

Open Access
Corley, Kevin G.
Graduate Program:
Business Administration
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
May 09, 2002
Committee Members:
  • Karen Jansen, Committee Member
  • Dennis Stephen Gouran, Committee Member
  • Linda K Trevino, Committee Member
  • Dennis Arnold Gioia, Committee Chair
  • Identity Ambiguity
  • Organizational Identity
  • Organizational Change
The study of organizational identity has proven to be invaluable for our understanding of organizational behavior and strategy. In the 15 years since the introduction of the concept, researchers have demonstrated its importance to key variables at the individual, group, and organizational level. Except for a few conceptual pieces, however, this research has been limited by a conceptualization of organizational identity as relatively stable and, thus, has failed to contribute insights arising from a conception of organizational identity that is more dynamic in nature. This dissertation represents a focused study of one aspect of those dynamics, how organizational identity change occurs during a corporate spin-off. I used an inductive approach to conduct an explanatory case study of one organization coping with the changes associated with breaking away from its long-time parent. These changes, including alterations to the organization’s structure, culture, and business processes, represent perceptual fault-lines along which issues of identity change arise. Using semi-structured interviews, directed document analysis, and non-participant observation over a 10 month period before, during, and after the spin-off, I tracked these identity issues to capture their impact on the organization’s attempts to maintain its viability in its competitive marketspace. I then used the emergent data to develop a model of organizational identity change during a spin-off that provides insight into the processes underlying organizational identity change. Key findings from the emergent model include the critical role played by a state of identity ambiguity that emerged from image discrepancies and changes in the organization’s social referents, this ambiguity’s direct relationship to feelings of change overload experienced by organizational members, and a collective emotional state that arose in response to the identity ambiguity and that helped explain why top management was motivated to actively manage the identity ambiguity once it came to light. These findings not only represent insights transferable to other organizational change contexts, but also the foundation for an in-depth understanding of how organizational identity change occurs and its implications for the organization and its members. Additionally, my discussion of the findings provides the wherewithal for more focused follow-up research aimed at the further explication of identity ambiguity as a quantitatively operationalized variable and the continued exploration of subtle organizational change processes involving the meanings central to organizational perceptions.