A quote often attributed to Oscar Wilde urges people to be themselves because everyone else is taken.

In a way, that bit of wisdom certainly applies to organizational identity, where what you are serves to differentiate you from both partners and competitors.

But in building and managing identity, anticipatory organizations are very much aware that a valuable identity is not a one and done proposition. It requires ongoing effort and, if necessary, adjustments to ensure that your identity remains both effective and relevant.

Identity Defined

As an article in the Harvard Business Review notes, identifying and nurturing an organization’s identity isn’t simply a matter of some sort of catchphrase. For instance, “Focused on Excellence” does little to let others know what you promise and how you intend to deliver. Rather, a corporate identity conveys value to consumers while also providing useful guidelines that drive both corporate and individual employees’ actions.

What comprises an organizational identity? The Harvard Business review piece identifies three primary components:

  • Your value proposition to customers
  • Those systems that allow an organization to create that value
  • The products and services that effectively deliver your value proposition

That translates to measurable results. A survey of more than 700 executives found that organizations with a strong, defined identity had far better total shareholder return than those that lacked such an identity.

Additionally, an effective organizational identity is as much inwardly focused as it is directed to outsiders. A well-defined identity serves as an internal compass, helping everyone in an organization to make decisions that are aligned with the group’s overall philosophy and mission.

How Identity Can Go Off Track

Focus—recognition of what truly needs to be conveyed and staying on point with that message—is one of the characteristics that shapes an effective organizational identity. Given the necessity of a finely tuned focus, many organizations’ identities can be compromised by trying to be too many things to too many people.

Research in Motion—the company known for the Blackberry—is an example of an organization that lost its identity over time. Although the Blackberry was very successful, the company diluted its identity by investing time and resources into a variety of skewed products and services. Meanwhile, competitors with better-honed focus developed and nurtured loyalty from a more specific set of customers.

Lack of Anticipation—Another Way to Derail

It’s also obvious that Research in Motion failed to see the potential of mobile devices—best summarized by an executive’s now infamous comment that dismissed the appeal of watching videos on a mobile phone.

Reactive thinking like this happens when there is a focus on protecting and defending the status quo, in this case current cash cows that are market leaders. One of the salient points of my Anticipatory Organization Model is the opportunity afforded by convergence—what can be brought together to produce added value, whether it’s introducing new features on mobile phones, which, for many of us, now also serve as our primary computer, or the convergence of entire industries.

But being anticipatory with regard to organizational identity can take other forms:

  • Know how others see you. Tools such as social software can be used to measure real-time sentiment of large groups of targeted people.
  • Invest in your people. Offering ongoing training and career development opportunities not only help meet the future needs of your employees, they also serve to encourage your best and brightest to stay with you.
  • Keep your tools current. Legacy hardware and software and other sorts of aging technology not only frustrate those trying to do their jobs, they may also compromise your security (older versions often can’t take advantage of the most current and effective security solutions).

A powerful organizational identity means more than conveying who you are now. By being anticipatory, you can become recognized as an organization whose future identity is every bit as compelling and relevant as it is today.