The Organizational Self as a Historically Contingent Dialectic: The Case of the California Postsecondary Education Commission, 1974-2011

Building on Albert and Whetten’s (1985) field-defining work, organizational scholars have demonstrated that maintaining an organizational identity is an ongoing process in which the past and future are continuously reconstructed in the “ongoing present” (Schultz & Hernes, 2012). Moreover, organizations may hold hybrid and multiple organizational identities simultaneously (Pratt, 2016), whose demands they may manage by prioritizing and integrating them into larger “organizational selves” (Pratt & Kraatz, 2009). The challenges of managing these multiple identities may be particularly acute in institutionally pluralistic fields (Kraatz & Block, 2008). Yet, there has been a lack of empirical attention to the organizational self and its evolution over time. In this paper, I ask: how does the organizational self evolve in an institutionally pluralistic context? I explore this research question through a historical study of the evolution of the California Postsecondary Education Commission (CPEC), a public agency, over 37 years. I triangulate primary source data from several physical and digital archives with 30 hours of original interviews with former CPEC staff, leadership, and external stakeholders. I find that CPEC’s organizational self evolved as a result of historically contingent negotiations during times of leadership transition as new leaders sought to enact their vision and attend to the immediate issues facing the organization by reprioritizing its constituent identities. Building on these findings, I theorize that the organizational self is a historically contingent dialectic between past, present, and future-tense visions for the organization. It is the product of actors’ embedded agency (Battilana & D’Aunno, 2009), drawing from the past and imagining the future, but attuned to the problems of practice at hand. The organizational self is, thus, fundamentally a historical concept: it must be characterized and studied with explicit attention to time and context.