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Historically Speaking: A Case Study of the Organizational Identity Dynamics of an Iconic American Brand After Acquisition Open Access

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During a major organizational change, according to Albert and Whetten (1985), organizational members engage in the self-reflective question: Who are we as an organization? This study examined two of the four dynamic processes—reflecting and expressing of culture and identity—documented in Hatch and Schultz’s (2002) organizational identity dynamics model and explored organizational history as heritage symbols, traditional cultural practices, and memory forms (Hatch & Schultz, 2017). It addressed the research question: What role does organizational history play in the organizational identity dynamics of a legacy company following a major acquisition?A qualitative case study approach was used. The site was the Fortune 200 company Sherwin-Williams, which just completed its largest acquisition in 2017. Data were collected through 12 face-to-face interviews with Sherwin-Williams’ senior leaders; observations at the corporate headquarters and at Sherwin-Williams’ corporate museum; organizational documents; and physical artifacts. Data analysis involved an iterative process with continuous triangulation between primary and secondary data. Findings showed that after the acquisition of The Valspar Corporation in 2017—which emerged as a critical event from the data analysis—Sherwin-Williams utilized traditional cultural practices and memory forms to sustain its identity as an organization that utilizes conservative business practices to achieve strong financial performance, which ultimately benefits customers, employees, shareholders, and the community. Sherwin-Williams was able to reinforce and sustain its five identity claims and five values by utilizing organizational history, including three critical events, memory forms, and three traditional culture practices.Three conclusions were drawn. First, during organization change, organizational identity is challenged (Albert & Whetten, 1985), and at this pivot point, organizational history can be utilized to either sustain organizational identity or open the organization’s identity to changes. Second, in navigating critical events such as mergers and acquisitions or major leadership transitions, organizational leaders can be more successful in the long term if they have a deep understanding of the dynamics that exist between organizational history and organizational identity. Third, all different types of organizational history, including stories (i.e., critical events), traditional cultural practices, memory forms, and the founders, have in important role in organizational identity dynamics. The study offers implications for theory, recommendations for practice, and suggestions for future research.

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