Resources for Authenticity: Being vs. Understanding

by cv harquail on June 30, 2009

What resources can organizations draw on to create and sustain an authentic sense of “who they are”?

My class with the Darden EMBA students on Saturday danced around the questions of “How do organizations ‘source’ their identity? and “How do organizations sustain their authenticity?” Even though we had a chance to discuss many other issues in depth, these two questions remained unanswered. Given another 90 minutes, I’m sure we’d have hit them and hit them hard, but … As it was I had to console myself with glimmers of that conversation sprinkled among the students’ comments on a blog post they read in preparation for the class: Can an employee be “too authentic”?

Here are some of their insights…

An important way that organizations sustain their authenticity is through their members.


Organizations draw on members’ identities, on members’ commitments, and on members’ experiences to source their identity. This makes a whole lot of sense. After all, can an organization as an entity be something much different from the collective attributes of its members?

“Being” the Attribute

Members and employees are an important resource for their organization’s identity. When we think about employees being a resource, we usually think that the employees themselves must possess or demonstrate the actual attributes. So, in the extreme sports media organization referred to in Can an employee be “too authentic”?, employees who are skaters themselves are thought to have important attributes and qualities, which the organization then uses as a resource for its own identity. Because the members have the attributes in real life, people feel comfortable with the authenticity of the organization as a ‘skater’ organization.

“Understanding” the Attribute

But there are other ways that organization members can deliver these attributes within an organization. Members can serve as resources for the organization’s attributes if these members deeply know what it means to be these attributes. This ‘granny on a skateboard’ doesn’t have to risk a broken hip to understand what extreme sportspeople are all about, right?

A member who no longer skates but once did, or a member who never skated but has immersed herself in skater culture, someone who has listened to proskaters describe their experiences and frustrations, and who has talked openly with new skaters about their learning and their excitements, can also be a resource for the organization’s authenticity as a ‘skater’ organization.


Why do we prioritize “being” over “understanding” as a resource for authenticity?

We are usually less comfortable with claims of authenticity that arise from understanding rather than from being. We tend to prioritize “being” something as more real than “knowing” something. This is due I think to our recognition that behavior matters more than words when it comes to defining who we are (i.e., we are more like what we do than we are like what we say.) And, I think it also reflects just how hard it can be to understand what it means to ‘be’ something, whether or not you have that attribute yourself.

But, taking this approach denies at least two important features of people who understand a community, an experience, or an attribute that is part of ‘who the organization is’.

1. People who understand are often more able to articulate, communicate, share, teach, and apply an attribute than people who “are”.

2. Just because you can ‘be’ something it doesn’t mean you understand it.

It’s the power of meta-cognition… meta-cognition is the ability to reflect on something from a bit of a critical distance. People who ‘are’ skaters may or may not have meta-cognition about extreme sports… some can draw on their own experience to communicate with others (see comments by Eric & Rachel). However, people who understand skaters always have meta-cognition about extreme sports.

The students’ conversation also focused on involvement in the community (where the community is the group of people that uses the product) as a resource for authenticity. Implicitly, they see involvement as a pathway to understanding what it means to be something.

Involvement can occur through direct participation as a ‘community member +organization member’ (a dual role similar to the brandividual) and also through a more consultative, deep listening kind of participation (like the medical professionals that Lori & Jackson mention). Gautam offers an example of the kind of insight one can have by working closely with people who are authentic through participation, describing how his close shadowing of “solid waste handlers’ in India allowed him to recognize the emotional and social impacts of solid waste handling, that might have been overlooked by someone who was less willing to listen and learn.

Brand Vivants vs. Brand Savants (TM)

When I’ve talked about living the brand, I’ve argued that You don’t have to ‘live the brand’ to give the brand.

Organization members can understand the brand without having to internalize the brand’s attributes or even just acting like they have. Both “brand vivants“– those who live the brand, and “brand savants” – those who understand the brand, can create products, services and organizational processes that deliver the brand to the consumer.

The same is true with regard to the attributes that define the organization. Not everybody has to “be” these attributes for the organization to be said to have these attributes authentically. It seems kind of contradictory to say that an organization as an entity can have/be something that does not define all of its members… but what matters most is whether these attributes are designed into the organization and its systems.

“Designing in” an identity attribute can happen coincidentally through having lots of people perform an attribute by being it, and it can happen intentionally when people who understand an attribute create systems to sustain it. An authentic organization needs both kinds of members.

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