Affiliated Organization

University of Amsterdam, Netherlands


In organizations, change ideas are often implemented as ‘instruments of modernity’ (Giddens, 1991)prescribing a unified pattern of work, behavior and thought (Suchman, 1995). Reflecting a strongbelief in the engineerability of organizational reality, they generally serve the purpose of improvingmanagement control. A cultural critique of organizational change entails investigation of how suchchange ideas evolve from discourse to praxis, how they are received by the organization’s relevantsocial groups (Bijker et al., 1987), and how they impact everyday organizational life. For that, weperformed an ethnographic study in a large IT firm where we followed a change project that wasaimed at improving the organization’s learning capabilities through the concept of virtual community.By contrasting the organizational discourse around this concept, the intentions and appropriations ofthe firm’s management and moderators, and the responses of the employees, we describe how theintroduction of this modern change idea caused a dynamic interplay of negotiation in which numerousdivergences and tensions between the practice espoused and actual practice played a decisive role. Fora deeper understanding of this dynamic interplay, the larger part of this paper unravels the cumulativelayers of meaning employees attached to the virtual community idea. The first layer involves actorstaking a stand vis-à -vis the technology and the organizational practice in which it is applied. Thesecond layer illustrates that the appropriations of the employees are based upon the relational andsituational nature of their professional identity. In this way, we deconstruct the boundaries of thevirtual communities imposed, and show the networks of belonging with which the employees trulyidentify. In other words, we demonstrate how prescriptive instruments of modernity can lead to anartificialization of organizational life and suggest that fostering people’s passion for knowledge andtheir identification with the organization could provide a more productive alternative.