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Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Social Proximity and Trust

Andrew McAfee describes a topography of social networking, which he describes as the Enterprise 2.0 Bullseye (November 2007), drawing on the sociologist Mark Granovetter’s theory of the 'strength of weak ties' (pdf). McAfee's topography, which he acknowledges to be a drastic simplification of a large and complex set of phenomena, is drawn as concentric circles with the strongest ties in the centre (presumably this is the "bullseye"). For a discussion of McAfee's topography, see my post From Weak Ties to Weak Signals.

The circles of social proximity may relate to circles of trust. We preferentially share information and ideas with people we trust.

  • because we expect to be recognized and rewarded - either by benefiting directly from the use of our knowledge (e.g. as a member of the same team or organization) or by getting some favour in return
  • because we expect to be informed about the use of our knowledge, allowing us to intervene if the knowledge is used inappropriately or out of context (this is particularly important if the knowledge is complex, uncertain or volatile, or we are unsure about the ability of our friend or colleague to appreciate its full implications)
  • or conversely, because we expect them to get on with it without pestering us with follow-up questions
And we seek information and ideas from people we trust
  • because we believe that the information and ideas will be good
  • because we expect to be trusted with their information and ideas
  • because we expect to be allowed to use the information and ideas without excessive constraint or tedious negotiation

There are several alternative reasons for trusting people. One reason for trusting people is because we know them personally. Another reason is that they work for the same organization - therefore there is some management hierarchy that can resolve any competing claims or other issues. A third reason is that they have some kind of public reputation to maintain. We tend to trust public figures either because we have a fancy of knowing them personally, or because we imagine they have little to gain and much to lose from tricking their fans.

What are the relative strengths of these reasons for trusting people? In some organizations, people trust outsiders (such as consultants) more than they trust their own colleagues - either because they believe that the consultants have access to superior knowledge and techniques, or because they believe that the consultants are disinterested observers of internal company politics rather than active players.

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