Musing about trust

Everywhere around me I see more and more examples of resources, interactions and even entire marketplaces converted into virtual constructs. Abstracted. Expressed in ways that allow for sophisticated models and simulations. In fact that’s one way of looking at what’s happening at the Singularity University.

Everywhere around me I see more and more examples of situations where the core problem people are trying to solve is that of trust. There appears to be a lot of work being done trying to distil trust into something formulaic, data-driven.

And this is good. Data-driven is good. Feedback loops are good. Abstractions and models are good.


There’s something very human about trust. Something more related to the Age of Biology rather than the Age of Physics.

We’ve seen what happens when we rely on mathematics for ratings and values and decisions. Last time round it was called the Credit Crunch. A decade earlier it was called LTCM. Whatever.

You cannot legislate for ethics. Enron would have been SOx-compliant. Basle II may well have triggered some aspects of the recent financial crisis. Michael Power at LSE has been banging on about the implications of “managing” second-order risks for some time now. And he’s been right.

Some of us believe passionately in the power of what’s happening today, in terms of democratisated tools and access and community-based approaches to many things, from home to work to government and beyond. In fact, I’m personally somewhat at a loss as to why no one has really put together the right community-based vehicle for “climate change”, built as an open and transparent platform, on opensource principles and in a global inclusive manner.

Trust is about covenant relationships, not about contract relationships. In a contract you await breach and effect recourse. The question answered is “who pays?” In a covenant the question that’s answered is “how do we fix it?”

I think we’re going to spend a lot of time in 2010 learning about covenant relationships and their role in society. At home. In the community. At work. As a nation. As the world.

Stewardship, my word for 2010, is based on platforms. Those platforms need to be underpinned by trust. Not the trust of physics but the trust of biology. Because that is how value is going to be generated.

16 thoughts on “Musing about trust”

  1. Great post JP. I think there’s a lot that we can learn from mother nature. To understand ourselves, we need to think more about the world around us. For me, trust comes from within – an emotion. I trust a person/company because I have belief. However, sometimes that belief is tested. 2010 is going to be a time, when we focus more of our efforts on understanding communities

    Happy New Year and thanks (as ever) for inspiration.


  2. I like your comment about how trust is about covenant relationships, especially that “In a covenant the question that’s answered is “how do we fix it?””.

    It suggests a way out of the conundrum that we have:
    1) never before has there been as much data about you available on demand, yet
    2) never has there been so much anxiety about who you are when you assert a claim to be who you are, such as using a credit card or joining a group

    The trust of biology will have to deal with the concerns about identity

  3. We may see trust growing out of new moves by people to cope with exafloods of data.

    See posts and comments on biomimicry and the data avalanche in “Slaves of the Feed” – .


    Mark Frazier
    @openworld @buildership

  4. As a graduate of Singularity University’s inaugural program I can affirm your sentiments about it! It was phenomenal.

    Covenants vs. contracts – I think you are onto something here. I think trust is becoming an increasingly viable tenet again in relationships because reputations are becoming increasingly efficient as well.

    In an odd way, trust was the essential tenet for business relationships in the older days because the scale of such engagements happened to be lucid and constrained. Contracts became the basis of exchange due to increased scope and decreased lucidity.

    Today, atleast in the digital world, lucidity @ scale is improving – and as long as we continue to improve it, trust becomes a viable tenet again because breaking it results in an immediate impact on reputation.

    In summary, reputation IS the contract.

  5. @Mark thanks for the post reference. Will take a look.
    @Zubin agreed, reputation is the contract …. but expressed biologically, not in the language of physics.
    @doug agreed, we have a lot to learn from humanity and nature about what trust means and how to express it.
    @michael I’ve always “got religion”!
    @jas thanks for the feedback

  6. Putting it another way, rules can never outperform mores. If you give people rules, things will always fall through the cracks between them – however general they are, they are a specific construct. Rules indirectly express values and principles, which more generally express what is acceptable in the community (the mores).

    Is the idea of the age of physics versus the age of biology caught up in the age of ‘I’ versus ‘We’? It seems rules are about “they say that I can or can’t do that”, where as mores are about “we do and don’t do that”. I’m not sure if that is inherent in rules and mores, but it appears that way.

    Taking it from another angle. Data is inherently objective – it reflects an external, shared experience. Emotions are subjective, and I’d count trust in that bucket even though it can be an act of will (and even argued to be calculus based: “Trust more than liking.” Emotions are an internal experience. If we deal with measurable (objective) data, the best we can do is engage with action after the fact. If we deal with emotions, commitment, trust, we deal with (subjective) intent.

    Addressing action versus intent leads to very different outcomes. One is like driving using a strategy that says we apply the breaks when we hit the wall, the other is like driving using a strategy that says we steer away from walls.

  7. Business is still trying to recover from the influence of Francis Fukuyama’s 1995 book on Trust. I think JP captures very nicely where it alll went wrong. Starting with the idea that ‘high trust’ societies enjoy benefits, businesses set about trying to create trust by buying, building and engineering it. . The problem being that you can’t do that. The attitudes that people have to one their neighbours are an input to business, and you can choose to work wit h the grain or against the grain, but you can’t change the timber.

    A second problem is that “Trust” has two meanings. People focus on Trust as shared ethics, when the meaning that really matters is ‘reliability of outcome’ . In that sense, the best example of a man who can be trusted is Tony Soprano. Not a man whose ethics you might agree with, but if he says something is taken care of, you can bet it’s taken care of.

    Focusing on Trust as reliability of outcome re-frames the business conversation and makes sense of all the re-engineering projects. We – corporations and individuals alike – want to be able to do business with strangers, and know that we are safe, and we are going to get the outcome we expected, and we don’t have to keep checking up on one another. It’s the checking that causes expense and waste, regardless of whether your model is contract, covenant, physics or biology.

    (BTW, Fukuyama’s other book was “The End Of History” and as we now know, that didn’t happen, either)

  8. Trust- I believe the leader in the Trust field- at least published and an excellent and prolific blogger is Charlie Green. He is the Author of Trust Agents

    I believe that the most important off-shoot of trust is collaboration. Here is an interview with myself and Charlie from last month.

    My words for 2010 are “Collaboration Steward”

  9. I want to add my congratulations to those of Jon Ingham about this blogpost’s inclusion in the January Carnival of Trust. The Carnival is a monthly selection of the best of the web on the broad subject of trust.

    As the founder of the Carnival, I am indebted to the independent hosts who make these tough selections, and in this case I could not possibly approve more of his choice. I’ll add my own comments separately; I want to make sure this one speaks specifically to the fine work you did, and to congratulate you on being included in the Carnival.

    Charles H. Green
    Trusted Advisor Associates

  10. JP, I wanted to comment separately from my congratulations to you (above).

    I too think it’s a great post; it’s very much in sync with how I too think about the connection between trust and technology. Technology is a new bottle, but the underlying quality is very much old wine. Much of what I write about (in my articles, books and blog, TrustMatters) is very much in sync with what you have said.

    I write about business and trust; too much of business education and best practices have become seduced by the attractiveness of metrics, processes, and competitive models. It shouldn’t really take much reflection to recognize how critical the role of trust in commerce truly is–yet we have had several decades of thought leaders and practitioners developing and endorsing belief systems in which trust is destroyed or denigrated. Among other things, most large companies in the US today are rather confused about the difference between ethics and compliance; they conflate being ethical with not violating laws.

    I could go on, but this is your blog, not mine. Though it is always nice to find other people blogging on points of view so close to one’s own, and that bears mentioning.

    Just a quick note on Brandon Klein’s comment about me, above: he’s correct about my area of focus–trust–but momentarily confused my book with another. I am the author of Trust-based Selling, and co-author of The Trusted Advisor. The book Trust Agents, which I heartily endorse, was written by Chris Brogan and Julien Smith. And I think they’re both terrific bloggers as well (and they’d each agree with pretty much everything you’ve said as well).

    Great post, and thank you again.

  11. Brandon, Charlie, thanks for your comments. Charlie, we may have met in 1999 or 2000. I am well aware of The Trusted Advisor, and have read the book a few times. I believe we had you over to speak to us at Dresdner Kleinwort Benson, the investment bank, sometime around the turn of the century. I remember trying to get you and David Maister to come over to London….. this was before I became CIO there.

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