More on Trust in the Social Enterprise

Note: This is the seventh in a series of posts about the Social Enterprise and the Big Shift. The first post provided an introduction and overall context; the second looked specifically at collaboration, working together; the third looked at optimising performance, enjoying work, working more effectively. The fourth, Doing By Learning, looked at how work gets done in the enterprise, and provided the context in which such flows should be seen. The fifth delved into the subject of flows in detail, and introduced the concept of enterprise social objects. The sixth looked more specifically at the role of trust in the social enterprise, and raised the possibility of using social objects as catalysts for building tacit trust. This [hitherto unplanned] post continues with that theme.  The last three posts (in the series of ten) will then look at curation, filtering, innovation, motivation and radical transformation.]


I wasn’t planning to write this post. But it appears that my last one, on trust in the social enterprise, struck a chord with many of you, and I wanted to share the conversations that erupted with all of you. Conversations that took place here within the comments, on Facebook and in Google+; there was further fragmentation as people pinged me by e-mail (not a medium I care for, but one that doesn’t appear to know when to depart the scene gracefully). Some people even preferred face-to-face engagement. Incidentally, I’m currently temporarily sidelined, recovering from an operation. As a result face-to-face interactions are limited. It’s during times like these that I see just how much of a blessing online communities can be. Of course face to face is desirable; of course eye contact and voice are wonderful; of course synchronous conversation is compelling and beautiful; but when we rail against online communities and “social networks” let’s also try and think about those who are actually more enfranchised as a result, overcoming physical, emotional, technical, social, economic or political barriers via such networks

Virtual Communities and Trust

There should be a law against using the phrase Virtual Communities without invoking the name of Howard Rheingold, the doyen on that subject, the onlie begetter of that phrase. [Howard, I hope you’re well. Sorry to have missed you this time around in SF. September?] In his seminal book The Virtual Community, an absolute must-read, Howard makes the following observation early on:

Social psychologists, sociologists, and historians have developed useful tools for asking questions about human group interaction. Different communities of interpretation, from anthropology to economics, have different criteria for studying whether a group of people is a community. In trying to apply traditional analysis of community behavior to the kinds of interactions emerging from the Net, I have adopted a schema proposed by Marc Smith, a graduate student in sociology at the University of California at Los Angeles, who has been doing his fieldwork in the WELL and the Net. Smith focuses on the concept of “collective goods.” Every cooperative group of people exists in the face of a competitive world because that group of people recognizes there is something valuable that they can gain only by banding together. Looking for a group’s collective goods is a way of looking for the elements that bind isolated individuals into a community.

The three kinds of collective goodsthat Smith proposes as the social glue that binds the WELL into something resembling a community are social network capital, knowledge capital, and communion. Social network capital is what happened when I found a ready-made community in Tokyo, even though I had never been there in the flesh. Knowledge capital is what I found in the WELL when I asked questions of the community as an online brain trust representing a highly varied accumulation of expertise. And communion is what we found in the Parenting conference, when Phil’s and Jay’s children were sick, and the rest of us used our words to support them.

That was written over twenty years ago. For me two sentences stood out, and stood out enough for me to want to repeat them here:

Every cooperative group of people exists in the face of a competitive world because that group of people recognizes there is something valuable that they can gain only by banding together. Looking for a group’s collective goods is a way of looking for the elements that bind isolated individuals into a community.

Nearly a decade later, Amy-Jo Kim, another regular WELLBeing, wrote Community Building On The Web. And smitten as I was in Howard’s work and in the workings of the WELL, I found Amy-Jo’s book fascinating. Another must-read. [Over the years I have lost count of the number of copies I’ve given away of these two books, The Virtual Community and Community Building On The Web. Buy them, read them, you won’t regret it.] [Disclosure: I know Howard well, I’ve met Amy-Jo a few times; I am not a shareholder in anything they do and have no financial interest in your purchasing the books].

Early on in the book, Amy-Jo says:

Communities come to life when they fulfil an ongoing need in people’s lives. To create a successful community, you’ll need to first understand why you’re building it and who you’re building it for; and then express your vision in the design, technology and policies of your community.

She then goes on to say:

A community can begin to take root wherever people gather for a shared purpose and start talking amongst themselves.

Incidentally, a dozen years ago, Amy-Jo described her nine design strategies as “timeless”. Time has proved her right.

The importance of shared values and shared purposes

A good deal of my learning takes place through reading; it’s the simplest way I can find out what someone thinks and for that matter how someone thinks. With the advent of video, I’ve been able to watch people share their ideas, particularly with the assistance of communities like TED. [I’ve even been able to share my own ideas that way. Having the chance to speak at TED@SXSW this year, and at a TED Salon in 2010, was incredible. If you’re interested, here’s a link to my TED talk at Austin. ]

Despite all this, most of my learning takes place the old-fashioned way. Asking people questions and then listening to their answers. One of the people I have the privilege of knowing is Professor Klaus Schwab, the founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum. Having been to a number of Forum events over the years, particularly in Davos, Dalian and Tianjin, I’ve always marvelled at the nature of the community that he’s built. When I wanted to understand more about the role of music in reaching across borders, I could go listen to Lang Lang, Gabriela Montero and Zarin Mehta share their thoughts and learnings. When I wanted to understand the implications of Wikileaks, I could go listen to Daniel Domscheit-Berg and then follow that up with a quiet lunch with Clay Shirky and Jeff Jarvis. Now I realise the incredible privilege I’ve enjoyed in having roles and responsibilities that give me access to such people and places; but none of it would happen unless people had visions for the communities they wanted to build.

With this in mind, and with a strong belief that the Forum represented so much more than people could see on the surface and in the media, I had a conversation with Professor Schwab about the role of trust in the social enterprise. His answer was very instructive:

In order to create a real community you have to first bind people together by a shared interest, then you have to bond them together through interaction and then you have to build/engage them into joint action.
This philosophy of binding-bonding-building is a basic principle for all that we are doing.

He then went further and pointed me towards the work of Howard V Perlmutter, enriching my journey of learning. So I’ve ordered a book by him, along with a treatise going all the way back to the mid 1960s. My thanks to Professor Schwab.

For a community to succeed it must have a shared purpose and shared values. Everyone agrees about that. But for some reason when we start talking about social commitments in business, things get less clear. For some reason people conflate for-profit with “bad” or “evil”, and non-profit as “good”. Over the years I’ve seen extremely well-run and socially-conscious for-profit firms, and extremely poorly run non-profits, and vice versa. It’s not the for-profit or non-profit tag that makes the difference, it’s the quality of the shared values and the leadership to embed those shared values into the everyday operations of the enterprise. That’s why I joined, with its unique integrated corporate philanthropy model. The values inherent in that model permeate everything we do; every day I receive communications from Foundation employees sharing opportunities for me to get involved in social action; the people who work for the Foundation work amongst the rest of us; at the annual Dreamforce, coming up in September, customers and partners work closely with staff as they share the experience of committing time to Foundation activities; these values pervade everything we do; Marc Benioff has written more books on corporate philanthropy than he has on the cloud.

What your comments have taught me

Your comments covered a lot of ground. James Dellow chimed in reminding us of the term “social capital” and its importance in this context, something that resonates with the “collective goods” that Howard Rheingold referred to in his original Marc Smith schema. Francine Hardaway pointed out the intrinsic ability for digital infrastructures to extend trust networks, while warning us of the risk of being gamed by people who are not what they seem. As the sayings go: on the internet nobody knows you’re a dog/on the internet everyone knows you’re a dog. No one. Everyone. At the same time. Christopher Rollyson brought in Robin Dunbar’s work, and also reemphasised the impact of the Big Shift in increasing uncertainty and the consequent need for a greater dimension of trust. Chris Conder and Peter Van Den Auwera remarked on the “magic” that comes from being able to trust, with its inherent vulnerability and risk-taking. John Hagel and later Brooks Jordan underlined the need for a holistic approach [Brooks, incidentally, I’m a big fan of Christopher Alexander, have signed copies of A Pattern Language and The Nature of Order. I think everyone involved with building information systems should read Alexander as well as Jane Jacobs]. Tom Guarriello correctly identifies that my focus on trust was to quite an extent catalysed by my having to entrust my well-being to a group of strangers in a foreign land, while in hospital in San Francisco. David Chassels emphasised the role of object thinking in this context. Heather Gold took pains to ensure that I wasn’t suggesting that social objects act as mediators for trust, underlining the importance of vulnerability in personal interactions as a basis for growing trust. There have been more comments, but most of them have endorsed what I’ve already covered here.

So what did I learn?

Communities are meaningless unless they can do something together that they could not have done in isolation. The willingness and ability to take action is what matters. Trust is the glue that allows communities to act. During times of relative stability and certainty, there is a tendency to systematise and automate the building and verification of trust; that is dangerous. It becomes exposed in times of uncertainty, when credentials will no longer do. That’s when shared values and ethics and purpose come to the fore: without them the problem is one of morals, not systems. Identity is going to become more and more important, but it’s nothing more than “credentials”. What really matters is in the interactions between people in a community, the vulnerability embedded in those interactions, the risk taken within those interactions, the learnings, sometimes painful, that come from those interactions.

Trust is earned, often with the scars of learning. But trusting is important, more than important, it is imperative. Imperative because we need to come together in multicultural multidisciplinary multistakeholder ways, ways we’ve never come together before. Ways that require us to be willing to take risk, to make ourselves vulnerable, to trust.

We need to do this because mankind faces challenges that cannot be solved using the tools of prior paradigms, challenges that are genuinely global in nature, challenges that affect the well-being of our children, their children, their children’s children.

The Social Enterprise is nothing more than an enabling mechanism for helping us connect meaningfully with each other; and social objects are nothing more than catalysts in helping us experiment with trust.

In the end it’s about people. Us. The values and purposes we share. The values and purposes that can bring us together in community. Us. Our willingness to make ourselves vulnerable to each other, to be open with each other, to trust each other.

No man is an iland intire of it selfe.

16 thoughts on “More on Trust in the Social Enterprise”

  1. JP, Consider this on the matter of business for social purpose, where “philanthropy” is part of the DNA rather than a finite percentage of revenue.

    What I’m beginning to read from some of the advocates of a new economy. like Umair Haque is that empathy embedded in the business model is the ‘Next Big Thing’ without realising that it’s already with several flavours.
    From this perspective, the Information Age offers an opportunity never before available, to address seemingly intractable problems that traditiona capitalism does not reach:

    “The corporations involved in this almost fantastical deployment of the machines and communications infrastructure that we now rely on profited for themselves and their shareholders, and certainly produced social and economic benefit around the world. Those efforts were and are so profound in influence as to transform human civilization itself. That is the Information Revolution, and it is nothing short of astonishing.

    So it is safe to say that all these players in the Information Revolution — the enterprises that created it — have engendered almost immeasurable social benefit by way of connecting people of the world together and giving us opportunity to communicate with each other, begin to understand each other, and if we want, try to help each other.

    It is that last phrase — “try to help each other” — which is what the phrase “social enterprise” is getting at. As Bill Gates said in 2000, “poor people don’t need computers.” and rejected a business approach to alleviating poverty. That statement served to mark the clear distinction between what traditional capitalism did and did not do. Gates’ aim at that time was to profit from people who could afford his company’s products, while those who couldn’t were largely or completely ignored. That has been the accepted limit of traditional capitalism. It has been a marvelous means of social benefit and economic advancement for many people. Nevertheless, those excluded are just left out.

    The term “social enterprise” in the various but similar forms in which it is being used today — 2008 — refers to enterprises created specifically to help those people that traditional capitalism and for profit enterprise don’t address for the simple reason that poor or insufficiently affluent people haven’t enough money to be of concern or interest. Put another way, social enterprise aims specifically to help and assist people who fall through the cracks. Allowing that some people do not matter, as things are turning out, allows that other people do not matter and those cracks are widening to swallow up more and more people. Social enterprise is the first concerted effort in the Information Age to at least attempt to rectify that problem, if only because letting it get worse and worse threatens more and more of us. Growing numbers of people are coming to understand that “them” might equal “me.” Call it compassion, or call it enlightened and increasingly impassioned self-interest. Either way, we are all in this together, and we will each have to decide for ourselves what it means to ignore someone to death, or not.”

  2. I offer an illustration of trust online, which involves the publication of social enterprise models and strategy papers, for propagation of social benefit.

    To go into a little more detail, this goes back to 1996 and a seminal paper, which describes a business where ‘at least fifty percent of profits go to stimulate a given local economy, instead of going to private hands’. It reasoned:

    “If a corporation wants to donate to its local community, it can do so, be it one percent, five percent, fifty or even seventy percent. There is no one to protest or dictate otherwise, except a board of directors and stockholders. This is not a small consideration, since most boards and stockholders would object. But, if an a priori arrangement has been made with said stockholders and directors such that this direction of profits is entirely the point, then no objection can emerge.”

    As we saw last year, it was 99% of the people who took exception to the excesses of capitalism and the 1% who benefit most.

    Now, what you say about benefit for our children is of particular relevance. If you saw the recent BBC4 documentary on Ukraine’s Forgotten Children, these disabled children were the primary focus of a strategy plan which after feeding to government channels, was published on line. In the second part, describing a Center for Social Enterprise, it is argued how profit can be deployed to resolve a broad range of social problems.

    “Children will have a better life, and will be more likely to become healthy, productive assets to the nation rather than liabilities with diminished human development, diminished education, and the message that they are not important – the basis for serious trouble. There is no need whatsoever to give these children less than a good quality of life as they grow and mature. ”

  3. Ward Cunningham is doing some interesting work with information flows and sustainably of scarce resources within a community. In recognizing many people hold diametrically different views on important issues: Global warming, War-on-Drugs, Bank bailouts (and on and on). He’s developing a paragraph level federated wiki for sharing data beyond a neutral view. Thus building trust.

  4. “Communities are meaningless unless they can do something together that they could not have done in isolation. The willingness and ability to take action is what matters. Trust is the glue that allows communities to act.”
    Spot on JP.

  5. Actually, on reading this post again (I generally leave tabs open all day and read things twice) I am struck by your second paragraph.
    What you said is exactly the reason our social enterprise was born. It is because people who are laid up either by health, or age or by being a carer, (or by remoteness from other people in rural areas) have a need for connectivity. You have seen the value of this while you have been incapacitated. Also you have seen the need for a connection during the long lonely nights in a hospital bed. It is vital we get ubiquitous access to our friends and family no matter where we or they are. Touching base, reassurance, information, bla bla, its all so easy if the connectivity is there and fit for purpose.
    I trust that by working together we can make it a reality… and if Mr Rheingold’s bullshit detector could be brought into play and squash the myth that we already have connectivity in hospitals and rural areas that would be great too. Its like you say, we band together for so many things, and the internet is the great enabler.
    I live in hope.
    Very sorry you got ill, very glad you are getting better, but every cloud has a silver lining and maybe that paragraph was one of the little gems that came out of that cloud, along with countless others I guess.


  6. Chris, the same point about the needs of those excluded in the Information Age may be founding in our 1996 paper:

    “We are at the very beginning of a new type of society and civilization, the Information Age. Historically, this is only the third distinct age of civilization. We lived in an agricultural age for thousands of years, which gave way to the Industrial Revolution and Industrial Age during the last three hundred years. The Industrial Age is now giving way to the Information Revolution, which is giving rise to the Information Age. Understanding this, it is appropriate to be concerned with the impact this transition is having and will continue to have on the lives of all of us. In that it is a fundamental predicate of “people-centered” economic development that no person is disposable, it follows that close attention be paid to those in the waning Industrial Age who are not equipped and prepared to take active and productive roles in an Information Age. Many, in fact, are scared, angry, and deeply resentful that they are being left out, ignored, effectively disenfranchised, discarded, thrown away as human flotsam in the name of human and social progress. We have only to ask ourselves individually whether or not this is the sort of progress we want, where we accept consciously and intentionally that human progress allows for disposing of other human beings.”

    This is what led in to the introduction made to the UK, for a community benefit approach to deploying rural broadband:

    “The emerging Information Age will provide an unprecedented opportunity for outreach and communication at local community levels by way of the Internet. Given the opportunity to communicate and research global resources, communities will become able to assess their own needs, identify resources to meet those needs, and procure those resources. In that sense, the information economy can work to the advantage of impoverished people in a way never before possible.

    In order to participate in the information economy, it is essential for local communities in any nation in the world to be able to access common information. Given that the Internet and world wide web are in their development infancy, physical infrastructure for the Internet on a global basis need to be built: the global information infrastructure, or GII . So, why not create new companies that not only fulfill this very lucrative and ongoing infrastructure deployment and direct the profit to additional social needs such as poverty and hunger relief? “

    I’m also sorry to hear of JP’s illness. It’s been a problem for me in recent years since being diagnosed with a blood cancer. My colleague, who took the lead in all this wasn’t so fortunate, having died overseas with insufficient funds for his own medical needs. He was an American, one of 50 million without health insurance.

  7. Awesome as always. I had an opportunity five years ago to reflect on lessons learned in building virtual communities in a business context in the decade since I wrote the book Net Gain. This book was inspired by Howard Rheingold’s book that you mention above, but it was the first book to suggest that these virtual communities could provide the foundation for some awesome new businesses. You might find some of my observations interesting in the context of your post above –

  8. Very thoughtfu post. I am enjoying the series immensely. The bit about socially conscious companies and poorly run non profits rang particularly true. The line has blurred….the best social change organizations I’ve come across in the past decade are the hybrid orgs. Would love to collaborate and write something with you in this regard some day. Hope you are doing well and looking forward to seeing you in a few weeks.

  9. the largest, most efficient, most organized community on earth? we call it “nature”.

    it is the best model for organizational functioning. it is fully transparent, non-hierarchical, and there is no component doing anything that is not connected to everything else, meaning the concept of doing something in isolation doesn’t exist.

    in the western way of dividing wholeness into parts (the basis of economics, science, set theory, religion) we cannot fully understand community. we ARE beginning to grasp networks , and will find they extend to infinity.

  10. Agree, shared value, shared identity…

    Some quotes I like to use for community:

    “A man can no more create a community by filling out a form on a webpage than he can make a fruit tree by taping fruit to twigs and twigs to a stump.”
    – Matt Simpson

    “I would also (to take the issue on) argue that attempts to create CoP through formal process and control are also a mistake. If a community has value it will form and the technology now allows that. Control and censorship are not appropriate. You might need that in a formal document repository or lessons learnt database (where a degree of validity is required) and those might link to communities. But the idea of a formally controlled and structured environment is I think (and thankfully) at an end.”
    – Dave Snowden

    “There’s really only one rule for community as far as I’m concerned, and it’s this – in order to call some gathering of people a “community”, it is a requirement that if you’re a member of the community, and one day you stop showing up, people will come looking for you to see where you went.”
    – Adam Fields

    But can business have community like values/dynamics…yes in pockets, but will we ever do away with resource competition, politics, agendas, bonuses, stakeholder capitalism (

    Peter Drucker hoped to treat everyone equally:

    …“employees” have to be managed as “partners”—and it is the definition of a partnership that all partners are equal. It is also the definition of a partnership that partners cannot be ordered. They have to be persuaded…

    Henry Mitzberg talks about community-ship, which I talked about at the end of my post

    “…show me a leader and I will show you all kinds of followers and that is not the kind of organizations that we want…we need to put more emphasis on what I prefer to call, there is no word for it but I use the word ‘community-ship’, which is the idea that corporations and other organizations, when they function well, are communities. People care for each other, they worry about each other, they work for each other and they work for the institution and they feel pride in the institution.”

  11. Suzanne, I’d be delighted to work with you on this. Yes I am getting better and stronger, should be back in the thick of things well before Dreamforce.

  12. Hi Jeff,

    I have collected most of my reading on conscious capitalism in this post

    “…many of Smith’s modern acolytes seem unaware of his cautionary warnings, especially in his earlier work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, where (as a Stoic and a Christian) he stressed the fact that everything in a free market depends on a moral foundation of trust, honest dealing and, as he himself put it, “justice”.”

    “Smith also warned in The Wealth of Nations about the potential abuses associated with wealth and power. He spoke of the collusive nature of the business interests in his country.
    Smith also thought a true laissez-faire economy would be distorted by businesses and industry scheming to influence politics and legislation”

    Here’s some more good stuff on trust:

    “In small communities and established trading networks, trust is based on personal relationships. Many small towns still pride themselves on the fact that nobody locks their homes…But in large impersonal cities with many transactions between strangers, trust may depend on external trust-builders — such as the reputation of a manufacturer and its brand

    However, trust is also a fragile commodity. It can quickly be dissipated by actions that are exploitative, dishonest, or unfair. Or simply harmful…Toyota suffered a steep drop in sales after it was disclosed that the company had been hiding problems with some of its models…Greeks engage in widespread tax cheating because they do not trust a government that is perceived to be corrupt…

    Economists may still prefer to deal in the currency of dollars and cents. But the bottom line is that trust (or distrust) greatly affects the bottom line”

  13. Hi John,

    Mackey offers an interesting example of trust online with the case of the Rahodeb Indentity. In Time magazine commenting on his use of anonymity. Lev Grossman wrote:

    As anybody who has even looked sideways at the Internet knows, anonymity has a disastrously disinhibiting effect on human behavior. Freed of any possibility that their words will be connected to their actual identities, anonymous Internet posters have charted historic new depths of verbal offensiveness. Andrew Keen, author of The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet Is Killing Our Culture, has called for posters to own up to their Internet alter egos, arguing that “if we are to save the Internet, we need to confront the curse of anonymity.”,9171,1645168,00.html

    It was to become highly relevant for us, as a small business, unable to engage in costly lawsuits, when Google became the vehicle of an anonymous defamation campaign about our activism for childcare reform, with the author even gloating over our founder’s death.

    Few realise that Conscious capitalism has a progenitor, which had begun in 1996, with a formal paper on business for social purpose:

  14. “The willingness and ability to take action is what matters. Trust is the glue that allows communities to act.” Most definitely JP.

    There is often a big wedge, though, as you know, that comes between these two aspects of a company. Morals, values, and trust, and higher reasoning in general, are often treated as secondary citizens in corporate culture.

    Yet, the pressure organizations are under in today’s environment and thousands of great “startup” examples (including are exposing the need for, and competitive advantage in, a trust + action approach to business (think: @Zendesk).

    What’s so fascinating about “virtual communities” in the enterprise, and what your posts on trust are doing a great job surfacing, is that inherent in their real-time, peer-to-peer, artifact-rich nature is the fact that getting things done means trust + action.

    The riches of a social community (speed, efficiency, timing, insight, reach, etc) begin to appear and accelerate when the fuel is both trust (and all that implies regarding morals and values) *and* action.

    But those of us interested in creating/supporting/building social enterprises are naive if we think the social community itself in the enterprise will be sufficient for generating that trust. Yes, in the end, a culture of trust in an authentic social enterprise will be the standard a new member will almost automatically rise to, In the beginning, however, the trust needs to be seeded and stewarded into a background structure that informs all activity, all doing. Otherwise, it will evolve at a crawl.

    So why aren’t we helping organizations develop the trust side of the equation as well as the action side? If we are, whether we work in the org or outside in support of it, why aren’t we doing more of it? Right now this imbalance is a huge drag on any effort to become a social enterprise. We should turn the equation on it’s head and make it a priority to help enterprises develop an environment of trust so they can fly.

Let me know what you think

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.