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Trust on a global scale

Globalization and the transparency of the Internet may lead to trickery and mediocrity, argues project management expert Bas de Baar. If reputations are known worldwide, then many people will either lie or avoid risk altogether.

Bas de Baar
Bas de Baar

Did you see this video from Cisco? It makes your head spin and realize that the future is closer than you might think. This video contains a presentation from Cisco's CEO. He is on stage in Bangalore with two of his execs, who are physically present in San Jose. In the video you see them appear all on the same stage. Yes, that is Bangalore India and San Jose USA. And everyone all over the globe can watch the presentation through the Internet! WOW!

We already realized that we are working with people from all over the world. I already noted last month that globalization went together with an increase in transparency of reputations, "The Internet introduced deadly transparency. The flattened and connected world makes sure reputations spread faster than you can say 'Geronimo.'"

With an increase in geographical and cultural distance the aspect of "trust" becomes all important. And when people have never met, there are only two mechanism we can fall back on: 1) reputation -- what others are saying about the other person and 2) trying to read "telltale signs" -- looking for behavior or other marks that they identify with trustworthiness. This second mechanism might be as simple as being friendly and saying "hello" every time you see someone down the hall. People attempt to detect the telltale signs of trustworthiness not only based upon behavioral markers that society associates with it; it has also to do with the similarity of the other with you. Persons that are viewed more as being equal or "the same" are more likely to be considered honest and sincere towards you.

Back to "reputation." Technology has brought us the challenge of working with people we really, really, really don't know, but it has also provided us, luckily, with a reputation mechanism through transparency. The question we all ponder: Does this help? Are the transparency and the resulting reputation reliable? And does transparency lead to more ethical behavior?

As for the first part, that one is easy: every system can be manipulated. Especially on the Web. Entire PR companies are in existence simply to provide "a good vibe" about a person or company on the Web. All the "experts" are recommending each other. The eBay seller reputation system has been misled before by people selling stuff for a penny just to get the needed recommendations. The system is just as reliable as the people using it.

But even when the system is working properly, even when transparency makes sure people's behavior will be noted around the globe, this doesn't mean you can reap the benefits your project or business. With a good reputation there is a lot to gain, but having a bad rep puts a lot at stake. So people will play things safe. They will create low-risk behavior, ultimately resulting in mediocrity... A good example of this is illustrated in a quote from this article:

"While the typical CEO is only too happy to pocket the lucrative financial rewards that come with the mantle of leadership, some seem reluctant to accept this degree of accountability -- especially if it means personally taking the rap for non-compliance with the law. I guess not many corporate heads are convinced that a minimum-security sabbatical in an orange jumpsuit will be as good for their careers as it seems to have been for Martha Stewart's."

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Humans have a preference to fail conservatively. For me personally this is a surprising one. However, I do recognize it. The idea behind this is that people would rather choose an option that they know and that they have done in the past -- EVEN if the outcome is likely to be unsuccessful -- than try something new, where the outcome may be positive but unsure. If they fail, they can also hide behind the notion that they did everything everybody else is also doing.

Let's all hope that the future doesn't only contain of people conning the reputation systems by "influencing" information that tries to pose as "transparent" and people who fear the system and therefore stick to mediocre accomplishments. Otherwise, performing global projects will become a tough job.

About the author: Bas de Baar knows all about the wacky world of project management. He is a project manager in the publishing industry and is editor of a popular Web site devoted to project management, His venerated instructional book on sudden project management, Surprise! Now You're a Software Project Manager was published in September 2006 and is based on real-life experience.

This was last published in June 2008

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