Why trust is essential for speed and intelligence inside companies

When I was writing The Day After Tomorrow, I became fascinated by the emergence of a number of interesting trust-related patterns throughout the book. If you look at what happens in the world of technology, it’s pretty clear that trust is one of those absolute key pillars for understanding the new dynamics of this consumerized and networked society of the 21st century. We are more and more connected. We have more and more devices. We are submerged with content. But how can we know what and who we can really trust?

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A trust machine called Blockchain

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that new mechanisms for trust are surfacing in these times that are dealing with the likes of fake news, phishing or identity theft. One of the most inspiring things that I describe at length in The Day After Tomorrow is the stellar rise of cryptocurrencies and the blockchain technology that lies underneath them. The Economist put blockchain on the cover with the wonderful article ‘The Trust Machine’, that explains how this technology behind bitcoin could transform how our economy works.

What excites me the most about this whole new blockchain paradigm is how it allows for one single source of the truth. A truth that is unforgeable. Just think of how this will change how we perform business and, most of all, how it will transform how we behave. The blockchain drives the transition from an internet of information to an internet of truth, and of trust. That’s huge. Don’t be fooled into thinking that blockchain is merely a technology. It’s something that completely changes the inherent nature and reliability of information.

Building networks of trust inside and outside organizations

At the same time, we see these patterns of trust forming and evolving inside our organizations. We see companies that have to unlearn their traditional structures and rethink how they see organizational patterns. Instead of the traditional command and control mechanisms, we need to build networks of trust. Because they function a lot more agile, smarter and faster than the traditional top down architectures. Stanley McChrystal, one of my absolute heroes in this field, has shown how - even in the military - they had to completely rethink their structures from hierarchy into networks to fight an enemy that was as ‘self-managed’ and responsive as Al-Qaeda. He firmly believes that if you don’t have a trusting environment you’ll never be agile and responsive enough for these exponentially evolving times.

I also love to use Victor Hwang and Greg Horowitt’s metaphor of the plantation and the rainforest. According to them, traditional organizations - plantations - are based on very strict, very rule-based and very traditional ways of understanding how to manage things. Start-ups, on the other hand, flourish in the wildness of the rainforest: an inherently dangerous place but at the same time full of innovation potential. Hwang and Horowitt are convinced that you have to have this element of trust in each other or you’ll never make it out alive in the rainforest of innovation. So it’s not just trust inside your company, but it should branch out, to an entire ecosystem of partners that help and support each other by sharing ideas, knowledge and services.

Sharing is trusting

We see the same dynamic happening in the sharing economy. The idea of Uber, Whipcar, DogVacay, and Kickstarter and all the derivatives of the sharing economy is built on rating. It is about understanding what you are going to get. From the early eBay examples on - where you would rate the sellers and the buyers - we are seeing that this type of quota-based trust building becomes a dominant factor. Only 5 years ago, it would have sounded inconceivable to most people to sleep in the house of a stranger of vice versa, to trust someone you don’t know to stay in your house. And yet today, there are 3,000,000 rooms of strangers available on Airbnb. Because it's using the power of technology to build trust between strangers, which is in fact very similar to what the blockchain is doing (though the tech is obviously not the same).

It’s also absolutely fascinating to see how these altered trust mechanisms - that are being kickstarted with tech - are already impacting our offline behavior. “Virtual” trust is for instance changing how we trust face to face: a study by the Pew Center revealed that an active Facebook user is three times as likely as a non-Internet user to believe that most people are trustworthy.

The way I see it, stimulating trust today - in tech, in company culture and in the sharing economy - has one huge benefit: speed. Because checking if something or someone is trustworthy – be it in a bank, by a notary, by asking other users or just between employees – slows each process up immensely. Trust makes you faster and more agile, and that’s a really important capability in a society that’s speeding up. Plus, it makes you more open to sharing ideas, experiences and insights, and that makes you a lot ‘richer’, smarter and will help you innovate.

I think in every element - from technology to organizations, from economies to actually even how we think about customers – companies will really need to build this trusting loyalty if they want to stay relevant for their customers. Trust becomes one of the underlining elements of trying to understand the 21st century. Or to put it in TechCrunch’s words: “If you’re not working to build and demonstrate it, then the future might be about to leave you behind, as trust is quickly becoming the global — and most-valued — currency of modern time.”

This article is inspired by my new book, The Day After Tomorrow.