Technology Transformation vs. Trust

Is technology killing trust in your organization? Are we heading for a dehumanized, low-trust business world?  Can technology itself come up with trust-enhancing ways to guard against this trend?

I’m getting asked these questions lately. And while there’s some merit to the question as framed, the news is not nearly as bad as it sounds – provided we remember a few basics.

The Technological Threat to Trust

Think of your own business – how is it being affected by:

  • Social collaboration
  • Big data/analytics
  • Mobility
  • The cloud
  • CRM
  • Process automation
  • Robotics
  • Internet of Things
  • 3d Printing
  • Cognitive systems
  • Blockchain
  • Digital wallets
  • P2P lending
  • Crowdfunding
  • RoboPlanning

Since trust is largely personal – so the logic goes – and the thrust of most of those technologies is to reduce the human connection, if not eliminate it entirely, then we must be heading into a dangerously low-trust future.

  • How can you trust a robo-planner the way you trusted a CFP?  Alternatively, maybe the robo-planner is actually more trustworthy?
  • How can you establish customer relationships when the customer has walked themself through half the buying process online without speaking to anyone? And what if the customer no longer wants those relationships?
  • What happens to trust when my firm automates a process? Doesn’t going from trusting a person to trusting a process create an inherent reduction in trust?

What We Forget

In this way of framing the problem, we forget two major offsetting benefits of technology – each a significant cause for optimism.

The Tradeoff.

The most obvious is that there is trust, and there is trust. In particular, there is “soft” and “hard” trust. These correspond to the Trust Equation components as follows:

“Soft trust” — Intimacy and Self-Orientation

“Hard trust” — Credibility and Reliability

In many of the technologies we talk about, there is a direct trust trade-off. What we lose in human contact, we often gain in reliability (in particular). It wasn’t that long ago that people stood in lines to get cash from their checking accounts. You had to walk a distance; banking hours were restricted; and you never knew how long the lines would be.

Would anyone – bank or customer – ever want to give back the freedom that ATMs gave us? In trading off the polite chit-chat with your friendly neighborhood teller, you got reliable convenience, reliably availability, (pretty) short lines, and reliable accuracy.  A net plus.

Such is often the case with automation, CRM, the cloud, and other technologies. What we lose in one part of trust, we gain with another.

The Multi-part Solution.

The least obvious offsetting benefit is that all the technologies above have not affected by one iota the basic biology of humans. We still are complex,  non-linear, and emotionally-driven in our fundamental approach to people, risks, relationships, and business. Neither Steve Jobs nor Stephen Hawking have come anywhere near close to rewiring humans.

And humans have always resisted purely logical reasoning. Whether you prefer the observations of Daniel Kahnemann or of StarTrek’s Dr. Spock, we like to make decisions based on emotion – then rationalize them after the fact with linear logic.

–We buy with the heart, and justify it with the brain.

–We don’t care what people know until we know that they care.

–The fastest way to make a man trustworthy is to trust him.

What does this mean for the technology v. trust conundrum? Plenty. It means that it’s impossible to engineer out all “soft” trust in most situations – we humanly resist it.  And if we have less of an opportunity for ‘soft trust’ creation, then the entire weight of the soft trust creation will rest on the few remaining opportunities for interaction.

In other words – fewer trust opportunities does NOT mean lower trust – it means more trust weight and emphasis being placed on fewer personal interactions. The trust-importance of those interactions is actually increased, not decreased.

Trust Design Implications

What’s to be done? There are two false solutions, and two better ones.

  1. The technical temptation. It’s tempting to ask technology to solve its own problem, but it’s nearly always the wrong answer. More metrics won’t help if your values are wrong (see Fargo, Wells). Customer sat surveys are as bloodless as the technologies they’re deployed to measure. And no matter our Hals, Siris, and Alexas, we know they’re not ‘soft,’ they’re just software. You can’t get intimate with an avatar (yet, anyway).
  1. The specialist temptation. Similarly, it’s tempting to view technologists as hopeless cases, and to bring in a special squad (group, team, unit) whose job it is to do trust. Wrong: you’re far better off training technologists to get a little better at trust than you are training poetry majors to talk to technology clients. Anyway, you can’t fix a technologist’s low trust by pointing to someone else’s high trust.
  1. The transparency solution. However, technology can help in two particular ways. One is simply to leverage the informational power of technology, and move radically in the direction of transparency.

The reason is simple. A big component of people’s trust is whether they think you have something to hide. That is true at the personal and the institutional level. If we sense that the person, process or organization has no axe to grind, no hidden agendas, and no secrets, then we are inclined to trust them.

This kind of transparency is evident even before we meet someone – in our website designs, in our employee and customer policies, in our public responses.  In an evolving world, when we start by assuming confidentiality, we are setting ourselves up for failure. The right beginning question is “Why shouldn’t we be sharing this?”

  1. The design solution. A technical world is one in which users have power. Users include employees, customers, suppliers, neighbors. Most cases are not like the ATM, where zero contact is required. In most cases, some contact is required.  The key is to give the participant maximum power over the timing and nature of that contact.

In a sales process, this means make everything feasible available without personal contact – eg. online. Then, when the customer gets to the inevitable point where they actually need, and want, a real-person interaction, make that interaction available:

  1. immediately (e.g. within a click for text support, two rings if phone)
  2. with high quality (i.e. a qualified, unscripted support person authorized to talk.

Digitization is not immutably opposed to trust – we’re just not thinking about it rightly. The challenge is for us to get better at trust in the remaining interpersonal situations, and to design the non-personal interactions in ways that respect our analog nature.