Who do you trust? What happens when a society loses faith in established institutions?

HRM online


written on May 5, 2017

Rachel Botsman, keynote speaker at AHRI’s national convention, talks about the evolution of trust with Girard Dorney.


GIRARD DORNEY: Trust is such a big topic – it’s an essential part of being human. How did you decide to make a study of it?

RACHEL BOTSMAN: I think from a young age I was always fascinated by what makes human beings tick and what makes them connect and collaborate – that emotional connection. My career has followed a windy path. I started out in the arts, making artwork. That might seem very removed from what I do now, but you are trying to figure out how to connect an idea to an audience. I won’t go through the whole story, but I went to Harvard, then I went to work for President Clinton and then I saw the role of technology in unlocking assets and capabilities in people in new ways. And that became the basis of my first book on the so called “sharing economy”.

We are increasingly putting our faith in technology whether it’s ordering food or transferring money. You refer to this in your upcoming book as “distributed trust”. What do you mean by that?

If you think back to industrial society, it was built around institutional trust. Rather than trusting people directly, we built brands, corporations, insurance, contracts, lawyers and so on, so that trust would flow through third parties and institutions. Today, that is being turned on its head; we are now transferring trust from experts and institutions back to individuals. It’s no longer centralised and top-down, it’s distributed. I think this is profound because it impacts how trust is built, managed, lost and destroyed.

What do you think is the most powerful example of this change?

From a technological perspective, Artificial Intelligence and Blockchain are in competition for which will have the bigger impact. With AI you’re going to see a shift from a relationship where technology is predictable to one where you trust it to decide for you, and that’s huge. With Blockchain it will remove the need for many intermediaries because you will be able to transfer value directly, whether that’s the deed on a house or whether that is money.

I’ve read that part of what we’re seeing is the removal of the human element in trust. What are your thoughts on that?

I think that’s hype to be honest. AI can remove systematic biases but to say “it removes human trust” is too much. You still have to trust this idea of the Blockchain, you still have to trust self-driving cars.

Can you talk about the dark side, or the potential problems you’re seeing as we transition to this new kind of trust?

If I had to name the top three: the first is accountability. Uber is a good example: these drivers are not employees and Uber doesn’t own the cars, so when something goes wrong who protects the driver and the passenger? It’s pretty ironic when you think about it because one of the reasons people are open to distributed trust is that they’re so fed up with the lack of accountability in institutional systems.

The second is that even in distributed models you end up with some kind of centralised power. If you think of Bitcoin, the concentration of mining power [the servers that handle transactions] is now in China and that makes it precarious. So how do you regulate that when traditional regulation doesn’t know how to address it?

And the third thing is, I worry that we’re trying to automate trust too much. Think about people’s behaviour on Tinder, or how quickly you accept a guest on Airbnb. It’s not that I believe human beings are ultimately untrustworthy, it’s that I think our children will have an automated relationship to trust. Real deep trust is slow, it takes time, it has to breakdown, it has to be rebuilt. I wonder whether they will have the skills to deal with messy people issues.

On the issue of work, how do you think distributed trust will affect the HR profession?

We complain now about how millennials push against boundaries and authority, but if they grew up in a world where trust wasn’t derived from experts or authority, how do you manage the next generation?

That becomes really interesting. Can and should trust be automated in your organisation’s internal culture?

For HR there’s the upside and the downside. Take resumes, for example. We’ll just laugh at those – that we once presented these static objects. In the near future, we’ll be able to aggregate all these data points to give a real indication of who the person is that you’re employing. To show how they might behave in a given situation, and who their connections are. If we use it well, we can have a much better sense of the people we’re bringing in. It can fundamentally change what recruitment looks like and the nature of HR.

What can AHRI convention attendees expect to hear from you?

I think I will paint a picture of this shift happening. We hear about institutional trust collapsing. What is really behind that? And at the same time, why is distributed trust rising, and how are new technologies enabling that? And then what I will try and do is tie it to implications for HR professionals, but also how it fits into a bigger picture. So, for example, how will this change the relationships between companies and customers? And how will it change how you think about trust and relationships in your own life? These are all the questions we need to raise.

Register now for the AHRI National Convention 2017

Join Rachel Botsman and other leading thinkers and HR experts at the AHRI National Convention and Exhibition in Sydney (21 − 23 August 2017). Connect with peers and exhibitors, and expand your network and practice at Australia’s largest HR event. Early bird registration closes 31 May.

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