Article: Bringing trust to teamwork - Communication technology

Talent Management

Bringing trust to teamwork - Communication technology

Diverse and informal networks mediated by communication technology can lead to successful completion of forward looking endeavors. A look at how technology aids a collaborative work across large distances
Bringing trust to teamwork - Communication technology

Patterns are arising to overcome the reputational fragility that comes with collaboration


Teamwork thrives on trust and trust is borne out of reputation, which traditionally benefits from close interaction. This is why trusting networks so frequently require proximity, like the Brazilian samba schools, the Mumbai dabbawalas or the Palanpuri Jains of Gujarat. Yet technology may be changing all this, facilitating the rise of trusting networks not bound by proximity.

Yet, proximity was crucial to the characters in the Charlie Brown series; they came to life by the pen of Charles Schultz in 1950. In two more years most of the main Peanuts characters were developed.

Proximity then was so crucial that, to be understood worldwide, Charlie Brown’s friends could not have lived in different neighborhoods, let alone in different countries. Their interplay presumed neighborliness. Together in a gang each character played a recognizable part.  Like instruments in an orchestra, should you suppress one of the characters in the plot, a void would beg to be filled.

It used to be that cello players could train by playing over a recording which had the cello part suppressed. Today technology enables players to sum-up several players’ contributions played in different countries. Video versions of this collaboration, displaying local backgrounds, add a visual dimension to their performances. 

Of course the teaming-up of musicians requires previous evidence of dexterity in playing a chosen genre. Familiarity with a particular software and communication channels also helps. But beyond that, they require not much more than the pleasure of working together to overcome the barriers of distance to play with whom they otherwise might not be able to.

Mariana Ingold and Kit Walker have played out of Uruguay with colleagues in California, Boston, Rio de Janeiro, Russia and Bangkok. Some of those colleagues they know personally, others not. The Indian group Maati Baani scout musicians on the internet, and make music with them completely online. Their latest album features over 70 players across 20 countries.

Yet, would this degree of collaboration be restricted to musicians? Perhaps not.

Scientists too have worked out how to overcome distance and reputational fragility.  Perhaps nowhere better can this be highlighted as in the Human Genome Project or in the ATLAS collaboration associated with big science as in the CERN collider, which took 25 years of consistent work to be built collaboratively.

Take the Reebok and Adidas sport shoes brands as examples. Both brands built world supply chains to support their business needs.

International automobile supply chains offer a robust example, given the complexity of the products involved. Nevertheless, automobile supply chain executives reported to an IBM study that “Risk Management” was not highest in their worries, suggesting that car manufacturers believe they have overcome the greatest barriers in international collaboration.The services sector also offers examples of collaboration at a distance. Each of The Big Four auditing and consulting corporations now employ close to 200,000 people across the world and offer their services in over forty countries.

Patterns seem to be arising to overcome the reputational fragility that comes with collaboration at a distance. Where the costs of failure may be low, the screening of partners is laxer, as among musicians. Where the requirements of expertise are strongest, credentialism and professional networks take over, as among scientists. Where losses might be great, whole ownership or stringent contracts are prominent, as in the case of business. While the patterns framing modern international collaboration may be different, it seems that large, diverse and informal networks mediated by communication technology can lead to the successful completion of forward looking endeavors, despite the high levels of associated uncertainty between people who do not know much of each other. 

Technology seems to be bringing back the familiar neighborly trusting ways of Charlie Brown; in the sense that the world might not yet be flat as Thomas Friedman would have it, but technology has certainly made it smaller. 

The big issue now is how to build greater trust mediated by technology. The likes of E-bay and Airbnb, have incorporated reputation-building tools precisely to bridge the reputational gap. Their approach is telling of the importance of building trust even in a smaller world. 


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Topics: Talent Management, Employee Engagement

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