Although my friends view me as an eternal optimist, I am becoming increasingly cynical about the world we live in. And I’m apparently not alone. A survey published by Transparency International showed that less than 10 percent of survey respondents in European countries hit hardest by the region’s debt crisis believe that their governments are doing a good job fighting corruption. According to a New York Times article on the survey, this reflects a “crisis of faith in governments” and a “chasm” between leaders and their citizens. So, can people actually trust governments? This is a business-related monthly column in which I prefer to not touch the field of politics, but this question helps to frame the topic in order to make my points that follow.

Now let’s look at organizations and senior managers. Can they be trusted? I do not mean trusting their ability to maximize profits for their investors and owners, but in a broader sense: to trust their ability to practice good governance, management and ethics.

To increase trust, IT can play an important role. But how much can IT, analytics and big data contribute to improving our trust in institutions and organizations? (We already know about the potential “bad” aspects related to privacy.)

Ample Evidence of Breaking Trust 

Examples of trust-breaking behavior are numerous. Where should I begin?

  • Fraudulent business behavior: For this example, all that one has to do is mention companies like Enron, WorldCom, Tyco and Adelphia. One immediately associates them with executives who’ve embezzled money from their companies, resulting in employee layoffs, among other serious ramifications.
  • The 2009 global economy meltdown: There is general agreement that the source of the 2009 global economy collapse can be traced to financial institutions and their use of mortgage-related derivative financial instruments. Legal trials revealed e-mails from investment bankers showing that they were knowingly bilking customers and clients. Many people nearing retirement lost 40 percent or more of their financial savings. Unemployment jumped. Many home owners were forced into foreclosure. 
  • Ponzi schemes: Most people recognize the name Bernie Madoff and are aware of the pain he caused investors. He was the non-executive chairman of the NASDAQ stock and the founder of Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities LLC. And at the time, investors believed he was trustworthy.
  • Arthur Andersen: This is an example of employees of a premier accounting firm that lost trust. As a result of weak audit controls, 85,000 Arthur Andersen employees lost their jobs.
  • Job security and pay raises: Let’s get personal. Who has not experienced (or know of someone) whose employment has been terminated not due to their individual performance, but for some reason that was controlled by managers? Who else has expected a promised pay raise, but it was postponed or was far less than expected? And how many others have not received raises or have even experienced pay reductions?

Having trust in others and organizations reduces one’s stress. People already have enough stress and losing trust contributes to it. 
How Can IT and Analytics Reduce Breakdowns in Trust?

Before exploring how IT and analytics can counter breakdowns in trust, what factors contribute to a breakdown in trust?

  • Greed: In the 1950s, I believe there was a greater sense of local and national community, in comparison to today. People cared more about the welfare of others. Today there is much media attention on the widening gaps in income and wealth, and the decrease in upward mobility occurring in many countries. The self-indulgent interests of the “haves” are conflicting with the “have-nots.”
  • Relationship decay: With ubiquitous communications, many believe they now have more relationships than previous generations. Stronger personal relationships typically lead to greater trust in others. However, today our relationships with others are more like those of acquaintances than close friendships. Less contact with acquaintances leads to weaker bonds, resulting in less trust. Trust is something that is earned.
  • Taking sides: Some speculate there are far more special interest groups today, leading to increased polarization. When there is rivalry, there is less trust.

All of these explanations, and others not mentioned here, have some truth. A skilled writer will take one or more of these perspectives and write a plausible story of why trust is breaking down. I think to myself, “What kind of plausible explanation can I describe that is none of the above?” I do not claim to have a solution, but I know the nature of the declining trust problem.
A Need for Transparency and Fact-Based Information

IT, analytics and big data can play a critical and needed role in making our lives, and the lives of future generations, better. These tools and methods provide fact-based information and the power to investigate in ways that can cut through life’s complexity. They also provide transparency. With defendable facts and visibility, actions of people who might be untrustworthy are exposed

And when you toss in powerful social media tools like Facebook and Twitter with search engines like Google and Bing, it is even more difficult for untrustworthy people or organizations to suppress others and their dissent.

IT, analytics and big data enable people with robust, intensive access to highly granular data, as well as the ability to investigate data and test hypotheses. We have technology to potentially counter the trend of declining trust in people, organizations and institutions. Analytics and fact-based information force everyone to question their assumptions.

However, we will need people with the desire and capabilities to master and leverage these technologies and methods. Extending the power of analytics to many people will force accountability and hopefully encourage honorable, ethical behavior.  So I remain an eternal optimist and am confident that IT will protect us from harm from the untrustworthy.      

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