Keeping Corporate Trust

[Note: As always, some liberties have been taken with the truth to make my point a little more obvious. It’s poetic… er… essayist license.]

“Could you uninstall that screensaver on the computers? I want to check with my boss to make sure it won’t cause a problem.” My supervisor was apologetic, but serious.

I managed to avoid groaning. The day before, I’d created a slideshow of inspirational quotations to support an initiative of my employer’s (and an initiative that I support, so they weren’t cheesy quotations either). After getting the quotations OK’d, I put the slides (JPG and GIF format) in the My Documents folder of the machines and configured the My Pictures screensaver on them.

“I can remove the pictures, but the screensaver is a standard part of Windows,” I told her. “What’s the problem?”

“I’m worried that the program vendor or the IT department will get upset about it.”

And there’s the problem.

Large corporations often try to become more individualized, nimble, and lithe. But in most of these organizations, asking permission is a near-guarantee that you won’t be able to do something, no matter how well justified it is. The My Pictures screensaver had been running on those computers for over a year, displaying the logo of my organization. Representatives of the vendor, our engineering folks, and IT had all seen it. A similar project has been running in another part of the organization for an even longer period of time.

Make no mistake – this is not a judgment on my supervisor. She faces all the same problems I do, but intensified. This is ultimately the result of an occupational culture of distrust – where the farther removed one is, the less functional trust there is of other people’s abilities. This is not a problem in a small organization; everyone knows everyone. But in larger organizations, that ability is gone. The default presumption seems to be a lack of functional trust until demonstrated otherwise. This effect is magnified when dealing with someone of a different social status or occupation – have you really listened to your janitor lately?

This would not be a problem if things were compartmentalized within the organization – and perhaps that kind of redundancy might be necessary to achieve optimal efficiency. (For example – if my unit had its own IT person, they could know about the specialized needs of my unit AND know the common IT pidgin to talk to central IT and the IT of any other units we have to interface with.) Failing that, we need to institute a kind of trust system based on the confidence system used by public key encryption.

The basic jist of it is this: I trust Alice. Alice says she trusts Bob, so I trust Bob pretty well. Bob says he trusts Candace, so I trust Candace okay. Candace says she trusts Steve, so I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. And so on. Especially in an organization that makes an effort to cross-pollinate relationships (say, by sending people from different units or areas to common conferences and seminars), an accurate bottom-up web of trust can be built. That could allow the nimbleness and trustful decision making to remain, even as the size of the organization becomes much larger.

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