Dangerous Liaisons: Trust, Distrust, and Information Technology in American Work Organizations

Article excerpt

This paper employs an inductive, natural-systems approach to explore the complex social and economic factors whose interaction generate trust and distrust between individuals, subunits, and firms in American corporations. The objective of this investigation is to gain a better understanding of the role of interpersonal trust and distrust on the implementation and use of new information technologies in organizational settings. The focus of the investigation is work-group control of information flow across organizational boundaries under conditions of trust and distrust, and the consequences of advanced information technology for such information-control practices. A central finding is that more powerful parties often try to force a shift in the medium of information exchange to gain greater control in specific hierarchical relationships. When these changes threaten the quality or security of information required by less powerful parties, resistance is the result. The discussion suggests that deployment of advanced information technology without the application of local knowledge of social interrelationships increases the risk of implementation failure.

Key words: trust, distrust, risk, information, information technology, electronic communication


Relations of interpersonal trust in formal organizations are an emerging area of interest in the social and organizational sciences. Since economic transactions are embedded within networks of social relationships, the characteristics of those relationships-such as trust and its opposite, distrust-have a direct bearing on the effectiveness and efficiency of instrumental exchanges in organizational settings (Granovetter 1985). Trust between various organizational actors (including trust between individuals within a work group, in separate units within a firm, or in different firms) appears to confer a competitive advantage by enabling more effective cooperation and coordination among parties to an economic transaction (Fukuyama 1995). Where there is trust, different parties can enter into collaborative relationships more quickly, sustain coordinated action by making mutual adjustments, and learn from each other, rather than being bogged down for days, weeks, or months in formulating cumbersome contracts or building elaborate hierarchies that enforce a limited form of cooperation that ultimately may interfere with learning (Thompson 1967; Alter and Hage 1993). Organizational scholars and practicing managers alike have discovered that many economic objectivesfrom achieving success in mergers, acquisitions, and partnerships (Johnson and Lawrence 1988; Dodgson 1993; Kanter 1994) to creating new types of "virtual" organizations (Handy 1995) to sustaining the long-term economic growth and development of nations (Fukuyama 1995)-are furthered by high levels of trust in social and organizational relationships.

Prompted by competition from firms based in Japan and elsewhere in the East-where reciprocal bonds of obligation facilitate trust and cooperation between individuals and groups (e.g., Brunner et al. 1989)-American corporations have belatedly recognized the value of a trust-based "collaborative advantage" (Kanter 1994). In response, U.S. firms have adopted a number of new structures and management practices that attempt to build trust as a means to improve coordination and cooperation among parties representing different interests (e.g., employees and managers, managers of different subunits, firms and their customers, buyers and suppliers). These structures and practices include self-directed and/or cross-functional work teams, total quality management, employee involvement, and category management (i.e., manufacturer-retailer partnerships), among others (Aoki 1990).

At the same time, American corporations also have pursued other pathways to a "collaborative advantage" that do not necessarily rely upon trust. Probably the most prominent of these are new information technologies such as electronic data interchange (EDI); computer-aided design (CAD), computer-aided manufacturing (CAM), and computer-aided engineering (CAE); shared databases; and computer supported cooperative work (CSCW) tools. …