The subject of trust has drawn increasing interest in academic literature in the last few years, closely connected to the growing literature on “social capital. ” The basic themes of these lines of research are, first, that trust is increasingly important in highly complex societies, essential to the facilitation of innovation and flexibility; but also, paradoxically, that it appears to be less and less trust available in these same societies as traditional communities and institutions break down. Similar concerns have been developing in the literature on organization design in complex knowledge industries.
On the one hand there are many reasons to believe that these organizations require higher levels of trust than industrial systems: the difficulty of close supervision, the complexity of task coordination, and the pace of technological and market change make it essential to allow considerable autonomy and to encourage innovation among employees, rather than relying on rule-bound bureaucratic control. On the other hand, the traditional bases of trust have been undermined by the growing pace of layoffs, which has violated expectations of loyalty that were an important motivational glue in almost all large firms until the 1980s.
Given this paradox, a number of writers have begun exploring the possibility of creating new forms of trust based not in traditional or lifetime communities but in deliberately-dormulated processes. They have just begun to sketch a theory for the institutional framework within which trust could be constructed quickly among people working on focused projects. This understanding is vital to business and organizational success in a world which no longer supports bureaucratic stability, and may well be applicable to wider social domains as well.
Our goal is to bring together some of the best theorists in this area, most of whom have not worked together, with some consultant / practitioners who have a deep understanding of the dynamics of business organizations, in order to advance this theoretical exploration. Work to date We have been engaged in research on this area for over a decade and have built networks of colleagues around a number of these topics. These networks have been coordinated through the Center for Workplace Transformation at Rutgers; Heckscher serves a Director of the Center and Rubinstein as Associate Director.
On the business organization front: The 1994 book The Post-Bureaucratic Organization, edited by Heckscher and Anne Donnellon, was the product of a group of researchers mainly at the Harvard Business School working closely together for over two years, including Lynda Applegate, Nitin Nohria, John Sviokla, David Krackhardt, and Russ Eisenstat. Between 1998 and 2002 a group supported by McKinsey and Company studied emerging forms of organizing around solutions, pulling together “multiple dimensions” of functioning: they included Nathaniel Foote (of McKinsey), Heckscher, Russ Eisenstat, Jay Galbraith, and Danny Miller.
Since 1998 Heckscher has organized at Rutgers a series of meetings of leaders who are trying to lead their organizations in the direction of greater teamwork and collaboration, including Shell, ABB, Citibank, the World Bank, Canadian-Pacific, Benjamin-Moore, and others. Since 1998 Rubinstein and Eaton have been conducting a longitudinal study of the impact of highly participative work systems on organizational communication and coordination networks at Bristol-Myers Squibb.
Rubinstein and Jodie Hoffer Gittell are currently conducting a study of cross-functional coordination in the airline industry On the stakeholder front: Since 1998 Rubinstein, along with Heckscher, Tom Kochan and Adrienne Eaton, have periodically brought together a network of union leaders who are trying to enhance partnership and develop new approaches to the changing business environment, from about a dozen international unions representing employees in a wide variety of companies.
The learnings from this network have been published in a series of refereed journal articles. Rubinstein and Kochan have also published a book (based on research funded by the Sloan Foundation) on the impact of the Saturn partnership on firm and local union performance. Heckscher has worked for five years with colleagues in the US and Europe on a study of attempts of unions and management to move together from stable monopoly environments to highly competitive contexts in telecommunications, power, and transportation.
Oxford University Press will publish Agents of Change: crossing the post-industrial divide in March. These various studies have shown both some of the potential of collaboration and many unresolved difficulties. At this point, contrary to the claims of many enthusiasts, efforts to build flexible and collaborative business organizations are in their infancy, and the ability to build successful partnerships in highly dynamic situations is limited.
Among other major problems, reliable methods of accountability in networked environments have yet to be developed; career expectations are in disarray; training has fallen victim to increased mobility at the same time that need for advanced knowledge has increased. Yet even with these remaining obstacles, enormous progress has been made on both the social and technical fronts in encouraging cross-boundary collaborations and alliances, and these have clearly paid off for many companies and, often, for their employees.