How Transparency Provides Trust

A couple of weeks ago i made a open statement at work to the effect that

“transparency would help to provide trust”.

I believed this statement to be true, even though i didn’t know why this should be the case, maybe it was just “common sense” to me. The spirit of my blog’s title is – “if you think you understood something – you probably haven’t”, so i wanted to understand why this statement should be true, not just my (possibly ignorant) opinion. An obvious example of how transparency helps provide trust is in the Open-Source development community. Almost without exception, Open Projects have full transparency into what the current and past “defects” affecting the product are. The use of bug tracking software like “Jira”, or inherent in the project hosting solutions, provide not only distributed team working utility to developers fixing bugs, but also trust to the users of the software. Through transparency of all bugs past and present, a user can judge the “stability” or “maturity” of the software, determine the project’s “health”, ascertain how many active developers support the software etc. Transparency here clearly helps provide trust – even if “what” is trusted is negative – like i’m sure the project id dead – so i’m not going to use it.

Now i used my initial statement about trust helping provide trust in the context of a company selling a commercial product. For a company selling product, trust between the customer and the company is a highly valued “thing”. Without trust, the initial sale would not have come to be in the first place. For an established customer base, loosing trust will eventually result in customer churn. So a question would be: would providing customers with transparency about what the company knows are the product’s problems help improve customer satisfaction, or just drive them away?

First we take a definition of trust from one of the many specific formulations of the abstract model of what trust defined in Dr. Ed Gerck’s Toward Real-World Models of Trust: Reliance on Received Information paper.

If you think you have understood what “trust” is – and you haven’t read Ed Gerck’s paper, then you most probably haven’t understood trust. This paper’s significance to me, is like Albert Einsteins theory of special and general relativity to Physicists.

  • “Trust is that which an observer can rely upon to some known extent regarding a subject matter”
  • Trust is subjective.
  • Trust is NOT transparency.

In the context of a company being transparent about known problems, the truster ( or observer ) is the customer. The “Entity” which is being trusted on some matter is the company. What is being trusted  is more complex. Potentially what the company is saying is believed ( why would a company state it’s product’s problems openly if they weren’t true?),  but more importantly it is the fact that the company is open about problems that is helping the customer consider the company trustworthy – which will affect future decision making. Transparency is feeding the “estimator” in everyone’s head, which will definitely be used to predict the behavior of the company on some matter in the future…..

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