Trust the powerful, trust in progress, and trust in power/knowledge.

In this blog series I am focusing on learning & development implications in how organizations use ESN technology. In the first post, I explained that exposure to ideas is good, but there could be trouble in properly assessing/improving the quality of that data. My second post examined the importance of interpersonal and competency trust as individuals interact with the goal of learning. Continuing my three part blog series, I’m focusing on the issue of organizational trust and power relationships, and in particular, how that might affect group learning initiatives.



I was interested in Manuel Castells, “simple” 4 part typology of power, as interpreted in the Gordon Ross blog/video, (at 22:00).



In this case, I’m using a similar, repetitive naming convention, and laying out 3 different ways that trust is connected to power dynamics within an organization, and with positive and negative implications for organizational learning.

  • Trust the Powerful
  • Trust in Progress
  • Trust in Power/Knowledge

At a basic level, organizational members need to Trust the Powerful. Put simply, do employees feel their organization will support them if they share ideas more broadly. There are a number of ways of looking at this.  At an individual level, employees have an economic incentive to hoard knowledge that offers them an individual competitive advantage. Also consider that this sharing may expose flawed thinking on the part of those employees, who may feel exposed to critique. These ideas are covered well in the Hislop text. For our purposes here, I’m more interested in power relations. At a group/organizational level, even if the shared employee ideas are strong, they may ultimately contest the current/comfortable status of an organization and cause stress. In short, you can speak truth to power, but will they want to hear it? Do they trust themselves and their own power enough to consider potential challenges from their followers.

Of course, sharing ideas/knowledge is easier if ultimately employees Trust in Progress. People need to feel that sharing their knowledge and supporting the powerful will ultimately lead to some sort of positive change for the organization or for the world. One thinker I discovered in the MSLOC Foundations class was Gregory Unruh, who writes extensively about the power of leaders with a compelling vision for positive change. Individuals who could effectively communicate a larger, positive vision were more effective in drawing followers to their cause. Unruh is particularly passionate about the cause of environmental sustainability (as am I), and it seems clear the cause-based organizations can only flourish if there is trust in the leadership vision. In our course, this idea was also present in the corporate world described in the Danone case study. where leadership was motivated to offer nutritious food products to the poorer segments of society. I imagine that employees of Danone could more easily support corporate initiatives that were framed in a “were making the world a better place” context.  We should also consider the concept of competency outlined by Newell and Swan in their typology of trust (Hislop, 178). It is critical that employees feel a leader’s vision, however compelling, is ultimately achievable by him/her.  To simply, it is not enough to talk the talk (or even walk the walk), but do leaders have the power to achieve those ideas and make progress.

Finally, there is some level of trust in the power of knowledge itself. Trust in Power/Knowledge is not so much a call to trust in the concept of Power/Knowledge as defined by Michel Foucault. (hence the strikeout)  It’s somewhat the opposite. It refers to the employees’ trust in their own knowledge, the “marketplace of ideas,” and the meritocratic principles that will push good ideas/concepts forward.  Of course that is an idealistic vision, but acceptance of this vision at some level is necessary to spur organizational learning. It is worth considering the potential downsides too. If we consider the ideas of Michel Foucault, it seems that trust may be misplaced due to larger power dynamics that can turn untruths into truths. In this case, the marketplace of ideas is rigged in favor of the powerful. We should recognize the reality that powerful people have influence over the “truth,” but also hope that truthful ideas can still germinate/grow/spread in an organization.

In the end, there seem countless ways to incorporate the concept of trust when looking at organizational learning. I’ve briefly explored three: Trust the Powerful, Trust in Progress, and Trust in Power/Knowledge. To tie blog 3 back to blog 1, there also a necessary trust that the ESN technology is well suited to sharing knowledge within an organization. As practitioners we should consider the importance of trust and the human capital elements necessary to ensure quality knowledge is developed/shared in the ESN format.




Trust me: I’m good enough, smart enough, and doggoneit, people like me

In my first post, I focused on some of the good and bad aspects of relying on ESN technology in the area of learning and development. Generally, exposure to ideas is good, but there could be trouble in properly assessing/improving the quality of that data. As I mentioned then, one of the barriers to quality interaction relates to the sense of safety necessary for knowledge sharing and learning. I’ve been doing some further thinking in this area, and it seems necessary to expand the topic somewhat to look at the issue of trust more generally. Some level of trust is necessary to promote a safe learning environment. But why is that so difficult? And what makes for a good trusting relationship.


I was watching some recent news coverage of a speech made by a current Minnesota senator. As will happen at times, his particular mannerisms and delivery style brought back memories It also inspired the title of this blog post and got me thinking more about the concept of trust.  It is easier to trust someone when they are “good enough, smart enough, and (when) people like (them).”

It is true that we trust someone more easily when we find the person good/likable, and interpersonal trust is necessary in the learning process. This is one of the key insights in the literature describing Communities of Practice as described by Rob Cross. In a prior class discussion post, I had written about how interpersonal trust develops more reliably when individuals have a strong sense of community. Interpersonal trust makes it possible learners/teachers or learners/learners to approach each other without fear of judgement. They are not concerned about having all the facts, but can work together to make sense of a particular learning challenge.  If they have a particular gap or deficit in their knowledge, they do not worry that the other person will take advantage of them in some way.

More than interpersonal, trust also relates to the perception that the knowledge source itself is trustworthy, or is the person “smart enough?” That is, you may find another person warm and caring. He may engage with you openly and genuinely attempt to share knowledge and learning with you; however, his ultimate competence is in question.  This competency trust was described in Newell and Swan’s typology of trust (Hislop, 178). For a more current/local take on this concept, I’ve explored the material in the trust project at Northwestern , which has been interesting. For example, Sanford Goldberg’s overview of how the world of philosophy looks at the concept of trust described the concept of epistemic trust. He makes a point to distinguish the importance of trust if one is primarily looking for truth (starting at 2:53). Considering this idea, it is important that the right level of interpersonal trust is present, but one also needs to trust in the competency/truth of the source of knowledge as well.


Moving beyond the individual relationship to others, group/organizational trust is also important when fostering a space where learning is possible. As described in Hislop chapter 14, organizational trust is critical for knowledge workers. At a basic level, it’s necessary for individuals to trust their organization to support learning. In the business world, there are competing interests, so an individual must also trust his/her coworkers. In the third blog in this series, I will dive deeper into the nature of power in relation to knowledge. I’ll explore how power, knowledge, and trust may be interrelated in the organizational context.



Lost on the Facebook Wall


There’s no doubt that the possibilities are wonderful for using Enterprise Social Networks to enhance learning and development.  There’s also a downside if these networks are not structured thoughtfully. Yes, the rules of behavior are truly important, and the learning (or sharing any sort of useful knowledge) is not a given. Knowledge can be lost on the Facebook wall, or otherwise misplaced, misunderstood, or warped in the world of Enterprise Social Media. Learning & Development professionals can mitigate these risks to some extent, and this should factor into any professional efforts in this arena.

Like many people my age, my earliest experiences on the web were used more to connect to my email, and only slowly did I realize the vast repository of information at my fingertips. As described in the 2001 Cross article on Web 2.0, I was aware of limitations in early search engines. As web surfing became more popular, I was teaching high school and exploring this technology with my students. As a history teacher, I was frustrated with the poor quality of web sources as I attempted to teach some understanding of historiography and use of primary or “good” secondary sources. I think the early lawlessness of the internet is not fundamentally in question here, so I won’t continue my grumbling.  What’s also true is that it was an exciting place to explore. Everyone seemed to sense the potential.

As a teacher in the late 90’s, I remember one of my students who had set up his own web page. It was amazing that a teenager could publish information and have such a vast potential reach. Treem described the afforadance of visibility, and I think that aspect of web communications remains the most important to this day. I’ve had numerous happenings where some random friend or acquaintance on line shares some interesting insight into a world event – from tear gas blowing through the streets of Istanbul, to the Sunflower movement protesters in Taiwan’s legislature, and onward. My most recent “visibility” moment was much more mundane. I was scrolling through my Facebook wall on my phone and caught a reference to an NPR story about the presidential election. I was too busy to explore further at the time, but I made a mental note to perhaps read the article (or listen) a little later. This is a daily occurrence for me as I’m – like all of us – flooded with more information than I can possibly absorb in my available free time. It’s at this moment that the affordance of visibility could be seen in a negative light. You see, it’s just too easy to have poor quality information making it through.

Even if we accept that a lot of information gets through, I think most of would agree that this visibility is generally beneficial. In this case, the Facebook post provided me with a moment of thought. I considered this routine moment when deciding on a blog topic. Could I track down the NPR story? I returned to my Facebook wall and attempted to find the link to the NPR story. Mistake (and also the source of the title of this post). Through my own incompetence or the idiosyncrasies of the Facebook feed, I could no longer locate the post. Has that ever happened to you!? So much for persistence. I eventually went to NPR directly and found the article in question. The news story itself was attempting to summarize the candidate viewpoints for ease of information consumption. In our busy, busy world, news sources  summarize frequently, all in an effort to save the reader time. Of course, I wondered what might be lost in their summation. I sought a more complete source of information. More searching. Visibility is good. Persistence is good (while it was frustrating to “lose” the link, it’s better than the days before past news stories were readily available). Editability is generally good provided there’s an audit trail of changes — perhaps a future topic of discussion. And I’m happy with association too. I appreciate and accept ESNs. I see the benefits, but also the risks. The risks are generally related to the quality of information.

Risks are not only in Facebook. In the Hive, it’s easy to get flooded with information, and there’s no guarantee the information is high value. If I’m truly exploring a topic, I would much rather approach a classmate offline, rather than enter into a complicated discussion thread. I see success stories, where the community is able to properly vet information sources and build good content. Wikipedia, as described by Cross, is such an example. It’s also true that it takes the right kind of management to make that positive interaction possible.

Generally, when setting up rules of engagement, the question of safety is particularly interesting to me. I’m referring to safety as described by Cross. The idea is that safety is necessary in social relations where the knowledge seeker is not judged too harshly by the knowledge giver. Basically, we feel free to make mistakes, to admit our misunderstandings, and approach a knowledge source without fear of rebuke. This feeling of safety is important as well when we connect virtually.  It’s also difficult to recreate this feeling in a medium as public as an ESN. In the Hive, for example, posts are typically public to an extent. In our learning environment, that’s generally okay, but it’s not a perfect sanctuary. Certainly some fellow students withdraw from proposing more risky or controversial thoughts.  Likewise, our typical community response to ideas is quite supportive – perhaps too supportive for proper vetting of ideas. I worry that the cream is not rising to the top, and we may not always be creating and sharing the best knowledge – even in the Hive.

Because I accept all of the good of Enterprise Social Networks, I’m interested in finding ways to avoid the pitfalls, and help individuals better create/share quality content. I’m expecting that the online community, though virtual, can have some of the benefits of face to face communication. I’m interested in exploring this topic in future posts, MSLOC classes, and beyond.