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New Technologies Help Businesses Cross the Trust Barrier in Meetings between Remote Participants

March 5, 2009 | Chris Payatagool

trust_business_collaboration.jpgMarch 2, 2009 - Like any scarce commodity, trust is highly valued. When it comes to business relationships, it can be priceless. And why is trust so important? Essentially, it boils down to hard cash.

A project where the protagonists do not have much confidence in each other, for whatever reason, is less likely to succeed, say the authors of The Role of Trust in Business Collaboration, one of a series of papers by the Economist Intelligence Unit, sponsored by Cisco(R).

Although different situations require different levels of trust, the greater the investment collaborating organizations have in terms of time, money, ideas and intellectual property, the greater the requirement for trustful collaboration.

A research and development project is a prime example of where trust must be maximized for a successful outcome.

Despite this, say the authors of The Role of Trust in Business Collaboration: "Research shows that few businesses adequately articulate the value and need for trust or share and formalize the critical components of trust."

According to the report, technology is a critical factor in trust - or a lack of it. The major conclusion here is that the more detached from face-to-face relationships the collaboration is, the less confidence participating team members have in one another.

"Telepresence is a live medium, so it can help collaborators to feel more like they are interacting in a human sense."

- Economist Intelligence Unit, The Role of Trust in Business Collaboration

"Trust, as well as project success, appears to decline as collaboration becomes more virtual," says the report.

E-mail was highlighted as a particular bug-bear for cordial corporate relations, as one interviewee points out: "You tend to read e-mail in the mindset you are in at the time. If you are in a foul mood when you read it, you assume the sender was in a foul mood when they wrote it."

Things can quickly spiral out of control, he says, noting that "situations get more and more inflamed, as people get more and more angry, and the 'cc' list gets longer and longer."

A strictly adhered-to code of mail etiquette is one solution to misunderstandings. Nevertheless, effective teamwork seems to be best achieved with plenty of face-to-face contact.

And therein lies a problem, as collaborations are increasingly becoming transnational and even intercontinental affairs, both within and between organizations.

With long-distance collaborations, the solution to increasing trust seems to be more, not less, technology. To quote from the Economist report: "(the correspondent) feels the new technologies can be very supportive.

"For example, TelePresence is a live medium, so it can help collaborators to feel more like they are interacting in a human sense and goes a long way toward keeping a group together once the collaboration is under way."

These comments were echoed by the report's overall findings. Clearly, the more 'real' interaction a long-distance meeting provides, the more trust it helps to generate.

Simulating the intimacy of face-to-face human meetings is a challenge Cisco has been tackling for several years, and it now has a range of products that reduce the degree of potential misunderstanding that characterize other long-distance communications technologies.

The Cisco Unified Communications portfolio, for example, has been specifically designed to promote trust by making remote meetings feel more natural and, therefore, according to the report, more productive.

Specifically, Unified Communications integrates voice, video and Web conferencing. By giving users a variety of communication means, it simulates many aspects of face-to-face meetings.

Another way of emulating face-to-face meetings in a virtual environment is to use Cisco WebEx, where all you need is a reasonable Web connection and a PC with a Webcam.

In either case, the ability of technology to help organizations and partnerships to span the globe is increasingly being vindicated as its ability to build trust continues to grow.

A further study in the Economist Intelligence Unit Cisco series, titled Designing Effective Collaboration, examines how companies can drive collaboration processes that result in real innovation and generate economic value.

In the study, high-stakes collaboration was defined as an open-ended series of interactions intended to go beyond individual strengths to create a new source of value.

In counterpoint, casual collaboration--labeled 'co-ordination' in the study--simply requires team members to follow instructions to meet some pre-defined goal. The study found that some factors, such as competence, are important in almost any form of business interaction.

Other factors, though, are unique to the success of value-seeking collaborations--those in which the goal is to push beyond the limits of existing conditions or the sum of individual contributions in the hope of creating something new.

    * The Role of Trust in Business Collaboration and Designing Effective Collaboration are both available free of charge this month from the Economist Intelligence Unit.

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