Friday, January 30, 2004

Trusting the Wizard of Oz

Reading Richard’s link below I recalled my days at www.ourgulf.com where my own experience of putting the building blocks of B2C trust into place revealed the process to be almost entirely one of establishing publicness. E-commerce trust is little more than an undertaking to do – like the famous wood treatment – exactly what it says on the label. Part of my job as business leader was to try somehow to become the personal, authentic, face of that publicness, to build in some kind of ad hominem dimension. Reading it set me thinking:

Publicness was behind the Hutton inquiry. It is also at the heart of the fall-out from its findings. Publicness is the antithesis of trust. It is that loss of authenticity that stems from conformance with a set of imposed preconceptions, options and values.

Trust becomes something quite different as knowledge moves on and doing what the label says is no longer enough. As Aidan and I set out in our book, trust becomes a case of relying on some body to take care of our interests. And, apart from some very general contexts, publicness remains its antithesis. Publicness also is more often than not attended by claimed ownership of knowledge.

Unsurprisingly (publicness is nothing if not predictable) Lord Hutton found in favour of the government’s ownership and against the BBC’s. In doing so he revealed both parties (and himself too) to be Wizards of Oz. He drew back that curtain of publicness behind which established power in our society resides. Tony Blair and Alistair Campbell provided the government with its authentic ad hominem dimension - and very successfully too until the invasion of Iraq. Thanks to the relationship its viewers and listeners have with its presenters, the BBC has many more of these dimensions than the government. (Ask me about trust, for example, and I’d say yes, I feel I can generally rely on the BBC to take care of my interests and no, I can’t say the same for the government (that we may be talking about different interests is immaterial – context is everything). I’d also say I can generally rely on Amazon.com to do what it says on the label as well as tell me what everyone else who bought this book bought as well.)

The real heartbreak of Hutton for me has been the revelation of the thinness of the veneer of publicness we’re content to put up with as a society and what this reveals about trust. Take Blair and Campbell (and possibly Brown and Cook) out of government and the rest are publicness personified. (Can anyone for example seriously see any point in Tessa Jowell or John Prescott or Jack Straw?) That’s bad enough but the picture is worse at the BBC. The interim replacements for Gavin Davies and Greg Dyke – Lord Ryder and Mark Byford are uninspiring enough to have their own brand of publicness. Ryder’s grovelling apology put me in mind of a timid mouse whose sole concern was to be back in his mousehole. Dorothy’s naked Wizard of Oz was positively intimidating by comparison.

Postscript:

My abhorrence of ownership of knowledge probably began when I was a long-ago student (Bradford University MBA Programme 1984). There, I attended lectures given by a guy called Prof Tom Stonier (to whom be thanks), whose famous book, The Wealth of Information, likened knowledge and information to capital and drew parallels with the economic insights contained in Adam Smith's widely-ascribed-to1776 work of similar title (OK it's called the Wealth of Nations). I gave the book - the Stonier not the Smith which I’ve never owned - away many years ago so no longer have a copy but the central message I carry from it to this very day is this: if I have some knowledge and I give it to you, then you have it and I still have it, the act of giving has effectively doubled the knowledge. And when we each add the new knowledge to the knowledge we already have, we are, as a pretty clever species, capable of generating more and more knowledge and more and more questions about knowledge that lead to more knowledge. And so ad infinitum.

At the authentic heart of risk management there is no space for ownership of knowledge. Ownership of knowledge reinforces publicness and makes trust - and by extension risk management - impossible. 'Iran is part of an axis of evil' is a statement, spoken by an idiot, reflecting claimed ownership of knowledge and precluding any possibility of trust. 'Iran is no longer part of the axis of evil' is one too.