The pandemic has been the catalyst for the rapid acceleration of digitalisation for almost every business, in every industry sector around the world. Whilst this explosion of new digital products and services has demonstrated value to businesses and society as a whole, enterprise leaders should be mindful of underestimating just how fragile people’s trust in the digital world actually is.

This article will discuss the current state of trust in the digital world and offer some key considerations that enterprise leaders need to think about if they are to meet the new standards of openness, transparency, control and trust that society now expects from the organisations they engage with.

For this article, ‘trust’ is defined as having the firm belief in the integrity, ability, reliability or character of a person or thing (Mayer et al 2005). An enterprise leader is defined as an executive ‘who is successful at serving the needs of the enterprise and does so at the expense of personal success’ (Ready & Peebles 2015). The Digital World refers to the availability and use of digital tools to communicate via the internet, digital devices and other technologies.

Today, it is unrealistic to expect an enterprise leader to know about all things at all times”

Any aspiring or current enterprise leader should be mindful that in order to effectively build trust into their digital products they must fully understand the digital world they compete in. Research from Douglas et al (2020) found that 82 percent of people they surveyed believed leaders in the digital world need to be ‘digitally savvy’ yet less than 10 percent felt that their organisations ‘have leaders with the right skills to thrive in the digital economy’.

Today, it is unrealistic to expect an enterprise leader to know about all things at all times; therefore, enterprise leadership requires you to pull together an aligned team of individuals that can help to shape and inform effective decision making. They must also be willing to listen and learn from their teams and create an environment where ideas can be put forward.

To achieve this, organisations need to foster a culture that ensures mistakes and knowledge gaps are seen as ‘learning opportunities rather than a cause for embarrassment or punishment’ (Gino & Statts 2015). A failure to do so fosters a ‘fixed mindset’ rather than a ‘growth mindset’ (Haslin 2012) and this could be a derivative of fostering unethical behaviours that have a detrimental impact on the wider enterprise.

With the emergence of algorithmic led decision-making tools that use AI or immutable work-flow management platforms that use blockchain and smart contracts, enterprise leaders should be mindful that internal behaviours might be inadvertently hardcoded into the way these technologies are designed to function across the organisation.

For value-led organisations, consideration must be given as to whether these algorithmic behaviours represent those values, whilst an enterprise leader must also ensure the same standards are applied in ways that allow them to maintain these values across products and services. ‘This can only be achieved through strong internal governance’ (Tiell 2019). Organisations are now beginning to see the impact of getting it wrong.

The 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer Report highlighted that society’s trust in technology has been declining around the world, hitting all-time lows in 17 of 27 countries, with the UK, US, Canada and China seeing double-digit declines.

This also correlates with a lack of trust over how organisations manage and process data. In 2020 the privacy-based search engine

DuckDuckGo registered more than 100 million searches in a single day for the first time in its history, whilst the privacy-enhancing Brave browser doubled its number of monthly active users in a single year, from 11.6 million to 25.4 million. Tens of millions more moved over to Signal and Telegram and away from WhatsApp, over concerns its users had about how their data might be used. This fundamental shift in consumer behaviours towards wanting to use service providers that prioritise privacy should be at the forefront of the decisions of every enterprise leader. If they are not, they place the future of the organisations they represent at risk.

Enterprise leaders must be willing to gain a deep understanding of why their people do or do not trust the digital world that they are asking them to participate in and accept that these metrics of trust will continually change. Integrating next generation trust tools that allow the enterprise to capture this information in real-time, across all areas of their business, will ensure this can be a proactive process instead of one which is reactive. Organisations cannot wait to be told that they have broken someone’s trust – they must continually look to manage it.

Excessive work monitoring risks breaking that contract of trust, leading to a disengaged workforce”

It must also be considered that trust is not a one-size-fits-all, as ‘Trust varies depending on your perspective, priorities and local context’ (Chakravtori et al 2021). Therefore, understanding the geography of digital trust across your enterprise is essential if you want to raise the standards of trust and sustain them, particularly for global organisations and those that use algorithmic decision-making tools and platforms.

Furthermore, distrust in technology and how data is being shared and used is a feeling that might also be a concern of your workforce as much as your customers. According to PwC’s Hopes and Fears report (2021), six-out-ten people worry that automation is putting jobs at risk, whilst 39 percent fear their jobs will be obsolete in five years. This is exacerbated by how technology is being applied by organisations that are coming to terms with how best to manage their predominantly remote workforce.

The introduction of productivity measuring applications that are used to track the performance of the individual within the privacy of their own home, for example, may serve to undermine trust or exacerbate fear the workforce might already have. According to Seidman (2020) ‘trust is the only legal performance-enhancing drug. Whenever there is more trust in a company, country or community, good things happen.’ An enterprise that implements excessive work monitoring ‘risks breaking that contract of trust, leading to a disengaged workforce, focussed on meeting the desired statistics’ rather than the things that really matter (Shield 2020).  

Wayne Lloyd, CEO, Smarter Contracts