Wednesday, April 29, 2009

BOOK: Trust - The social virtues and the creation of prosperity

A couple of posts ago I mentioned the book Trust: The social virtues and the creation of prosperity by Francis Fukuyama. I hadn't read the book yet, but Austin Hastings, an esteemed SCM colleague, has and I promised that if he was willing to post his summary and notes on the book that I would publish them on my blog here (and not just as a comment). I also recommend reading one of Austin's recent blog-entries entitled "Being a trust specialist", which reinforces why, even for CM professionals, it is often all too true that "The first thing to 'build' is TRUST." The rest of this blog-entry is Austin's writing.

Francis Fukuyama is noted for writing "The End of History" and "The Great Disruption" as well as for "Trust: The Social Virtues and The Creation of Prosperity." As such, it is pretty easy to draw inferences about his political viewpoint(s). Many reviewers have made the assertion that his books are a product of his politics. I (personally) don't know enough to comment.

That exact argument -- questionable causality -- is one they make against some of the correlations that Fukuyama cites in Trust, but they seem to miss it when it applies to their own positions. So beware: the book may be written in deliberate support of his politics, or his politics may have evolved from the studies he has done. It's your call.

Fukuyama claims that trust is a form of "Social Capital." That is, trust is something that you can invest in, something that you can create or obtain more of, something that you can use to achieve an economic end, and something that has value.

He further claims that the presence or absence of trust in a society has a significant, measurable impact on the economic indicators for that society, and that it probably has other, less clear effects as well. All of this is generally in agreement with other writings on trust that Brad has cited here.

His argument, then, is that there should be a way to objectively test for the amount of trust in a society. His test criterion is the number of employees that work for medium-sized businesses, where business size is a function of the number of employees. (That sounds circular, but it isn't.)

For example, my neighborhood pizza shop is run by George, his wife Rosanne, and their son Steve. There are two other cooks, and two delivery drivers. So the business has 7 employees, which makes it a small business.

By contrast, GM just announced that they intend to close down the Pontiac car brand, and lay off 21,000 workers. Having 21,000 workers to lay off makes GM a really, really HUGE business.

Somewhere between the two extremes lies a medium sized business. I don't recall exactly what numbers Fukuyama used, but let's say it's 100 <= n <= 1000. So we have small is less than 100 employees, medium is up to 1000, and large is anything over that.

With those boundaries in mind, the question is simply how many employees in a particular country work for a business that can be classified as "small," or "medium," or "large." Well, if there are 200 small businesses, and their average size is 30 employees, then 6,000 employees work for small businesses. (That's how we figured the average size, I guess.)

What Fukuyama found was that some regions or countries exhibited a noticeable "saddle shape" in their graph of business size versus number of employees. There were lots of people working for small businesses, and there were lots of people working for large businesses, but few people working for medium sized businesses.

He argues that large businesses are a distraction, because governments can create large businesses by fiat. France, Mexico, and most of the OPEC countries have huge businesses that were created by the government (as opposed to being grown up from small businesses).

Small businesses, naturally, are the starting point for almost everything. Somebody has an idea, they start a business with their close friend from college or their brother or parents, and if they make money they start hiring.

The problem comes when all the family members are hired. If the entire family is hired -- all the brothers, uncles, cousins, etc. -- and they're all doing some kind of management thing, with "outsiders" brought in to do the simple labor, the business has reached a critical point.

At this point, the business may or may not be *capable* of bringing in a qualified stranger, and handing that stranger an appropriate amount of power. That transition, from family shop to "real company," is the dividing line that Fukuyama is really looking for with his arbitrary criterion of 100 employees.

And he argues that if you see a disproportionately low number of workers that have jobs at medium-sized companies, it's because there are a low number of medium-sized companies. And *that* is because there is not enough social trust. When grandpa and dad and uncle Cletus can't let go of the reins, the company can't get any bigger. And in fact, the company will likely fail shortly thereafter, resulting in a much smaller business after the smoke clears.

Using his metric, there are some genuine surprises. Germany is a high-trust country, but France is low-trust. Southern Italy is virtually a no-trust area. Japan and Korea appear low-trust, until you refactor your statistics to deal with the Zaibatsu. China and most of the Asian mainland are low-trust.

This is interesting, but not necessarily controversial. What *is* controversial is the correlation with "The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism" (Max Weber, 1905 !!). That offends a lot of people, for a lot of reasons. Weber's point, made back when people were giving serious credence to "racial studies" and other stuff, was that Protestant countries did better economically than Catholic ones. Fukuyama makes a similar point, but claims that the effect is corollary, not causal.

Fukuyama's point is that there are a lot of flavors of protestantism, and countries that are majority protestant don't always have social mechanisms for creating and maintaining trust networks. If you can't generate trust, it doesn't matter how Protestant you are.

Things like the Rotary Club, and the Moose Lodge, and the Veterans of Foreign Wars in the United States do that job for us. These little mini-networks enable people of similar creed to reach each other, so that there are many networks of high trust -- "I trust him because we go to the same meetings" -- working parallel to each other. This enables Catholics to network with Catholics, Baptists with Baptists, Scrum fans with other Scrum fans, etc.

The rest of the "trust equation" is pretty straightforward. Nearly all of the trust literature agrees on these things: high trust leads to efficiency. Fukuyama's point is illustrated in any American business transaction. If you make noises of intent to engage in such a transaction, the expectation is that both sides intend to do so fairly.

That simple fact -- that you can go into a sandwich shop, for example, and place an order, and they will start making your order before you pay for it -- is one that is hard to see if you aren't looking for it.

The reverse situation pertains low trust areas. If you try to do business in these places, nothing is done until the cash changes hands, or at least until it is displayed for all to see.

A similar thing occurs in my own line of work, where implementing change tracking lifecycles is surrounded by requests to create explicit status codes for each possible situation. ("You should have a 'completed by development, but QA will not start testing due to other commitments' status code!")

It's important to keep in mind that the business-size metric is an indicator, nothing more. And that Fukuyama uses that metric as a way to set expectations for research, not as a causative for other social ills. A small number of medium-sized businesses doesn't cause poor social trust. It is an indicator that social trust is likely poor. (Or, as in the cases of Japan and Korea, that the metrics need to be refined.)

One of the reasons for many of the negative reviews is Fukuyama's assertion that trust is not correlated with equality, or fairness. American society has historically been more unfair and inequal than otherwise. Every single minority has been discriminated against at some point, which has led most of them to creating their own separate "civil associations" -- networks of trust.

The obvious inference is that eroding the separate networks of trust will result in an overall low-trust society. This isn't particularly politically correct, and so you can probably imagine how it was received in academic and/or liberal circles

Thanks again to Austin Hastings for taking the time to comment so comprehensively on this important work. And don't forget to read his recent blog-entry "Being a trust specialist."

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