Ethix Forum – Issue 13

Can companies or individuals do business effectively with each other electronically without the benefit of trust developed through meeting face-to-face?

Trust will always be critical in forming deep business relationships, and sometimes face-to-face contact is essential. However, increasingly, many transactional relationships (e.g. e-commerce) and some strategic relationships will be formed and managed primarily “on-line.” As an example, I recently completed a significant marketing alliance with another company using only the Web, e-mail, and telephone.

Developing trust in the absence of personal contact demands particularly effective communication and information sharing. Some of the cues we normally use to make business and personal evaluations are missing, so additional discretion is required. However, with today’s increasingly sophisticated collaborative technologies, the emergence of service providers that facilitate online business deals (e.g. transaction underwriters), and an extra dose of good judgment, it is possible to build trust and do business effectively on an electronic basis for a relatively wide variety of relationships.

Some may decry the depersonalization of business — and it surely has its downsides — but to the extent that it diminishes the role of old-boy networks and golf-course deal making in favor of trust built on objective business criteria it has its benefits. In any case, the pace of business today virtually requires that many relationships be executed without the benefit of meeting face-to-face.
Stan Shull
Vice President, Business Development
NCompass Labs
Seattle WA

A qualified “Yes.” In the following situation a reliable journal and an independent third party were required to establish the necessary trust. In 1993, I read an article in Linear Algebra and its Applications that was directly related to my own work. It was by three authors in Taiwan, none of whom I knew. The paper referenced some of the same work that I had been building off of and had reached some similar but distinctive conclusions to my own.

It seemed like there was a lot of common intellectual understanding and interest. The article also displayed some keen insights. The journal gave email addresses for the authors but it was not clear who was the primary author. I contacted a colleague of mine in Taiwan and asked if he knew any of the authors. He knew the main author and gave me some validation of the author’s capabilities and openness to working with others. I then contacted the lead author directly and described my work and its relation to his. I told him how I got his email address and about my colleague in Taiwan.

We thus used a third person to validate that the person we were corresponding with was someone from whom we could expect a reasonable interaction. We began exchanging emails about our common area of work and our opinions for solving our problems. When these descriptions became quite technical, and standard email was inadequate, we started exchanging LaTeX documents. Within a couple of months we made huge progress on our technical problem and actually completed a paper that started as the exchanged LaTeX documents. It wasn’t until the end of the year that he and I actually met face-to-face.
Daniel Pierce
Manager, Numerical Analysis R&D
The Boeing Company
Seattle WA

The more matters of personal character are involved in human interactions — trust, faithfulness, honesty, integrity, etc. — the more a strong face-to-face, life-on-life, person-to-person element is required somewhere in the communicative matrix. If a strong personal relationship has been built up off-line, on-line communication of a more personal matter may be appropriate. If not, it should be treated with great care because of matters of privacy, impersonation, and miscommunication based on the limitations of electronic text. There is an irreplaceable and irreducible quality to face-to-face interactions.
Douglas Groothuis
Associate Professor of Philosophy, Denver Seminary
Author of
The Soul in Cyberspace (Wipf and Stock, 1999)