Monday, March 30, 2015

Trust and Control in the Hudson's Bay Company

O'Leary, Orlikowski, Yates (2002). Distributed work over the centuries : trust and control in the Hudson's Bay Company, 1670-1826.

This sounds like an exciting title. I've always found the HBC pretty fascinating and the archives are probably wickedly extensive. Of course, Innis's The fur trade in Canada -- a work that still seems very relevant with its proto-actor-network tendencies and aboriginal-centricity -- may have something to do with my excitement.

The authors point out that "virtual" organizations have been around for a long time: Roman Empire, Catholic Church, etc. Two of the challenges are building trust and maintaining control.

Some definitions:

  • Trust -- "the confidence in and willingness to rely on another party (where a _party_ can be an individual, group, organization, institution, or system) under conditions of risk or vulnerability."
  • Organizational controls -- "the means through which organizational members are influenced to align their actions with organizational goals."

Key enablers:

  • Socialization. Promoted an intense deovtion to its business and served as a basis for both trust and control. Key steps included recruiting (labour from harsh environments, local management from specific charity schools that catered curricula), the voyage over (sharing stories, etc.), maintaining a family-like social order, promoting from within. 
  • Communication. the company also established norm for communication, centering around annual letters, daily journals, and account books. The posts also communicated among themselves. The length of the letters fluctuated depending on the amount of trust London had for the local operations. The letters evolved with narrative slowly being replaced by standardized accounts and tables. London's lack of local knowledge led to some resistance from the local factors in providing full details. 
  • Participation. Local knowledge was important and officers developed it via "being there", "canoeing around", and "staying on."

There are lessons here for modern companies. Socialization is important as is "the value of retaining and sharing business communications and other records in an accessible manner. the Company's carefully maintained records provided it with an important source of organizational memory and allowed the Committee and its officers to analyze and act on long-term trends in key business indicators (e.g., cyclical fluctuations in beaver populations). Its attention to detail and use of version control numbers, the eighteenth-century equivalent of unique employee IDs, and the strategic use of carbon copy (CC) and blind carbon copy (BCC), all predate many database features that are now considered critical for knowledge management."

This is all very interesting and it really does speak to the importance of the artifact or genre of communication, in this case the Inward and Outward Letters. We can seem analogs in NASA's reaction to the PowerPoint presentation and the breakdown is some of the cognitive capability there.


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