Trust and Virtual Organisations - Emergent
Considerations for Virtual Interorganisational Work in
the Global Chemicals Industry
Paul Lewis
and Maria Katsorchi-Hayes
Dept. of Management Science, The Management School, Lancaster University, Bailrigg,
Lancaster LA1 4YX, U.K.
Dept. of Management Science, The Management School, Lancaster University, Bailrigg,
Lancaster LA1 4YX, U.K.
Abstract. The development of Grid computing technologies has stimulated
additional interest in the concept of the virtual organization, with the promise of
‘always available’ processing power seeming to offer sufficient processing
power to overcome any technical obstacles to transparent global inter-
organizational working. However, whilst the academic literature has given
much attention to the theory of virtual organization there have been few viable
real-life examples. This paper reports on research undertaken in the UK
Chemicals industry where the technical design of Grid middleware was
supported by an interpretive investigation of the ‘fit’ between the needs of
industry and the forms of interorganisational working that the middleware was
intended to support. The research suggests that this discrepancy between
interest in, and implementation of, virtual organizations may arise from a
misunderstanding of the role trust plays in existing business practices and the
consequent requirements for supporting trust in a virtual organization. Business
relationships emerge to be deeply rooted in personal contact and popular and
elusive views of looking at virtual organizing need to be reconsidered in favor
of a more context-bounded approach.
1 Introduction
In this paper we present the results of fieldwork carried out as part of a large, UK
research council funded, e-science project. The project is an inter-disciplinary one and
the work described adheres to a tradition of interpretive research that may perhaps be
unfamiliar to some of our audience.
The GOLD project [1] aims to develop Grid middleware as the enabling
technology for dealing with trust, security, lifecycle and information management in
highly dynamic Virtual Organisations (VOs). The potential application domain for
such technology-facilitated interorganisational working is wide, for example
construction, electronics, and military applications. The chosen area for the GOLD
project is though the speciality, agrochemical and pharmaceuticals sector of the
chemicals industry, where the high importance of trust and security imposes very
stringent requirements and thus an excellent testbed for e-Science applications. In
Lewis P. and Katsorchi-Hayes M. (2006).
Trust and Virtual Organisations - Emergent Considerations for Virtual Interorganisational Work in the Global Chemicals Industr y.
In Proceedings of the 3rd International Workshop on Computer Supported Activity Coordination, pages 95-106
DOI: 10.5220/0002475800950106
addition, there are reasons to believe that the Chemicals industry would greatly
benefit if new and agile ways of working were made possible.
This is a sector where the UK has a modest $9-12bn share of a $250bn global
market [2]. The nature of the products means that much legal paperwork has to be
completed for every interorganisational collaboration and Health and Safety
authorities, customs, even the police have to be aware of the movement of products
between partners. The traditional strengths for companies in this industry have been
IP-protectable knowledge, a skilled workforce, plant efficiency, and good reputation.
In recent years, however, cheap labour and available plant in new economies have
been used to reduce overall price to market, so that production skill and efficiency
have become less important as factors for success. There is therefore increased
pressure upon all to innovate to maintain their advantage and for business
intensification: the ability to commercialise innovations more quickly than
Previously reported attempts at virtual organisation in chemicals production [3]
have claimed very significant cost savings of 92%, with time to market reduced by
66%. However, the experiment was not scaleable. The information necessary to co-
ordinate, manage and control outsourced activities in remote locations proved too
large in volume and the necessity for ad hoc reconfigurations in response to external
events and the evolving state of each project was beyond the capability of existing
software platforms.
Recent advances in Grid technologies are seen as the way to render this problem
more tractable, offering sufficient and readily accessible processing power to
participants, wherever located; the way is thus opened to transparent global inter-
organisational working, with outsourced R&D labs, safety assessments, chemical
analysis, data analysis, pilot studies, manufacturing, marketing and distribution
However, moving to such new ways of working would have considerable
implications for an industry where health and safety records and intellectual property
rights play such a large role. So while the GOLD project primarily focuses upon
technical issues one of the six component workpackages [4] gives attention to the
management implications of VO participation and, in particular, business trust
requirements. The initial rationale for attending to trust in the GOLD project thus lay
in the belief that “ … Companies participating in a VO must be able to trust each
other for their relationships to be productive. This workpackage will provide
mechanisms for trust acquisition and management through the use of trust policies. It
will also develop Grid services for contract management and automatic dispute
Within this statement lie assumptions concerning the nature of trust, arising partly
from the more technical literature, wherein trust is oft associated with impersonal risk
assessments, and partly from a view of trust that emphasizes trust in systems and
procedures. There is however a very extensive literature in sociology and the
behavioural sciences that discusses trust in quite different terms [5-9] We give below
a brief introduction to those conceptualisations and then describe the trust
requirements that we found existed in practice in the chemicals industry.
2 Conceptualisations of Trust
Trust embraces constructs of ethics, morals, emotions, values and natural attitudes
and combines a variety of fields, including philosophy, psychology, sociology,
political science, computer science, economics and organisational behaviour ([6],
p.115). It is, consequently, a complicated and multifaceted concept [8] and difficult to
frame it in a single definition [10]. In an attempt to unravel this conceptual difficulty
trust is here studied as an element of collaboration in the context of organizations,
rather than as any aspect of individual personality.
Although definitions of trust remain impartial, as they focus only on specific
aspects of the concept they share some common elements. In particular, trust requires
the eagerness of an actor – the ‘trustor’ - to enter into a position of complexity and
uncertainty ([11], p.4) and thus, become vulnerable due to the threat of opportunistic
behaviour of another actor – the ‘trustee’ [12]. Therefore, there are two interrelated
conditions in every instance of trust; the condition of risk [7] and that of
interdependence, which are both prerequisites for trust to arise [13]. This happens
because without both conditions there is no need for trust [12].
In the context of the business environment, with the continual increase in the
number and variety of exchange relationships, complexity and uncertainty cannot be
faced without trust [14]. Luhmann described trust as an effective mechanism of
reducing complexity, and its absence can cause chaos to prevail [11]. He argued ‘” ...
trust is a mechanism by which actors reduce complexity of their system of interaction
through the adoption of specific expectations about the future behavior of the other by
selecting amongst a range of possibilities’ (cited in [14], p.12).
Organisations are, within the trust literature, viewed as mechanisms that develop
shared meanings among the social actors and thus trust [5]; they are patterns of social
action that combine both formal regulations and informal cultural understandings
which have obtained applicability over time and shape social actors’ behaviour [5],
[9]. Consequently, as institutions they depend on shared beliefs, shared experience
and background assumptions among the social actors and are to a high degree self-
validating [9]. However, such mechanisms function in a latent manner [5], as they
direct expectations long before sanctions have to be considered [11]. In such
institutions, rules and norms function as background structures that mitigate against
risk and coordinate people’s expectations during their interactions [14]. Legal norms,
rules and potential sanctions are examples of just such institutional arrangements.
Legal norms seem to encourage trust as on the one hand, and rules provide directions
to people’s actions while, on the other hand; potential sanctions prevent them from
misbehaving [11], [15]. Grey and Garsten emphasize that these regulations must be
socially constructed within communities, in order to function successfully and that
trust is achieved “ ... through the enrolment of individuals into these values rather than
selecting individuals who already share common values” [16]. In addition, systems of
technical and professional knowledge are assumed as source of system trust. More
specifically, Giddens argues that standards of expertise are main sources of system
trust [15]. In this respect, system trust is then integrated into organisational routines
[16], which offer a ‘common grammar’ and lead people’s decisions in their
interaction without at the same time restraining them. What is more, authority also
contributes to the development of systems trust [11], [17]. The roles that people have
in organisations and in society in general is, it is argued, a matter of the specific
competences that they have, making others dependent on them [18],[11]. Despite this
dependency, when roles and responsibilities are explicitly and clearly identified [19],
system trust is encouraged as people place their confidence on the competence and the
abilities that the roles indicate rather than on the persons per se [15], [10]. In the
context of virtual organisations, where hierarchical relations are limited, people need
to know to a greater extent who has what expertise in order to facilitate trust [16],
Studies of trust in the context of virtual collaborations have identified an especial
difficulty, usually identified as the “virtual paradox”. This paradox arises from the
perceived demands of high levels of mutual trust and collaboration [10], something
that the nature of virtual organisations, i.e. working remotely, seems to impede.
Handy argues that “.... paradoxically, the more virtual an organisation becomes, the
more its people need to meet in person” [20], p.46. . Similarly, Knights et al.
characterize trust as the ‘Achilles heel of the virtual realm’ [21]. It is towards
identifying whether such a paradox would exist in manufacturing speciality chemicals
through short-term and changing virtual collaborations, and what the implications
might be for the technological facilitation of such collaborations that we undertook a
series of interviews with chemicals firms in the UK..
To test our assumptions and to identify some of the practical requirements for
virtual working in the Chemicals industry a matrix, covering all combinations of size
of company, product type etc was created. . With the assistance of a trusted third party
from the relevant trade association representative companies were then selected for
every combination and interviews were conducted with CEOs and senior managers.
These were semi-structured interviews lasting one to three hours, focusing upon the
ways in which business was currently done and the prospects for virtual working. All
interviews were recorded, transcribed and analyzed with the help of hermeneutic
analysis software. We below discuss the key points emerging as the situated meaning
of trust towards customers and suppliers.
3 Customer Relations: The Meaning of Trust
Interactions with customers are naturally the key activities in chemical companies, so
having a trusting relationship with customers was highly valued by most of the
individuals that were interviewed. Trust does not, however, seem to be associated
with the protection and secure use of data. As one CEO explained:
“... If the customer has a patent for a product, it is already in the public domain.
So exchanging the structure, there is no secret in that, it is in the pattern they
published it they have the rights. It is a highly regulated industry. I think people are
sometimes a bit neurotic about secrets. There is so much b******* about it! “
This finding contradicts studies which view the ‘secure’ interchange of data as a
priority for the creation of VOs, ignoring the importance of existing, accepted ways of
working and shared values. Kasper-Fuehrer & Ashkanasy [19], for example,
recognize the importance of shared beliefs and identity but overemphasize the
reliability of secure ways of working in order to establish trustworthiness. Similarly,
early results from the GOLD project gave emphasis to technical interpretations of
trust, secure exchange of data and authorization-authentication tools.[22]
But the meaning of trust in the day-to-day operations of chemical engineering
organizations is more experiential and distant from many of the descriptions of trust
in the literature of computing and virtual organizations. One CEO tried to explain the
process he follows to trust others in the following way:
“ ... I think if you know somebody a lot and you have an experiential relationship
you can look at your experience and decide how many times has that person
disappointed you. I think there is another level of trust when you are looking
forward and people normally need to be able codify the information you are giving
them in their own matrix. So, I come along and say we need to work on this and this
will make loads money. Firstly, you will be thinking the issue of being credible in
believing in this idea and secondly it is sharing the benefits of the credible, what
evidence do I have for that? So I think there are a lot of value judgments that happen
that are either made, or that are chucked away and destroyed because they are not
credible nothing to do with the purchase. Too good to be true or completely not
understandable…Then it does not start. It is a complex issue. “
3.1 Experience and Personal Judgment
This description of trust illustrates a surprising finding that we encountered many
times. Decision-makers in the chemical engineering sector rely heavily on experience
and personal judgment and to a lesser extent on accepted norms such as the proof of
financial credibility. This complements earlier findings in the engineering sector and
virtual organizations which have stressed the importance of ‘personal trust’ rather
than ‘system trust’ in this context [12, 23]
Table 1 presents some initial aspects of trust in everyday life of chemicals
organisations. This table summarises the findings of this research so far in themes of
what is meant by trust; the means of communication in establishing trust; symbols of
trust; and those actions or events that might represent a perceived violation of trust.
Table 1. Emerging meaning of trusting customers in chemical engineering organisations.
Meaning of
Means of
in establishing
Actions of trust
Symbols of
violation of
interested to
Face-to- face
contact, e-mail,
phone call
commitment to
agreement that
both parties
will proceed in
Customers are
businesses in
the ch.eng.
Phone, e-mail
Ask for name
and address
Phone call or e-
mail message to
identity of
Customers are
E-mail, post
Ask for a bank
reference, letter
of credit
The bank
reference or
letter of credit
operate in a
legal and safe
E-mail, post
Ask for
references from
health and
Chamber of
even the police.
The references
Customer will
pay for order
Contract, terms
and conditions,
penalty clauses.
Fail to pay at
all or do not
pay on time
A first obvious meaning of trust when entering in a relationship with a customer is
their genuine interest to buy. Such interest is expressed via sales visits, in professional
exhibitions, or via e-mail and phone call. Face-to-face is very important at this early
stage of dealings with customers and even with customers that are already known to
the company face-to-face interaction is considered irreplaceable. In the words of one
CEO: “ … We use big words like trust. I think it is easier if you look somebody eye to
eye to decide whether you trust them or not…Nothing can replace face-to-face
contact particularly at the early stages of negotiation”.
This is in contrast to much of the literature, wherein enthusiasts of distant ways of
communicating argue that the great advantage of virtual work lies in reducing the
need to travel [24]. We have found in our interviews support for the notion of the
‘virtual paradox’, whereby virtual working generates an increased need to travel ([20,
21, 25]. This seems most evident at the early stages of a relationship. The customers
of the chemical engineering industry studied are, in general, other businesses and
none of the companies in our study had dealings with the general public. The B2C
models of e-business were not applicable. In fact, in none of the interviewed
companies was business initiated electronically. Although customers might approach
the companies via the web this would be merely the initiating signal for personal
contact. Most of the individuals interviewed stressed the importance of face-to-face
interactions at the initial stages of dealing with any customer. Sales representative
visits and trade exhibitions are valued for the opportunities they provide to meet face-
to-face. After establishing a relationship with a customer then other means of more
distant communication can be added or even substitute for the face-to-face contact.
3.2 Document Transmission
An area where the technical concerns over authentication and security have been
thought to be of particular importance is the storage and secure transmission of
documents. Our interviews confirmed document handling as a requirement for virtual
working since we found formal documentation acts to some degree as a trust-
surrogate. The most basic requirements for trust, in so much as without these there
can be no business discussions are provision of permanent address and to be
accredited as creditworthy; the latter normally being done by a bank reference. In
some cases more credentials are required, as an Operations Manager explains:
“...With Europe it is very simple. We have to make sure that the samples’
documentation & form are correct and that they are properly labelled and identified.
There are some countries that we need a letter of credit. We do not give them the
goods until the money is in a reputable bank. Then we deliver the goods. Again
different countries have different formalities in terms of the documentation that you
have to have and things that have to be stamped or signed by the Chamber of
Commerce. This is no problem really.”
Furthermore, in an industry that is so heavily regulated many documents are
required concerning health and safety, the allowed legal use of products, safe
transport etc. This is a highly complex process and each product has to comply with
the regulations of each country it is transferred through (if transported by land).
However, producing and collecting such documentation is part of the procedure that
chemical engineering organisations have to follow and there are generally no
problems in producing or gaining such documentation. This finding suggests that
although ‘system trust’ [11, 15] is of great importance in the context of the chemical
engineering sector it is encapsulated in well established codes of practice and business
norms and not regarded as problematical. This finding partly contradicts studies
which overemphasise the importance of system trust, reliance on formal rules and
legalised procedures, regardless of the business context. [26]
3.3 Legal Redress
Perhaps the most fundamental element of a trust relationship between two
organizations is that the customer will pay for the products that have been ordered.
Most of the literature on VOs supposes this may be taken for granted but we found
that, intentionally or unintentionally, customers fail to pay on time or (fortunately
very rarely) fail to pay at all. These represent breaches of contract so a company
certainly has cause for legal redress and compensation; the VO literature tends to
assume that redress to the law is automatic but we found this is not so. In some cases
the manager recognizes the difficulties of the defaulter as ones that he/she might
themselves fall prey to, is sympathetic to a degree and work towards a solution.
Chemical engineering organizations will seek legal advice but only in extreme cases
will follow the legal route since there is great sensitivity about not wanting to damage
their image and reputation.
This very ‘real’ dimension of trust about the consequences of paying (or not) and
the willingness (or not) to follow the legal route, in the context of chemical
engineering organisations and possibly in other business sectors, is frequently
neglected in studies of trust in virtual organisations. Actions taken as a result of such
consequences resemble Ciborra’s concept of drifting [27] and the continuous
interventions of actors in order to ‘make things work’.
4 Supplier Relations: The Meaning of Trust
Another important interaction with others is the dealings with suppliers. Similarly to
Table 1, Table 2 describes some key stages and relations of trust with suppliers in the
context of chemical engineering organizations.
4.1 Shared History
When dealing with suppliers, as with customers, face-to-face contact is very
important in the early stages of a relationship. Supplier relationships differ somewhat
though in that these, as many of our informants stressed, become established over
time and do not change just because prices of raw materials fluctuate slightly. This is
a crucial finding since so many of the business models in the literature naively assume
a free global market in which the electronic version of ‘economic man’ reacts to seek
lowest price. In reality a shared history with existing suppliers is of key importance
and in many cases more important than commercially competitive prices of raw
materials. As a chemist in one of the organisations explained:
Table 2. Emerging meaning of trusting suppliers in chemical engineering organisations.
of trusting
Means of
in establishing
Actions of
Symbols of
violation of
Suppliers have
raw material
Face-to- face
contact, e-mail,
phone call
commitment to
agreement that
both parties will
proceed in
Suppliers are
businesses in
the chemicals
Phone, e-mail
Ask for name
and address
Phone call or e-
mail message to
identity of
operate in a
legal and safe
Visits, audits,
use of local
Ask for
references from
health and
chamber of
commerce, even
the police.
The references
delivering on
Phone call, e-
mail, post
Commitment to
deliver on time
Promise to
deliver on time
Missed delivery
“ … Because of the nature of the products we are making we have to go through
quite a long drawn out approval \process. Because of the fact that we have to
produce, store, a lot of evidence that we can change supplier without actually
affecting our product. That means that we have a lot of barriers in changing
suppliers. Normally we will not change suppliers that frequently. Typically, for a
major raw material and we will have one or two suppliers and w e might change
every couple of years. We will not change just because prices dropped a couple of
4.2 Visits and Inspections
A further difference arises from the need for a company to be assured that its
suppliers operate in a safe and legal way. This is not merely a question of assuring the
quality of the received product; it is feared that the purchaser may be liable if the
supplier is breaching health and safety regulations and social or environmental
consequences ensue
Many of the organizations we interviewed routinely visit overseas production
locations, especially the location of strategic suppliers, carrying out inspections and
periodic audits. The use of local agents who act on their behalf is also common
practice in the industry. The existence of these ‘local’ agents is underlines the
importance given by the chemicals companies of understanding local needs despite
operating in a global environment. It confirms Woolgar’s rule of virtuality that ‘the
more global the more local’ [25] and contradicts studies which suggest that distance is
not important in the age of the virtual organizations [24].
4.3 Meeting Expectations
Finally, the most important thing for a supplier to be considered trustworthy is that
they deliver on time. Considerable delays at delivery times do not seem to occur very
often. As an Operations Manager explained:
“ … Ok, you get occasions that suppliers let you down. But it is not very often. The
supplier wants to sell the chemical, they do not do it deliberately, and they want to
make the profit. They vary in terms of their reliability, do what they say. Because it is
very important in supplier chain to have the chemical when we want it so time is very
important. If we say we need such a product on such and such a date because our
manufacturing programme is set up for that date. If it does arrive we have to change
programme and lose time.”
By experience and past knowledge of the supplier, individuals in chemicals
organisations tend to know which suppliers are more likely to delay delivery.
Depending on the length of the delay fines could be imposed for a considerable delay
and in cases where the delay has caused great financial loses the supplier will most
likely not be used in the future. This finding is emphasising the importance of
experience and knowledge in trust relationships in the context of chemical
engineering organisations. Again, personal and experiential knowledge [28] seem to
be of greater importance in choices of suppliers rather than abstract rules and
procedures. This has significant implications for the technologies that one might
choose to develop to facilitate virtual working. There would, for example, be little
chance that supplier selection by autonomous software agents would be accepted by
the chemicals companies to which we spoke.
5 Concluding Observations
One workpackage of the GOLD project has used interpretive methods to augment the
technical development of tools and middleware. Part of this work has attended to the
meaning of trust in the context of chemicals trading relationships. Despite being a
heavily regulated industry and one that follows to a great extent legalised processes in
doing business, experiential knowledge and personal trust seem to be of great
importance in the instituting and the operating of contacts with customers and
The GOLD project has been mainly focused on providing the technical means by
which to support standardised mechanisms for virtual collaboration in the chemicals
industry. The already existing demonstrator software shows that software facilitation
for virtual working is possible, and that automatic audit trails of communications,
protection of documents etc will be useful to the industry. But whilst necessary such
things are not sufficient. Consideration must be given to legacy ways of working and
accommodating the requirements and idiosyncrasies of the particular industry.
Informing the technical development with the interpretive strand has been extremely
valuable in this.
The importance of face-to-face communications both with customers and suppliers
and the understanding of the local (country) context in which customers and suppliers
operate has emerged from this study. This complements previous discussions on the
contradictory nature of virtual organisations [25]. It seems that trust in chemical
engineering organisations is heavily dependent upon personal, professional and
experiential knowledge rather than reliant upon rules and legal processes. Formal
rules and procedures remain important, providing the basis for contractual
collaborations with suppliers or customers. However, the final decisions on making a
deal with a customer or a supplier, as this study has suggested, is mainly based on the
professional and personal judgments of individuals.
These are initial findings and are still in an early stage; however they underpin the
importance of understanding how trust relationships develop in practice in a specific
context prior to the design of technical artefacts.
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