Architects of trust: The role of network facilitators in geographical clusters

Bill McEvily, Akbar Zaheer

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

35 Scopus citations


Can trust be purposively designed and constructed? Trust is often treated as a dyadic phenomenon that unfolds between two parties according to a fairly well defined evolutionary path. We seek to broaden our understanding of the developmental logic of trust by proposing that trust can be intentionally shaped and further that certain actors are skilled in the art and craft of building trust among others. Such architects of trust play a vital role as network facilitators in geographical clusters where firms simultaneously collaborate and compete. Our theory is based on a grounded case study of the office furniture manufacturing industry clustered in the western Michigan region. The case demonstrates that network facilitators create trust by taking deliberate actions that include identifying shared interests, developing common expectations, leveraging a critical mass of influence, and compressing networks in physical space and time. By defining and identifying the active network role played by network facilitators, we provide a theoretical framework for explaining why and how trust emerges in networks of firms to enable collaborative competition in geographical clusters. Geographical clusters have captivated the attention of a diverse array of social scientists from political science (Sabel 1993; Saxenian 1994), sociology (Powell 1990; Kanter 1995), strategic and international management (Porter 1990; Nohria 1992), and economic geography (Krugman 1991; Scott 1992; Storper 1992). What is most striking about this form of economic activity is that firms in geographical clusters often simultaneously collaborate while competing in downstream product markets. Among the explanations advanced for such cooperative competition is the novel forms of network organization-typically characterized as dense and overlapping webs of social, professional, and exchange ties (Powell 1990)-observed in geographical clusters. The ongoing patterns of interaction in a region encourage the development of shared understandings, collective identities, and, most important, mutual trust among firms, which enable levels of collaboration that otherwise would be difficult to achieve and sustain. However, what is less clear is how these intense patterns of interaction and supporting norms emerge in the first place and evolve over time. Rather, network forms of organization and high levels of trust among firms are often taken as given, their presence treated as a starting assumption for analyses of geographical clusters. Viewed this way, the distinctive social context of geographical clusters spontaneously arises and naturally develops on its own, independent of any guiding forces. Our purpose in this paper is to question this perspective and inquire into the origin and development of the interfirm trust underlying the network patterns and cooperative behavior characteristic of many geographical clusters. To explore this question we take an inductive approach by presenting an in-depth case study that focuses on the office furniture manufacturing industry clustered in western Michigan.1 The case study is particularly appropriate for our purposes since it provides a finegrained illustration of the developmental path of interorganizational trust that serves as the foundation for collaboration among competing firms. Our analysis of the case study reveals a number of unique and surprising insights. Chief among these is the critical role that regional institutions play in supporting firms in geographical clusters by performing what we call a network facilitator role. We observe that regional institutions are central to the creation and maintenance of regular patterns of interaction and the development of trust among firms in the cluster. We also note that the influence of regional institutions on the development and maintenance of interfirm trust is the result of specific actions taken by these network facilitators. Rather than arising and developing spontaneously, we present a view of interorganizational trust as being actively and purposively shaped and "engineered" by network facilitators. Taken together, these findings suggest a novel perspective on the origins and evolution of interfirm trust in geographical clusters.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationTrust and Distrust in Organizations
Subtitle of host publicationDilemmas and Approaches
PublisherRussell Sage Foundation
Number of pages25
ISBN (Print)0871544857, 9780871544858
StatePublished - Dec 1 2004


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