Trusted Agents

Trust agents

I’ve just finished the book Trust Agents by Chris Brogan which is definitely worth a read if you want a practical tips on building your own social capital and networks. I’m not going to go into the content in detail here but it did have one lovely quote which prompted this post:

“It’s not who you know, it’s who knows you.”

I’ve been struggling for a while to articulate why I think the shift towards networked organisations represents a fundamentally shift in doing business. The move towards openness is clearly a part of it – data, systems, decisions, spaces – there’s nowhere to hide any more, and nor should you even try (most of the time). But what this quote unlocked for me was the true reciprocal natural of relationships. This is obviously the fundamental promise of web 2.0 which captures the transition from 1-way to 2-way communication, which is clearly also one of the big drivers of open innovation. In other words, as the age old clichĂ© says, you get out what you put in but nowhere is this more true than in open innovation.

The challenge that many large organisations find themselves in is that “Everyone knows of you, but no one really knows you”. Just sucking in great ideas from outside is a sure fire way to shoot yourself in the foot. And yet this is what unfortunately many corporate open innovation strategies are, almost inspite of themselves. Sharing information, and building other organisations capacity, is essential for successful open innovation. Companies like IBM are doing some interesting things in this space, such as with their Smarter planet programme, which I attended yesterday in Dublin.

Network experts not expert networks

All of the above prompted me to think about Trusted Agencies (i.e. organisations), as the logical next step on from Trusted Agents (i.e. people). In recent years and months we’ve seen a flourishing of what you might call innovation intermediaries or consultancies however by an large I would say most of them are locked into a traditional single client, fee for service, business model.

What I think of as real Trust Agencies are genuine brokers between organisations and institutions representing and promoting the needs on all sides – companies, customers, clients etc. And their business model is based more upon having a stake in the opportunities they generate or in co-developing them with others. The image above image is of 2 of 6 diagramatic representations of new open/co-creation business models developed by Sense Worldwide that I think capture the strategic challenge rather elegantly (all 6 + a white paper is available here).

I know this idea isn’t necessarily new per se. I just think the need is growing exponentially. Over the past few years we’ve done projects now with Proctor and Gamble, Shop Direct (who own Littlewoods), and are also just about to launch a project with Orange where we are testing our Trusted Agent model of corporate open innovation. Have a look at this little video which shows the process rather nicely.

As we move to a more fluid and distributed model of business, innovative organisations need to give as much as receive for the networked business models to thrive. And so I below the need for genuine honest brokers will be become more important. And they will live or die by their reputations – simple as that.

*Please note – we are in the process of setting up a company called 100% Open which will offer consultancy, training, and networks based upon our models of open innovation. More on that soon.


  1. Hi Roland,
    Thank you for a brilliant article.
    You are absolutely spot on with Trusted Agents.
    I founded the Leaders Cafe Foundation in January of this year – based on the concept of open innovation. It is focused on raising leadership aspirations. The Foundation’s target is to reach 20 million people by 2020.
    Through a process of trial and error – I have discovered a way to make LinkedIN work in exactly the way you have described.
    ” … It’s not who you know, it’s who knows you.”
    It’s taken a lot of hard work in the past 8 months. But I believe the Leaders Cafe Foundation has reached the Tipping Point. By this, I mean I have been reaching out and ‘giving’ over 8 months … and in the past month, others that I do not know have begun to reach out to me.
    The Leaders Cafe Foundation has become a Trusted Agent. In this context, it has Network Experts and it is an Experts Network. In Malcolm Gladwell’s words – it has evolved into a Trusted Agent full of Connectors, Mavens and Salesmen.
    I find NESTA fascinating and would welcome an opportunity to share the ‘birth’ of Leaders Cafe Foundation with you.
    Best wishes, Kwai
    Founder – Leaders Cafe Foundation.

  2. Hi Kwai,
    Thanks for your comment. Glad you liked the post and I’m intruiged by your model of the Leaders Cafe Foundation. Happy to chat in more detail about Nesta or Trusted Agents anytime.

  3. Thanks Roland. I couldn’t work out how to connect via email …
    So, I ‘innovated’ the LinkedIN social network system – and made a request to connect through LinkedIN.
    The more I read about NESTA .. the more I like it 🙂
    What a brilliant job you guys have!!!

  4. The problem with trusted agents is that they are agents whose interests diverge from that of their principal.
    There’s a similarly intractable conflict of interest at the heart of all Companies. This is the ‘principal/agency problem’ of a divergence of interest as between the owner and their agents, the directors and management.
    This conflict is the main reason why we need Company law at all.
    Our approach up here in Scotland at Nordic Enterprise Trust – and we have had a little funding from Innovation Norway to develop it – is the use of partnership framework agreements/protocols for the creation and development of networked ‘micro’ enterprises.
    This presentation in Bristol re Social Business and a social investment mechanism might give you an idea.

  5. Thanks for the comment Chris and link to the slideshare presentation which is great. I’m certainly a big fan of LLPs and like the look of the work you are doing.
    We’ve been experimenting with nwe business models of collaboration in our Open Ventures Challenge project with Cancer Research UK, involving setting up Community Interest Companies. I can put you in touch with the right people if you are interested. More details here:

  6. Hi Roland,
    Thanks for an interesting post and a plug for Sense’s spirit of co-creation white paper.
    I recognise our organisation in your description of a “traditional single client, fee for service, business model”, and acknowledge that a more open model in which agencies are remunerated more through having a stake in the opportunities they develop would be preferable and enable truly open innovation.
    However, I would say that an agency doesn’t necessarily need this newer business model in order to truly represent and promote the needs of multiple stakeholders. We already have to understand and respond to the needs of consumers, big organisations and individual clients simultaneously in order to ensure we generate and develop winning ideas that gain traction within client organisations.
    We are always open to new business models, and have explored them in the past because we believe as you do that it helps create even better innovation processes. It is our clients who prefer the current arrangement for a whole raft of reasons, and we go where the opportunities currently are and try and change cultures from inside.
    There is a lot of knowledge and experience that organisations in our position can share with those like 100%, Leader Cafe Foundation and Nordic Enterprise Trust, and vice versa. We’d be interested to hear more of your perspectives on our blog:
    Sense Worldwide

  7. Thanks Brendan,
    Good response and I do like hte sense model as you know. I certainly didn’t mean to imply that a single client model is not appropriate or valuable, rather just that more complex and collaborative arrangements are increasingly required. However these are often not as neutral as they need to be given that the agent will obviously act in the best interests of their client, as they should.
    Anyway, I will contribute to your blog too when i can.
    Thanks again,

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