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authenticity - a systems view

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Authenticity has an outward-facing aspect and an inward-facing aspect.
Outward-Facing Authenticity Inward-Facing Authenticity
The outward-facing aspect is to do with one's integrity in relations with others. Inward-facing authenticity has to do with being in touch with one's values, feelings and desires.
There is an important relationship between internal authenticity and external authenticity, but they are clearly not the same thing.  We tend to trust those people and organizations that we perceive (rightly or wrongly) as authentic.  This is understandable, but unwise.  A samurai warrior may be internally authentic, thanks to years of disciplined practice and meditation, but may be a deadly and devious enemy. more

veryard projects - innovation for demanding change

Principles of Authenticity

veryard projects > authenticity > principles

Authenticity is an important aspect of personal and business relationships
Authenticity is an important aspect of organizational and personal character
Authenticity is endangered by novel communication mechanisms - including e-business
Authenticity needs nurturing for long-term business excellence and survival

veryard projects - innovation for demanding change

Authenticity in e-commerce

veryard projects > authenticity > e-commerce

In e-commerce, the issue that is currently attracting most attention is that of verifying the identity and authority of the (virtual) person at the other end of the wire. The technical perspective of this is mostly about electronic signatures, cryptography, secure authentication servers, and that kind of stuff.  Important, but not the whole story.

The legalistic/risk perspective focuses on the logical and practical possibility of repudiation - what if the person denies signing?, what if the board denies that the person had the authority to sign? - and the consequent commercial/legal exposure.  Again important, but again not the whole story.

veryard projects - innovation for demanding change

Authenticity in customer relationships

veryard projects > authenticity > crm

The thinking behind call centres was that customers would respond favourably to a friendly voice on the end of the phone.  Market research indicated a preference for Scottish accents, as conveying an impression of personal, friendly and efficient service.  This strategy has backfired - because the service isn't really personal, friendly or efficient - in other words, the strategy was an inauthentic one, based on an inauthentic relationship with the customer, and an inauthentic selection of staff by an attribute falsely connected to genuine friendliness or efficiency.  Nowadays, when I hear a Scottish voice on the other end of the phone, I'm afraid my heart sinks - another bloody call centre.

There is also the possibility of authenticity in the handling of customer complaints.  'Consumers are more willing to return to a company that has made a mistake but then rectified it, than to one that has not made a mistake in the first place: the act of admitting an error confirms the authenticity of the relationship more than the efficient delivery of a service.' [Mulgan, p117]
more Customer Relationship Management

veryard projects - innovation for demanding change

Authenticity in business relationships

veryard projects > authenticity > brm

In business-to-business relationships, there are issues relating to the commitment of a large organization to a particular deal, venture or strategy, and the openness with which this is shared with business partners.
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veryard projects - innovation for demanding change

Authenticity and identity

veryard projects > authenticity > identity

The identity of a modern (or post-modern) company is increasingly complicated.  A number of organizations have identified me as a "loyal" customer of theirs, including several airlines and retail chains.  I have several plastic cards as tokens of my loyalty, what could be more authentic than that?  By accepting the card and its benefits, I have given them the right to identify me in this way.  But how do I identify them?  For example, I carry a loyalty card for a major UK retailer. But exactly who or what am I being loyal to?  Is it a grocer, an ISP, a bank, a travel agent?  Is it a network of alliances and supply chains, under a common brand name?

Part of the dynamism of many modern (or perhaps postmodern) corporations is that they are constantly redefining their identity. The evolving identity of a large retailer probably isn't much of an issue for me as a private shopper.  But suppose you were a major brand owner, distributing clothing or sportsware.  The retail buyer may make direct or veiled threats, if you don't give him the discounts he wants, or may make promises concerning internet sales on top of instore sales.  How authentic are these threats and promises?  The fact that the retailer has previously stocked its stores with grey imports of high ticket items would go some way to authenticate this threat.

Thus threats as well as promises can be authentic.  Returning to the Internet, we observe that there are many blackmail and fraud opportunities, which create a different set of issues for authenticity. Someone who manages to adopt a false identity as a cover for anonymity, or manages to perpetrate mischief or malice under someone else's identity.  For example: trolling.  For example, generating spurious credit enquiries against a person or company, with the intention of damaging their credit rating.
more Identity


inward-facing authenticity

Inward-facing authenticity has to do with being in touch with one's values, feelings and desires.  In Peter Block's book on Flawless Consulting, the consultant is urged to pay attention to her feelings in the consultancy engagement, and not to repress or hide them in the interests of better serving the client.

Of course, authenticity doesn't always mean allowing other people to perceive your true feelings or intentions.  It is the inauthentic people whose feelings and intentions can often be guessed at by other people, long before they are aware of them themselves.

As Lionel Trilling argued many years ago, there is a huge difference between sincerity and authenticity.  Authenticity certainly doesn't mean niceness.  What it does mean is a kind of existential engagement in the present, rather than an obsessional focus on the past or the future.  Inauthenticity is linked to a form of repetition, in a psychoanalytical sense.

So who are the authentic organizations?  Body Shop?  The Roman Catholic Church?  McKinseys?

authenticity and maturity

One way of assessing authenticity is through the corporate management of risk.  We can draw a maturity model of risk management, in which the existence of risk logs gets you onto level 2, the existence of contingency plans gets you onto level 3, and there is something else (what?) that gets you onto levels 4 and 5.  Consider how an oil company manages major environmental risks, such as explosion or spillage.  Consider the corporate evasions of Exxon after the Valdeez disaster, and see these as a manifestation of some form of inauthenticity.  And how can we forget the Space Shuttle disaster?

However, authenticity is not the same as maturity.

authenticity and ruthlessness

There is no necessary connection between authenticity and niceness.  Authenticity can go together with ruthlessness.  But there's no necessary connection between authenticity and ruthlessess either.

There is perhaps a qualititative difference between bullying for a specific purpose, which may be consistent with authenticity under certain circumstances, and bullying because it's become a habit, which is an obsessional behaviour and therefore


relationship between external and internal authenticity

There is an important relationship between internal authenticity and external authenticity, but they are clearly not the same thing.  We tend to trust those people and organizations that we perceive (rightly or wrongly) as authentic.  This is understandable, but unwise.  A samurai warrior may be internally authentic, thanks to years of disciplined practice and meditation, but may be a deadly and devious enemy.

Microsoft is considerably more authentic than many of its competitors, and is a more formidable enterprise as a result.  A large consultancy may be internally authentic, but thoroughly inauthentic in relation to its clients.


negative patterns

My usual procedure in investigating these kind of issues is to search for negative patterns.  My hunch is that we know many ways in which inauthenticity may manifest itself; thus one way of enhancing our understanding of authenticity, as well as finding practical ways to promote and support authenticity, is to explore these negative patterns.  What kinds of inauthenticity are there?  How would we go about detecting them in a client or other company?  Suppose we conducted an authenticity audit for a major retailer of some of its key suppliers, and detected some evidence of inauthenticity, what kinds of protective or corrective actions might we advise the retailer to consider?

authenticity and scale

There is a belief that small organizations tend to be more authentic than large organizations.  There are certainly some forms of inauthenticity to which large organizations are particularly prone, especially in relation to bureaucracy.  However, there are other forms of inauthenticity to which small organizations are particularly prone, especially where there is a confusion between the corporate group and the social group.  Small businesses are often run by a family, or by a group of "friends", and the overlap between roles can generate a falseness of its own.


engagement with the issues

Okay, so that's enough analysis (for the time being).  What are the prospects for action - for (hopefully authentic) engagement on our part?  How can Veryard Projects help you?


One role for us as consultants is to help people and organizations become more internally authentic.  Engagement with the present, escape from obsessional behaviour ("repetition"), articulation of desire.

Another role we can play is to assess authenticity.  For example, a corporation may want to audit potential business partners or acquisitions.

A third role is in the facilitation of specific sets of authentic relations between organizations, possibly on behalf of one party, or on behalf of multiple parties.  Perhaps in relation to specific modes of collaboration, such as supply chains.  Or working for senior management, helping reating a corporate environment in which middle managers are enabled, encouraged and empowered to enter and maintain authentic relationships with other parties.

A fourth role is working for regulators, guarantors and other trusted third parties, helping to create an environment in which authenticity, authentic behaviour and authentic relationships will thrive.

Where we can define specific mechanisms or patterns, some consultants may see an opportunity to develop, sell and implement products and/or services that support these mechanisms or patterns. This is of course a step away from true (authentic) consultancy, and may compromise the authenticity of the consultancy relationship with the client.  (On the argument that identification with the product/service gets in the way of the relationship, and leads to obsessional behaviour on the part of the product support "consultant".)

Finally, you may identify generic roles within multi-party collaborations that are not currently being filled, or poorly filled, and you may decide to create an entity (alone or jointly with others) to fill this role.  This is no longer consultancy, and demands authenticity of a different kind.

consultancy and authenticity - final remarks

If authenticity has its dark side, then consultants can't just go around as fairy godfathers and godmothers, bestowing authenticity on all their clients with a wave of their magic facilitation skills. (It doesn't work like that anyway.)

Engagement with clients always raises serious ethical and practical issues, and authenticity cuts off our retreat into the standard professional ways of evading responsibility for these issues.  There is a sense in which "professional" conduct is rarely authentic.

Authentic behaviour is seldom comfortable, even for consultants.  But is it safe, and for whom?  Peter Block argues that inauthentic behaviour will be found out sooner or later - telling the client what he wants to hear may generate short-term revenue but damages the long-term relationship. Confrontation and novelty involve risk - but it's lack of confrontation and lack of novelty that are the killers in the long term.


recommended reading

book comment availability
Lionel Trilling

Sincerity and Authenticity

A popular classic. 

On Feb 4th, claimed 24 hour delivery. claimed the US publisher was out of stock.

buy from amazon

Peter Block

Flawless Consulting

One of the two best books I know on consultancy. buy from amazon

Geoff Mulgan


Chatto & Windus, 1997

Mulgan is one of the political brains behind New Labour. buy from amazon



Thanks to Aidan Ward (as always) for stimulating discussion.


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This page last updated on December 5th, 2001
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