The use of powerful technologies is increasing in firms of every size as prices falls and access becomes easier – particularly using online Software as a Service (SaaS) solutions. These can make high functionality software applications and services available to even the smallest of firms for a relatively affordable monthly fee – thus enabling them to compete with larger and better resourced players. Many are exploiting the transformative potential of technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), cloud storage, big data, the internet of things (IoT), wearable devices, and blockchain. The goals are typically to enable new offerings, enhance service, maximise efficiency, cut costs, and improve marketing and sales effectiveness.
These technologies raise new ethical questions; notions of privacy and ownership are being challenged; questions arise over who owns customer data and how it can be used; what licence do we have to aggregate, analyse and interpret information gleaned from hundreds, thousands or millions of customer interactions? Informed consent processes are becoming necessary; and ideas on what constitutes harm and fair use are being called into question. These challenges are arising across industry value chains, so no one is surprised to see businesses develop digital codes to ensure employees, clients and partners know they are operating within acceptable ethical standards. Those in organisational and functional leadership roles are in key positions to instigate and steer the ethical discourse to enable each company to form its code.
There are many potential ethical questions being raised around new technologies. The ubiquity of the IoT may raise concerns about the extent to which employee behaviour can be monitored; is the amount of food staff consume something the company could or should monitor? Should company’s aggregate and analyse data from employees’ wearable health trackers – is such wellness monitoring beneficial or invasive? Brain scanning technology is already in place to monitor employee concentration, is this appropriate or invasive? Is tracking health and mental activity a natural extension of monitoring productivity? Powerful technologies are no longer simply mechanical tools, they are increasingly redefining the nature and scope of employees’ work and their relationship with the employer. Hence it is critical for those in leadership to set the tone around the use of technology and data. What is commercially sensible may seem ethically questionable – challenging the boundaries of privacy and sensitivity. Just because we can, does it mean we should?
With an accelerating pace of digital disruption across society, critical ethical questions are moving up the public agenda faster. For example, 2016 has seen intense public debate around fair presentation of information on social media, the rise of the ‘post truth’ society and the employment implications of AI. Corporations cannot sit on the sidelines in these discussions. In some senses, there is no template to follow; there is no gold standard or global consensus over what is considered ethical. Businesses must engage in continual public and professional dialogue to determine what is permissible, what is acceptable and what would be best for shareholders, employees and customers.
Regular discourse highlights emerging issues and potential solutions. For example, if unbridled monitoring of employees’ health trackers is generally considered invasive, informed consent systems can be adopted with clear options defined for employees. Choices can be agreed with staff on the extent of monitoring, with clearly defined employee opt out clauses.
As business leaders, we must stay abreast of technological progress and engage with the questions being raised by the technologies, other organisations’ choices and societal responses. This engagement can help inform choice – providing alternative scenarios and ideas that drive our own ethical guidelines.
Compliance and Consistency
A clear internal view of what is considered ethically permissible is vital for any organisation. Once ethical frameworks have been established, these guiding principles must become cornerstones of strategic policy with regular monitoring of adherence. To be effective, the guiding principles must underpin subsequent actions consistently. Conformance with digital ethics cannot be a grey area or easily bypassed because of commercial considerations. Alongside driving home the message in regular communications and public statements, leaders need to demonstrate case examples of clear choices that have been made or rejected because of digital ethics. Corrective measures must be clear and applied consistently when these guidelines are bypassed.
Leading the Way
The necessity to form codes of digital ethics will increase, and the next 3-5 years will see widespread adoption – with some firms losing out where they don’t meet customers’ ethical expectations. In a world where the public discourse is almost impossible to control, CEOs must lead the way in ensuring their firms adopt and hold themselves to the highest standards of digital ethical behaviour and respond accordingly when gaps in the framework emerge. As the world becomes increasingly digital, and it becomes harder to distinguish our offerings from the competitors, who we are being and what we stand for will be become critical differentiators.