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6 things to consider when addressing corporate digital ethics

  • Posted on March 8, 2017

Digital ethics is all across the mainstream press.  Avanade has been part of the discussion, with both Sarah Adam-Adam Gedge and Adam Warby have spoken to the press on this locally. With companies accelerating into an AI-first world, the need for all players - companies, governments, individuals - to consider the consequences of that shift, is a core element of our own TechVision for 2017.

Who is feeling the brunt of digital ethics? Based on recent Avanade research, we know that nearly half of C-suite executives have experienced a digital ethics issue at work, significantly more than IT decision makers.  Compared with security, which was long an issue for the IT departments (no more!), ethics is emerging as an executive and Board issue, with complex and whole-of-company implications.  So what does a digital ethics framework or approach look like?

Let’s acknowledge that the topic of ethics is enormous.  There are approaches and frameworks that are driven from a philosophical perspective, economics perspectives, and compliance perspectives.

As a starting point, here are a number of key elements for any company to consider when addressing digital ethics:

  1. WHO determines the ethics boundaries of an organisation?  Who manages the real-time moderation of ethical standards and dilemmas?  A company’s ethics committee was often an extension of governance. Along with Board governance, this ethics committee was traditionally driven by some combination of the CEO, legal/compliance, company secretarial, risk and finance.  Digital ethics will require input from all corporate functional areas, and will be most effective with democratic input.  The need to be outwards-looking to take consideration of community and regulatory norms will also be important.
  2. WHAT are a company’s values and principles, and how are they measured? What conduct do those values and principles apply to?  Gartner talks of digital ethics as a system of values and moral principles for the conduct of digital interactions among people, businesses and things.  What interactions are relevant to a company?  Is digital technology so ubiquitous now that this really extends to any interaction a company has with a consumer, an employee, or a general member of the public?
  3. HOW BROAD do you go?  For employees for example, digitisation has impacts beyond the old workplaces.  A question that is constantly raised at my own house is how do we balance the ever-increasing prevalence of devices and screens with family as the lines between home and work continue to blur?  If our kids see us on devices all the time, how do we tell them to limit their own usage?
  4. Looking at both the BENEFITS and the RISKS – A lesson learnt from the rise and rise of security is to focus not just on horror stories, but also to be able to identify value propositions.  It is also critical that a company separates the benefits of smart technologies themselves from the benefits of being a digitally ethical organisation!  Just because something CAN be done, doesn’t mean it should be.
  5. Inherent FLEXIBILITY - Ethics, dilemmas, and the bar of acceptability will develop and change.  Digital ethics frameworks need to be both robust and dynamic, and the actions that companies take in response to negative responses to their activities need to be strong and adaptive.
  6. Dovetail with SECURITY – Finally, security will continue to be of critical importance, particularly in terms of growing calls for access to large data pools by both public and private organisations, developing partnerships between public and private bodies, and the increasing decision-making capabilities of the technology itself.

Companies are now at the stage of “starting the conversation.”  Recognising the importance of digital ethics, many people have experienced at least one ethics situation.  Consulting-led discussions of a variety of digital dilemmas, and ways of categorising them, have been developed and roundtables and team engagements are on the agenda for many this year.  Now is the time to push the conversation beyond the creation of engagement and recognition, into the creation of practical framework implementation.  These frameworks will need to built-in, not bolted on, and based on dynamic and proactive cultures of trust, integrity and corporate citizenship.

Best practice and thought leadership will move quickly in this area. What best practice frameworks do you believe we will start to see emerge? I’d love to hear what you think – feel free to weigh in in the comment section below.

Stella Goulet

You raise some great questions and the answers will certainly not be black and white. As you point out, the context is so important. And in the digital age where customer experience is more and more important, taking into the account the view of customers - who are individuals with unique wishes and preferences - will be even more challenging. Those companies that aren't thinking and talking about digital ethics risk being left behind.

March 9, 2017

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