The state of digital ethics: Rethinking how to make trustworthy tech

  • Posted on May 18, 2021
  • Estimated reading time 4 minutes
State Of Digital Ethics In Tech

I’m excited to announce the release of Avanade’s state of digital ethics report, featuring results from our Global Digital Ethics Survey, plus key takeaways that describe how we can build on early, but promising, industry momentum.

With a theme of cultivating trustworthy technology, this report examines how organizations are addressing complicated ethical questions as they design, develop, deploy and operate digital technologies, and the results they’re seeing from these efforts.

What do we mean by “trustworthy”?
It’s worth acknowledging that even the idea of trust is complicated. It may bring to mind qualities like reliability (I trust a pedestrian bridge to hold my weight) or safe behavior (I trust cross-traffic drivers to stop at a red light) or aligned values (I trust my friend to keep a secret). We might try to ascribe these different qualities to technology as well, but “trustworthy” can never be a single, point-in-time quality; instead, we should continually evaluate the organizations and processes behind the technology with which we interact. Do they fully understand the ethical implications of what they’re building, and do they have the knowledge and practices to shape those implications into ethically positive outcomes?

For their part, the executives we surveyed were generally very positive about their organization’s approach. Of the 45 ethical implications of technology from Avanade’s Digital Ethics Framework, a third of respondents thought their company was doing enough to address the issue, and another third thought their company was doing so well they were seeing business benefits from their efforts. (On average, only a quarter of respondents had negative impressions of how well their companies were addressing these issues.) Evidently, most business and tech leaders feel that we should (and do!) trust their technology.

Much room for improvement
But much of that optimism may be misguided, as companies overall don’t seem to be putting in the effort required to do digital ethics well. For example, a little less than half of respondents said that their company trains employees to make good ethical decisions (the most common approach used), but only 40% said they assign employees digital ethics responsibilities and only 21% said they have a digital ethics governance structure. Without accountability or oversight, it’s unlikely they’re consistently achieving the positive results they profess.

Of course, there are important differences by region (companies in Japan favor a grassroots approach, Brazilian firms are more likely to assign responsibilities to individuals and German companies are more like to have fully dedicated staff) as well as industry (energy companies are most likely to apply digital ethics on a project basis, while healthcare companies focus on hiring ethical people and expecting them to make good decisions.)

Closing the gap
Even considering these differences by region, industry, company size and other characteristics, we still have a significant gap between executives’ relatively positive outlook of their digital ethics efforts and the relative lack of formal process and structure. If that’s the case in your organization, how do you work to close that gap? Here’s a sneak peek of key takeaways from the report:

  • Grow digital ethics as an offshoot of your organization’s culture. Corporate decision-makers choose to consider ethical courses of action for a variety of reasons: regulatory pressures, competitive pressures, risk aversion, corporate values, etc. Our survey results show that these drivers have significant impact on digital ethics efforts and outcomes. It’s up to you to frame your program accordingly.
  • Put in the time and investment. Globally, more than 60% of respondents said their firm was planning to spend more time and investment on digital ethics over the next 12 months. Our report examines those expectations by industry, with a look at some of the costly and not-so-costly initiatives organizations have planned. Whatever improvements you want to make, you can’t simply hope that employees will get better at ethical practices on their own.
  • Connect to business results. Doing digital ethics well can yield a number of tangible benefits, only some of which include checking a compliance box or mitigating risk. Our report details positive outcomes related to customers, employees, partners and other stakeholders that respondents associate with their digital ethics efforts. Demonstrating this connection could be your key to greater support.

Looking ahead
There’s an urgent need to understand the ethical risks and gaps pervasive in today’s digital technologies, because these issues are causing real and significant harm on a daily basis. At the same time, it’s important to understand that the state of digital ethics is improving, and the organizations that are doing it well are seeing distinct competitive advantages. Keeping these points at the forefront of our technology conversations is essential for making the change we need.

As always, I look forward to your input, and if you’re looking for a more in-depth discussion or help on any of these topics, you can contact us directly or post a comment below.

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