Technology-driven businesses and moral compass
9th November 2022
Authors: Rohini Balapumi & Rubaiyet Khan, School of Management and Marketing, Curtin University
The world is fuelled by technological solutions today. Information provides an unprecedented advantage for businesses because technology can now process the data in such an efficient manner that the effect of each piece of information is multiplied.
One action from a single business entity may affect the lives of millions around the world. For example, a single price hike from any of the leading OTT platforms may affect 1.6 billion users around the globe. Social media also gives opportunities to influence the mass, e.g., Elon Musk's tweets influence stock prices.
Are we aware of the impacts of our actions today? Do we understand how the scenario and importance of being moral have become more relevant today due to the power of information technology in our society?
We find three major schools of moral consideration while making ethical decisions.
- First is the consequentialist school, where the major emphasis is on how our decisions can benefit the most stakeholders. This school aims to have the best impact on all. While this is a very popular way of making ethical choices, as we consider impact-driven information technology-powered processes in our society, this school appears to have the best chance of making the most ethical decisions. But the consequentialist school of thought is based on the premise that the impact of an action is in the future. Is it sufficient to control the instant consequences of individual actions like Elon's 1-minute tweet, costing the share value of a company to crash by millions of dollars?
- The second school of thought dictates the consideration of ethical decisions based on being virtuous – 'doing the right thing'. In an ever-changing, globally connected society, information technology is always challenging what is accepted to be 'right'. Is using social media inside office computers acceptable? Can the management intrude on one's privacy by reading emails being accessed through office computers? What can be considered 'right' today in society?
- Finally, the third school always promotes completing the assigned duties to any individual. Since the current connected digital world allows interconnectivity in an unprecedented way, this school falls short in always making ethical decisions. The allocated duties are simply not sufficient to control the impacts of an action that manifolds the plays of interconnectedness through information technology today.
Advancement in digital technologies has changed how businesses operate, engage with their employees and partners, and deliver value to their customers. The advancement in technologies such as cloud computing, big data and data analytics has enabled businesses to acquire and manipulate an enormous amount of data. Cloud, IoT and big data technologies enable the collection and sharing of a huge amount of data.
Data mining and data analytics technologies enable businesses to make sense of and provide new insights for their businesses. Likewise, technologies such as robotics, automation, artificial intelligence, and machine learning bring benefits of timesaving, cost-effectiveness, and high efficiency by eliminating redundant tasks, automating admin tasks, freeing employees to focus on valuable tasks, accelerating decision-making by analysing a large amount of data from various sources in a short time frame, reducing human risks involving machinery. While these ever-evolving digital technologies provide for enhanced performance and productivity, solutions for better analytics and decision-making for businesses, they also opened avenues for security, privacy, job displacement, bias, discrimination, and other societal and ethical issues.
Today, a business’s success is not just measured by economic sustainability. Business stakeholders, investors, customers, and employees are all paying closer attention to how a business engages with its employees, partners, and customers to collect, use, and manage information and its involvement in social and environmental sustainability issues and governance compliance. It is not enough for businesses to comply with the legalities of doing business. Businesses today are expected to extend their ethical obligations to ensure social and environmental sustainability.
Businesses cannot solely rely on legislation to monitor and regulate the proper use of digital technologies. Often, businesses are not entirely clear on the boundaries between data manipulation for competitive advantage and privacy of data. Existing regulations are insufficient to regulate the moral issues arising from digital technology adoption. Often, legislation and regulations are put in place only after the exposure of ethical issues.
The fifth annual MIT Sloan Management Review and Deloitte study of digital business revealed that business leaders do not spend enough time thinking and communicating the impact of digital technologies on society. In line with the triple bottom line, "people, planet, profit", it is increasingly essential for today’s business leaders to reflect on the impact of these digital technologies not just on their firms but also on the society and environment they operate in. This is echoed by Marc Benioff, Contributor, Chairman, and CEO of Salesforce, in a 2016 Huffington Post article, "It's my belief that businesses are the greatest platforms for change and can have an enormous impact on improving the state of the world. As business leaders we are in positions of influence, and responsible for more than just shareholders. We are accountable for the well-being of an extended community of employees, customers, and partners, as well as our fellow beings on this planet we inhabit."
Today customers and stakeholders want companies to take responsibility for what is happening on their platform or the outcomes of their technology-enabled processes. For example, Facebook and YouTube, platform providers, cannot deny their responsibility for how their platform is used and the impact of its misuse on society. Business leaders should consider the ethical and moral obligation to manage the potential ethical consequences of digital technologies. Further, it is in their best interest to adopt an ethical approach to digital technologies implementation across their organisation – as an opportunity to garner stakeholders' trust and establish themselves as a responsible business in the community.
Businesses should proactively evaluate how they use technology and align the usage with their company’s core values and purposes. On another note, since the concept of ethical decisions is built on the consideration of the 'liberty' of individuals, the most effective approach may be to transfer the responsibility of being ethical among the individuals who can act as gatekeepers of a digital society. Should we consider a highly knitted society of IT (Information Technology) professionals – who engineer the technologies driving modern businesses – to act on their moral obligations to only facilitate technologies that can promote equality and liberty of individuals rather than the control of a few successful business organisations in the new connected world?
We aim to champion researchers, practitioners, policymakers and organisations who share our goals of contributing to a more ethical, responsible and sustainable way of working.