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How to seize technology opportunities - while staying on the right side of the line

When companies consider the negative impacts of technology, attention understandably tends to focus on data breaches or cyber attacks. But as high-profile incidents like the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data scandal have made clear, business leaders also need to examine the ethical implications of the technology-related opportunities they explore. Not only because it’s the right thing to do, but also because in a world where trust is hard to come by, an ethical approach to technology can be a clear source of competitive advantage.

Seizing that advantage starts with acknowledging innovation sometimes has unforeseen consequences. As enthusiastic as we are about technology’s possibilities, we need to recognise that technologists have, to date, been somewhat lax in thinking through the impacts of their creations. Distributing a new service or collecting customer data has become easy - perhaps a bit too easy. The side effects of what are generally viewed as advances are rarely seen or understood in production. Few predicted, for example, how the rise of e-commerce would reshape the UK high street. Or how racial and gender biases could creep into facial recognition systems.

So what can business leaders do to change things? Obviously technology is in a constant state of flux and these issues are complex, so they won’t be solved overnight. But as an organisation that’s made ethics one of the main pillars of our work, we do have some advice on where to start.

Making trust-building a business priority

First, organisations need to recognise that this isn’t something that can be relegated to the rung of corporate social responsibility, or divorced from the core business. Ethics clearly matter to current and potential customers. In a recent study by Edelman 67% of consumers polled globally agreed a good reputation would convince them to try a product, but that they would soon stop buying unless they came to trust the company behind it.

Other research has found social impact and ethical behaviour are among the biggest drivers for millennials to start, or end, a relationship with a business. An ethical consciousness is also vital to attracting and securing future talent; surveys have indicated many millennials factor social and environmental commitments into employment decisions and will turn down jobs with companies that don’t exhibit strong values.

Recognising the link between ethics and long-term competitiveness makes sure the cause is taken up where it needs to be: in the boardroom. To really permeate the organisational culture, an ethical approach to technology has to be driven from the top down, with management making it clear that it’s a priority goal, even linking it to performance targets where appropriate. But it’s also important that other stakeholders are brought on board, especially those on the front lines of technology and development, who will ultimately need to consider and evaluate the ethical dimensions of what they’re building from the earliest stages of the process.

Source: EthicalOS

The good news is there are more tools than ever to assist both boards and front-line technology staff with these considerations. The Ethical OS toolkit, which helps organisations evaluate the ethical risks of technology across dimensions like inequality, addiction and bias, is just one example. We expect more such solutions to emerge as more enterprises recognise the hazards of ending up on the wrong side of the ethical line, and the rewards of staying on the right one – namely, the ability to innovate with greater confidence, and foster trust with stakeholders, consumers and the broader public.

Disclaimer: The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Thoughtworks.

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