Published on October 31, 2023, 6:39 am
Corporate ethics has often been reduced to mere compliance with existing rule sets established by others. However, the landscape is changing, and the future demands a new approach to ethical practices for businesses – one that goes beyond compliance and becomes integral to their viability.
In recent years, there has been increasing attention on generative AI, placing corporate ethics in the spotlight. While it is important now, ethics will soon become foundational and existential to businesses. In just five years, an organization’s ability to attract and retain top talent, as well as design and sell profitable goods and services, will heavily depend on how it is perceived ethically.
Today, headlines are filled with claims and counterclaims about ethical lapses across different branches of government. This scrutiny of moral principles in action extends to nearly every facet of society. It begs the question: What can we do to ensure that IT’s ethical house is in order?
Ethics is a discipline that is widely discussed but often poorly understood. Juan Enríquez, author of “Homo Evolutis: Please Meet the Next Human Species,” laments the common practice of presenting employees with a giant book called “The Ethics Manual” on their first day of work. This manual often sends the wrong message that ethical responsibility starts and ends with compliance alone. The truth is much more complex.
The distribution of “The Ethics Manual” raises interesting questions about its authorship and who monitors ethics within organizations. Moreover, should there be an extended version specifically tailored for IT professionals?
Dennis F. Thompson, founding director of the University Center for Ethics and the Professions at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, brings attention to three distinct forms of ethics. These include personal ethics (commonly referred to as “sandbox values” or “Sunday school ethics”), professional ethics (which are discipline-specific codes of conduct), and institutional ethics (the normative behaviors expected within an organization or department). Another emerging form of ethics is known as “cohort ethics,” which considers the collective values of an individual’s closest friends.
Janis Meyer, a Special Professor of Law who teaches “Legal Ethics” at The Maurice A. Deane School of Law and “Professional Responsibility” at Columbia University School of Law, highlights the difference between “professional ethics” defined by state and federal laws for lawyers and personal morals. She poses the question: Does IT have clearly articulated professional ethics? This is an area where our profession needs to improve. Cheryl Smith, former CIO at McKesson, West Jet, and Keyspan, argues in her upcoming book “The Day Before IT Transformation: Unlocking Digital Transformation for Business Leaders,” that industry- and discipline-accepted “Technology Leadership Practices” are necessary to effectively articulate professional ethics for IT.
Ethics are far more nuanced than a set of simple rules such as “Don’t lie” or “Don’t cheat.” They drive how we frame decisions and guide our actions. AI raises complex ethical questions, such as how to protect privacy when it requires vast amounts of data or when programming driverless cars faced with life-or-death scenarios. IT is not neutral when it comes to these tough ethical dilemmas; organizations must grapple with them.
Currently, tech ethics focuses primarily on how organizations treat their IT employees and how to prevent algorithmic biases. There is a growing movement advocating for a new human right specifically against being subject to automated decision-making.
In the future, ethical IT organizations need to be mindful of the decisions they make and their long-term consequences. CIOs play a crucial role in setting the tone for their organization, establishing what is important and deserving of attention from IT professionals. Great organizations may even try to anticipate future ethical dilemmas where personal values clash with institutional values. Philosophy professors recommend strengthening one’s moral muscle through practicing on hypothetical scenarios or case studies as preparation for real-world ethical challenges.
As the ethical landscape continues to evolve, CIOs must lead their IT organizations in rising to the occasion. Understanding different forms of ethics, strengthening professional ethics, and developing a thoughtful approach to ethical decision-making are key steps toward ensuring that an organization is prepared for the ethical challenges of the future.
Thornton May is a respected futurist who has contributed to executive education programs at prestigious universities around the world. His book “The New Know: Innovation Powered by Analytics” explores the intersection of analytics and executive leadership.