The growing impact of technology on reputation

I have been watching the Volkswagen situation unfold with a kind of morbid fascination. I’m going to start by saying that I’m not an automotive software engineer so can’t comment on what the embedded software in a car’s “black box” is capable of; nor do I want to get embroiled in the “twitstorm” that is much better handled by the regular media.

However, the Volkswagen episode has caused me to reflect on the impact of technology on customer experience and ultimately reputation. Whichever review you read - the potential impact of this situation has far reaching consequences - economic, social, environmental, ethical and reputational. So Volkswagen’s share price has slid, the CEO has resigned, large sums are being set aside for recalls / compensation, more nasty stuff may have been emitted into our atmosphere than we’d like and VW’s brand as “the people’s car” is looking rather tarnished. The world’s media is queueing up outside VW’s headquarters in the rather aptly named “Wolfsburg”. The link between technology and reputation is massive and instant.

It’s arguably unfair to only single out the Volkswagen example, but I could make a pretty substantial list of others - think about the ATM network shutdowns or the e-bay password hack.

At this stage it’s dangerous to speculate or lay blame, only a thorough investigation, which I’m sure will ensue, will confirm exactly how this occurred. However, the undeniable view is that the responsibilities that lie in the hands of technologists are now far reaching. One could argue in 2015 that these responsibilities even exceed those of engineers or researchers. This is why we believe people who work in technology roles must work to a strong professional code of conduct and that the profession must engender a culture of responsibility for societal outcomes.

Comments (5)

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  • 1
    James Davenport wrote on 24th Sep 2015

    As you say, it is dangerous at this stage to lay blame, but at some point blame must be laid, and the industry must ask itself hard questions about social responsibility. Can social responsibility be off-shored? How does national regulation fit in a global industry? All deep questions, but ones that should not be ignored.

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  • 2
    Chris Andrews wrote on 24th Sep 2015

    It seems to me where tests are not clearly defined and there is a potentially significant payback for company or individual in doing the test in the way best for them, it will lead to problems - bending the rules eventually leads to breaking - without perhaps that being the original intent.

    It is about the whole system - regulators, customers, manufacturers, engineers, bosses.

    The next time any of us feel tempted to say "we need this by Friday" or "we must make 10 million this year", perhaps we should think about what actions that might cause others to take.

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  • 3
    len Keighley wrote on 24th Sep 2015

    I think Chris makes a good point about targets and objectives which always seem to be the root cause of these types of issue. Perhaps it is time the effects this management process was investigated and its effects more clearly understood.

    The news media in the US has just reported that there is a belief that US criminal investigations should be undertaken into this issue and that in Germany VW have referred the problem to the German authorities for investigation. Sales of VW have almost stopped and that owners of VWs are being frowned upon. In their words, the subject of a form of 'road rage'. It is also being compared to the BP oil spill a couple of years ago and all the implications that that brings up.

    The size and impact of this issues seems to me to be only getting bigger and wider.

    As the largest professional IT organisation, I believe, BCS needs to be seen to be involved in the investigations.

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  • 4
    Peter Finch wrote on 28th Sep 2015

    This is not a technology issue.

    This is a management issue.

    It is just like some of the recent banking problems, e.g. the LIBOR fixing scandal.

    A CEO in such a situation either:
    - knew of what was going on (and should resign), or
    - allowed a culture to develop in which cheating was condoned (and should resign).

    The major difference being, in Germany a CEO quickly resigns.

    In the various banking scandals, CEOs apparently do not have to resign.

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  • 5
    Andy Hayward wrote on 1st Oct 2015

    With the growing risks associated with technology failures on reputation and the increased role of business-technology in many sectors, I would imagine that company boards need to start looking closer at the use of technology and the management or governance.

    Will this lead to more IT focused board representation particularly non-execs and technology-committees?

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About the author
Paul Fletcher is the Group Chief Executive Officer of BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT. Paul joined BCS in 2014 after ten years at RM Education where he was Group Managing Director of the Education Technology Division. Prior to RM, Paul held senior management consultancy roles with A.T. Kearney and KPMG. He started his career in the Aerospace Industry. Paul is passionate about the role of IT in education and society as a whole.

See all posts by Paul Fletcher

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