Companies that re-align their ethics to the changing tech landscape can realise multiple business benefits, writes Sarah Burnett, EVP at Everest Group and Chair of BCSWomen.

I marvelled at the passion demonstrated by the London Extinction Rebellion activists while I attempted to make my way to the Digital Agenda Power & Responsibility Summit at the British Library on 9 October.

During the Summit itself - while listening to presentations delivered by eminent speakers including Matt Warman MP, Minister for Digital and Broadband at DCMS; Sana Khareghani, Head of UK Government Office for AI; Russell Haworth, CEO, Nominet; Cheryl Stevens MBE, Deputy Director for Trust & Identity at DWP; Jacqueline de Rojas CBE, President, techUK; and Caroline Criado Perez OBE, award-winning author of Invisible Woman and activist - it struck me that consumer disillusionment with unethical applications of technology could lead to its own type of activism in the form of product and service boycotts.

Indeed, the term activism came up more than once during the Summit. And this isn’t such a far-fetched idea when you consider how much attention is being paid to issues like:

  • Inappropriate use of people’s personal data
  • Infringement of privacy via home virtual assistants and AI-based face & voice recognition
  • Gender bias by big tech companies leading to staff walk outs
  • Poor working conditions in on-line retail operators’ warehouses and delivery operations
  • Clever multi-country tax avoidance schemes

I found the conference to be something of a clarion call. The industry needs to clean up its digital ethics act or suffer even more damage to its brand, face more regulation and perhaps even experience consumer activism.

Potential benefits of digital ethics

Although it’s a given that organisations should conduct business ethically, fast technological advancements provide additional compelling reasons to re-examine this aspect of their businesses. Those that do re-align their ethics to the changing tech landscape can realise multiple business benefits:

  • Brand enhancement: Beyond the green benefits of better resources and energy management, enhanced brand awareness as an ethical tech provider or user could increase customer loyalty
  • Recruitment: This branding could lead to more people wanting to work for the company. This is particularly important given the steady decline in unemployment in recent years. For example, in the U.S., job vacancies are higher than the unemployment rate, and the figures are converging in other developed countries, too
  • Better corporate performance: Numerous studies have shown that diversity in boards results in a culture that delivers better outcomes. The same is true of diversity in product design, e.g., avoiding expenditure on products that are specifically targeted to Caucasian men and have to be redesigned to appeal to the wider population.

An example of corporate action

Corporations are starting to take action to better align their overall governance and ethics to the changing world demands. For example, Santander Bank recently took up paid ads in the New York Times to highlight its commitment to being a top employer by measures such as having more women in leadership, supporting the green economy, and more. Adding an ethical digital strategy would extend this kind of rebranding and is a must to restore trust in technology.

How to get started

Every company today must have an evolving ethical digital strategy to restore trust among their consumers. Lofty and hollow corporate social responsibility statements won’t work. To change consumer sentiment, you need to put solid, trust-instilling policies into practice.

As a starter, use the simple checklist below to see how your company currently ranks in numerous areas and then look at what you can do to raise your score.

Issue Your current score
(1=lowest, 5=highest
Action to take to increase your score
Customer data stewardship   Policy and practices that respect customer data privacy, provide transparency
in how the data is used, and seek permission for sharing information with third parties
at granular levels
Diversity in tech teams
and tech leadership
  Policy and practices to provide an HR framework that ensures equal
opportunities for all, e.g., equal pay for women, diversity in senior tech management,
and employment conditions that are fit for the 21st century
Going green in tech product manufacture,
IT infrastructure and services
  Looking for green alternatives in product manufacturing processes, green energy
sources to power data centres, and optimisation of power consumption by
technology as a whole
Green environment   Optimising office energy use, staff commute, and business travel, e.g., increased use
of shared transport and remote meetings
Fair use of AI   Setting and practicing standards for fair applications of Artificial Intelligence (AI) e.g., eliminating bias in algorithms, sample size and scope, and de-risking AI through tests and controls
Employee tech
enablement and good
working practices
  Enabling employees through the use of technology tools, e.g., software robots and personal task automation to increase productivity and achieve better work-life balance and quality of work

Rapid advances in technology take us further each day into the realm of unknown consequences and impacts of innovation. We want to innovate, but not at any cost. It is incumbent upon all of us, especially tech leaders, to set the direction of travel away from undesired outcomes.