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What’s the business case for digital ethics?

06 Sep 2016

“Ethics are an interesting discussion to have sitting at the fire place, but in the end we have a business to run, and need to make money”.

It seems hard to make the business case for good behaviour. The die hard amoral capitalist would even see it the other way around. It pays to not mind the rules too much. Think of most of the digital leaders today. Youtube’s growth before it got acquired can be attributed to not minding copyrights too much. Facebook continuously tries to push the borders of privacy. Uber violates local taxi regulations. AirBnB is having its own legal complications around tourism taxes and apartment owner’s associations. And Google is pushing the borders on… actually on what not?

Still, there is a business case to make. There is some kind of a hierarchy of intentions that helps determining whether you should do something or not. This hierarchy is based on the work of Lawrence Kohlberg, who described the moral stages of development of people. And it is pretty easy to translate this to business life.

The most basic reason to behave well is compliance. You simply have to comply otherwise there is a regulator on your back. If you are driven by compliance then what you think is the right use of technology equals what you are allowed to do with technology. And for everything for which there are no rules, well, it’s allowed. Not very advanced. This level can be compared to the moral development of a four year old child that needs to clean up his or her room. Because you have to, and because daddy and mummy say so. Period. A business example would be monitoring email traffic to see whether people are looking for another job, simply because there is no rule that you can’t.

Looking at risk is the next level up. A small level op. You do or don’t do things with technology because you are afraid you might get caught, or upset people. The driver for behaviour consists of the negative reactions others may have. It looks a little bit like the moral development of a twelve year old. It’s a good idea to clean up your room and have your homework done, otherwise you run the risk of not getting the daily rotating WiFi password (there is an app for that). A good business example would be to not personalise customer communications, because you are afraid that people might find it “creepy”.

Some take it a step further, and see digital ethics as a means to differentiate from the competition. It helps create a positive image, and adds customer value. For instance you promise to never sell customer data, that you will never monitor customer behaviour, that you store all data in an encrypted way and that customer value comes first. The level of moral development can be compared to a twenty year old who knows it is an idea to keep your apartment clean, because you never know with whom you will end up with at the end of the evening, and you’d like to be prepared in a positive way.

The last level is about intrinsic motivation. You are deeply convinced you are doing the right thing, independent of the competition or even customers. The benchmark is whether you can look at yourself in the mirror. Some things are “just not you”, or “totally you”. Think of the behaviour of a grown up. It’s simply a good idea to have a clean desk. A clean desk is a clean mind. And that’s how you get to new ideas (in my defence, my desk is not a mess, it is just very well encrypted). A business example would be giving customers access to the customer profile you have of them, without them having asked for it, so that customers can influence how they want to be approached.

Look around in your own organisation and ask the question: Why are we doing these things with technology, and what is our intention? Compliance, risk, differentiation or out of our own values?

Article by Frank Buytendijk, Gartner analyst

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