This blog addresses the sixth action point raised in @techUK’s Digital Ethics paper (http://bit.ly/2VsrOy1). This (slightly longer than usual) blog focuses on the urgent need to embed ethical decision-making within business decision-making.
We have described the current technology revolution: how the debate around Digital Ethics has failed to engage the public. We highlighted the need for better language to enable the debate, and for a long-term campaign to bring issues to life and draw the public in. We discussed the need for business to demonstrate they are serious about ethics through their actions. We have underlined the need for the AI ethics to include everything Digital, and we have made a plea that our fragmented public bodies become more consolidated to provide a stronger voice in this debate.
Established businesses are trying to accelerate and industrialise innovation.
In this blog we are using innovation as a proxy for all business decision-making. It contains a superset of challenges that businesses face.
Silicon Valley (‘the Valley’) provides the core patterns used to drive 'successful' business innovation. ‘Move fast and break things’ is their war cry. It has enabled Mark Zuckerberg, Sergey Brin and Larry Page to make billions – and has been embraced by the Management Consultants (the fashion editors of business) as the archetypal path to value.
Unfortunately, ‘Move fast and break things’ lacks any vestige of moral focus. While Messrs. Zuckerberg, Brin and Page have made billions of dollars, they have been the authors of ‘surveillance capitalism’*, an intrusive, manipulative and ultimately toxic business model. This allows a tiny number of giants to make fortunes exploiting a new free raw material – the digital echoes of our lives; with little care for the impact on society in general.
“The result: addiction, social isolation, outrage, misinformation, and political polarization - all part of one interconnected system called human downgrading that poses an existential threat to humanity.”
so said ex-Googler Tristan Harris, the co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology, a leading think-tank looking to identify and overcome the harms that have come from unthinking innovation.
We haven’t got time for ethics in the race to monetise innovation
Two years ago, I got sucked into a debate with an entrepreneur over the need to consider ethics as part of innovation. He argued that in the race to make money you cannot afford delay; ethics is a luxury. I have two objections to this view:
1. Careless innovation risks the reputation of your business through ill-considered or unforeseen consequences, and
2. Taking account of ethical consequences need not be time-consuming.
Profit alone is no longer the sole purpose of business
You might expect investors to back my entrepreneur friend – but Larry Fink, the Chairman and CEO of Blackrock, the leading investment management company, said back in 2018 that ethics matters:
“To prosper over time every company must not only deliver financial performance, but also show how it makes a positive contribution to society”
A year later, he went further:
“… every company needs a framework to navigate this difficult landscape, and that it must begin with a clear embodiment of your company’s purpose in your business model and corporate strategy. Purpose is not a mere tagline or marketing campaign; it is a company’s fundamental reason for being– what it does every day to create value for its stakeholders. Purpose is not the sole pursuit of profits but the animating force for achieving them.” [highlight is mine]
How can we embed ethical decision-making in business-making?
Every business decision has moral consequences – to hire, to fire, to move location, to open a new plant, to consolidate, to expand, to diversify, to invest. Innovation differs only in that it carries additional risks through the uncertainty of uncharted territory.
Few businesses today have powerful, well expressed values to underpin policy and practice. Yet if you want to succeed in innovation and build your brand then those values need to become explicit. They need to be shared by your executives, your management team, your employees, your key suppliers and understood by your customers too.
Three steps to embed ethical decision making in your business:
1. Review the core values you believe your business stands for – Are they clear? Are they understood? Are they shared across the business? Do they work for you? If the answer to any of those questions is ‘no’ then you must urgently fix those problems.
2. Review your innovation and key decision-making processes – embed ethical tests within them to ensure outcomes are in line with your values. Look at @doteveryone Consequence Scanning and see if something like their 3-step approach could work for you. At critical points in the innovation journey consider the following three questions:
a. What are the intended and unintended consequences of this decision, solution, product, feature or decision?
b. What are the positive consequences we want to focus on?
c. What are the consequences we want to mitigate?
This process need not take long. It doesn’t need to delay decision-taking – though it might cause you to step-back from one or two poorer ideas which might carry unexpectedly high risks.
3. Embed this behaviour in all your significant decision-making processes. Ensure that investment approval cannot be made without clear, credible answers to these questions.
If you want your business to thrive then you need a clear shared purpose. To bring that to life you need clear values embedded throughout your business. Living those values through innovation and decision-making processes doesn’t need to slow you down.
Do that, and the risk of an unexpected appearance on a tabloid front page or a special edition of Panorama will drop dramatically just as your contribution to the wider stakeholders you care about and your profits should grow.
*see ‘The Age of Surveillance Capitalism’ © Shoshana Zuboff 2019 and ‘Do No Evil’ © Rana Foroohar 2019