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Leading Ethically in the Tech World

Does your organization prioritize ethical technology and ensure that all tech usage aligns with your team's values?
Emily Koelsch
Contributing Writer

The rapid development of technology across all industries has led to a host of ethical issues that many leaders did not anticipate or plan for. In this time of rapid growth, too few businesses have proactively addressed ethical technology issues. This is especially true for businesses outside of the tech sector.

Unfortunately, this puts them at risk for a variety of problems, including damage to their reputation and financial risk. The reality is that in order for your business to be a tech leader and to be tech-savvy, your team has to consider and address ethical technology issues. In fact, Harvard Business Review data shows that there’s a direct correlation between businesses that are more mature when it comes to technology usage and those that consider ethical tech issues.

Brenna Sniderman of Deloitte’s Center for Integrated Research explains that “Being tech-savvy means more than being able to define use cases for cloud or artificial intelligence (AI)—it extends to understanding some of the potential ethical dilemmas that designing or using these technologies can present.”

In addition to being important for tech development, displaying leadership when dealing with ethical tech issues can have a number of tangible and intangible benefits for your organization as a whole. Catherine Bannister, Tech Savvy and Ethical Tech Leader at Deloitte, explains that “This notion of ethics is becoming much more visible to stakeholders across the board and they are using that as a measure of trust, both internally and externally.”

Given the importance of ethical technology issues and the risks associated with ignoring them, it’s more vital than ever for leaders to address these issues head-on – taking ownership of them, including them in the planning and development process, and creating systems for addressing problems whenever they arise.

More organizations are seeing that trust is a measurement of profitability, of organizational health, of success. – Catherine Bannister

What Does “Ethical Technology” Actually Mean?

The first step for leaders is appreciating what ethical technology encompasses. Sniderman defines ethical tech as “at its heart, a conversation focused on the relationship between technology and human values, the decisions we make toward technological advances, and the impacts they can have.”

The World Economic Forum explained, “technologies have a clear moral dimension—that is to say, a fundamental aspect that relates to values, ethics, and norms. Technologies reflect the interests, behaviors, and desires of their creators, and shape how the people using them can realize their potential, identities, relationships, and goals.”

As such, ethical tech means considering the values behind an organization’s use of technology and the way those values are implemented at all levels of the organization.  This requires specifically considering and planning for factors like data privacy, bias in algorithms, consequences of replacing people with machines, and the importance of ensuring that data responses are not manipulated.

The Role of Leaders When it Comes to Ethical Tech

It’s the job of technology leaders to take responsibility for ensuring ethical technology practices. Professor Kirsten Martin advises that “the idea that needs to always be with the CIO is that, ‘this is still my business decision. I need to make sure that … using the technology to augment it actually fits within the values of my organization, and that I still have control over that decision.”

This means creating systems and processes to consider ethical issues before development, evaluating technology for issues like bias and discrimination, and consistently assessing tech usage to ensure that it complies with your organization’s core values. While this might feel like a substantial shift for teams, Catherine Bannister of Deloitte advises that “if you can build the ethical decision-making muscle memory of approaching any technology with a healthy degree of skepticism …  then you’ll be able to apply it to … whatever fill-in-the-blank technology. These are capabilities that should transcend the technology.”

With that in mind, here are some tips to help your team build that muscle memory and develop the right processes to ensure that you’re leading your industry when it comes to ethical tech:

  • Create ethics guidelines and a framework that is unique to your organization. When drafting this, think through as many specific scenarios as you can, considering real-world issues that your team deals with or will have to deal with. Doing so will help to ensure that your framework is relevant, applicable, and easy for your team to utilize.
  • Make ethical issues a shared responsibility throughout your organization, not just something that is owned by your tech team. You want to hear from lots of different voices with varying opinions, roles, backgrounds, and experiences. The more diverse voices you include, the better your result will be.
  • Focus on ethical issues from the start. Too many businesses have learned this lesson the hard way and have had to respond to problems after they arrive. This is hard to do and can damage your business’s reputation or hurt it financially.
  • Make the distinction between ethical tech and compliance. It’s important to message and model to your entire organization that ethical tech is not just about compliance. Instead, it’s about ensuring that the technology that your organization is creating and using aligns with your organization’s core values.
  • Give your team the resources they need to make ethical decisions at all levels. This includes knowledge, resources, and support to address and respond to any issues.
  • Prioritize the people behind the technology. The more your team can focus on the people that use and are impacted by your tech, the more effective your practices will be. After all, it’s much easier to focus on the impacts of technology when they are connected to actual individuals that might be harmed by it.

Ensuring that Your Organization is a Leader in Ethical Technology

Perhaps the biggest takeaway for businesses should be that ethical tech is driven by leaders that prioritize it, develop a clear framework for ethics-based practices and processes, and make it a central part of their organization’s culture. In addition, leaders should internalize that in order for their organization to be truly tech-savvy they must prioritize ethical technology in their organization.

Ultimately, any organization that utilizes technology, regardless of their sector, needs to consider the impacts that their tech usage has and ensure that all impacts, intended or not, align with their organizations’ goal. This is what ethical technology leadership means and what all teams need to prioritize as they develop their organization’s technology usage.

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