Is it time for a chief ethics officer? Smarter digital technology raises the question

If knowledge is power, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, then does perfect knowledge also result in guaranteed corruption?

As software and hardware become smarter and enable more automation of data collection, organizations today can know more about their employees and customers than ever before. It’s typical to observe these sorts of digital tools at a 21st-century organization: customer relationship management (CRM) software that can identify a customer as they engage across multiple touch-points; key performance indicator (KPI) tracking software used to evaluate employee productivity; business intelligence software that makes predictions about likely future behaviour based on segmentation models.

Now we’re at a point where most organizations are planning to use these sorts of tools as core operational tools, so much so that they’ll need to change the talent base at their company. A survey of 500 C-level executives conducted between December 2015 and January 2016 by Wakefield Research on behalf of Avanade Inc. shows that 91 per cent of respondents believe their organizations will need to change substantially as a result of “smart technologies.” (Examples of smart technology, according to Avanade, include intelligent automation, connected things, and digital assistants.) Those changes including retraining current employees and creating new roles within the organization, while also restructuring.

As companies do that restructuring and create new titles, they should consider creating a new top line position for chief ethical officer, with a dotted line to many of their other departments. As companies expect to reap better productivity and revenues as a result of these technologies, they are also taking on the unknown risk embedded in them as well. The result of how certain ethical dilemmas are handled in the next few years could have major implications on a company’s relationship with its own employees and maintaining the trust it holds with its customers.

Consider the bleak situation sketched out by Ponemon Institute 2015 Cost of Failed Trust report released at the end of February. Looking just at the digital certificates that businesses rely upon to authenticate data – think of it like putting a signature on a cheque so the bank can cash it – the report documents how a growing portion of IT workers around the world is worried these certificates are no longer trustworthy enough to depend upon. More than half of organizations said they don’t know where all keys and certificates they use are located, meaning they can’t be how they’re being used or if they can be trusted.

An example of why this sort of problem can lead to catastrophe in recent memory was the Heartbleed exploit, which was used to steal the personal information of 4.5 million healthcare patients after the security certificates used to protect it were stolen. That was just one known example of fallout related to the exploit.

A chief ethics officer in an organization might ask: What level of sensitivity of data can we really protect with our security certificates? What’s the risk in a scenario where the security of those certificates is compromised and what would our course of action  be?

Ethical concerns are also raised more often by the ability smart technology is giving to companies to monitor employees for both productivity and security reasons. Yet just the act of surveilling employees may have a negative outcome in itself, as documented in a San Jose Mercury News article by Steve Johnson. “A British study of 557 customer service representatives whose bosses track their calls concluded that excessive monitoring can make employees anxious, depressed and ‘less active.'” Other downsides of monitoring include employees wanting to take less creative risks and even suffering physical ailments like indigestion.

Some technology companies have already taken a proactive approach when it comes to creating an ethical framework that will guide them through an era where become easier to collect information about employees and customers alike. Enterprise software vendor Oracle Corp. has an ethics code that it publishes for public reading and even appoints regional ethics and compliance officers to ensure the code is followed. A CEO message backs up the company’s commitment to the ethics standards.

That’s a great start to enter this next era of operating ethically in the information age. Now it’s time to take the next step and decide what executive will be responsible for ensuring every action an organization takes is guided by those ethical standards.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Brian Jackson
Brian Jackson
Editorial director of IT World Canada. Covering technology as it applies to business users. Multiple COPA award winner and now judge. Paddles a canoe as much as possible.

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