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Here are 5 rules every responsible tech leader should follow

Companies that handle data are under increasing pressure to do it better

Image: REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration

Srikar Reddy
Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer, Sonata Software Limited and Sonata Information Technology Limited

Vijay Raju Community Lead, Forum Members, World Economic Forum Geneva

With the recent controversy involving Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, there is increasing pressure on companies that are dealing with data to deliver superior business and customer outcomes. Not just social media networks, but any company in the process of digital transformation. This includes firms leveraging new technologies and platforms, such as drones, AI and autonomous vehicles, to deliver value.

The pressure is even more intense on companies operating in countries in which there are no strong digital policy frameworks in place. As a result, the ambiguity around decisions is greater and the impetus for positive action is less.

Based on our experience working with companies and stakeholder groups, we recommend the following five steps to leaders who are driving digital transformation efforts or working with Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies. These will keep them on the right side of any potential ethical issues related to new technologies.

Don’t assume that customers know what they are signing up for

Whenever customers use a free service, the terms of agreement are written in a way that they don’t necessarily understand. Because they want to use the service urgently, they may accept the terms and conditions without reading them. Even if they do read the terms, the legal language is not clear or relatable to the average person. But when things go wrong, it is areas such as this that come back to haunt leaders.

Give careful thought to helping your customers understand what they are signing up for. Most importantly, use simple and relatable language.

Invest heavily in ethics training

Every technology company needs to do this. If you are a multinational company, employees should be made to understand the multiple cultural contexts and associated sensitivities. In a rapidly changing technology world, employees need to be extra sensitive to ethical concerns arising in different ways, whether culturally, legally, or simply through perceptions.

Multinational companies can leverage their diverse workforce to create peer groups for developing an ethics framework. This could then be used to educate employees in multiple geographies and business contexts. Companies that have a homogenous workforce but are working with clients in other countries, or companies whose products and services are used by customers across geographies, should take this aspect seriously in order to avoid problems at a later date.

Embed ethics in your design phase

In this new operating context, leaders need to think about how their products and services will affect individuals, organizations and even societies. Being ethical by design is important. This means anticipating in advance the values and ethics of how your products and services will be leveraged by different stakeholder groups. Many of these cannot be predicted in advance, arguably, but certain actions, taken early enough, can mitigate their impact.

During the design stage, it is also important to involve diverse stakeholder groups who may not be direct beneficiaries of your products and services, but who may be able to expand your horizon and offer a perspective you might not previously have encountered. Companies often leverage lead users to understand how their products can be used in different ways. Now, they also need to leverage diverse stakeholder groups to understand how their product or service can potentially be misused or abused.

 

Don’t treat your legal team as merely a support team

The days when legal teams were a support function is over. Legal teams are becoming an integral function of every technology organization. When the driver of a ride-hailing service misbehaves with a passenger, or when a resident near Heathrow airport flies a drone near the runway, or when trolls abuse a social media platform, the relevant companies must respond immediately, with appropriate language and action.

Leaders need to understand this shift, and build legal teams that can work in tandem with design and product management teams. Constraints are opportunities for innovation, as we have seen in product development in many different fields. Legal teams present ethical and value-based constraints, which can help product developers keep in mind the implications of what they are making.

Collaborate with policymakers and shape policy frameworks

While some countries and their leaders have proactively put policy frameworks in place to accelerate adoption of new technologies and address privacy concerns, many countries lag far behind. Technology has no borders, and end products and services will be used by citizens everywhere. If you operate in a country with no policy frameworks, it is important to collaborate with key policymakers, raising awareness and a sense of urgency.

As a technology leader, it is in your best interests to have a proper policy framework in place. It will help your business as societies and markets evolve. On a wider level, it is how you collaborate with various stakeholders to shape the ecosystem that will ensure fair play.

To succeed in this new operating context, leaders should adopt a systems approach. Rapid changes in technology, and the scale of their impact, mean business has greater responsibility for protecting customer interests.

Finally, a recap of the five steps that leaders can take to ensure everyone wins from new technologies:

  • Be transparent, simple and fair with your customer terms
  • Design ethics into your product or service
  • Invest in building a common understanding of ethical issues within your organization, especially when working across different geographies and cultures
  • Use legal and policy frameworks proactively, as part of your business approach, not just in crisis management
  • Shape your ecosystem to keep the best interests of every stakeholder in view
Written by

Srikar Reddy, Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer, Sonata Software Limited and Sonata Information Technology Limited

Vijay Raju, Community Lead, Forum Members, World Economic Forum Geneva

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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