Today’s business landscape is defined by paradoxes and contradictory forces. Consumers demand personalisation, but worry about privacy. Marketers scramble to meet acquisition targets, even as they struggle to maintain customer loyalty. Audience interactions happen at scale, millions of times per minute, yet those moments are also becoming more intimate.
With the emergence of technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), big data analytics, automation, and the Internet of Things (IoT), tensions between what’s technologically possible and what’s ethically defensible pose increasingly challenging dilemmas. Meanwhile, as almost every brand on earth gets involved in the creation and propagation of content, questions of ethics, censorship, truthfulness, and bias now reach far beyond the conventional media sphere, touching every business sector.
In all these areas, leaders are torn between the need to drive bottom-line results for their stakeholders, and the desire to uphold their own ethical beliefs in the business practices they sanction. The prospect of 10,000 new subscribers, or a 150 percent lift in email clicks, might seem like an obvious “yes,” but a myopic focus on individual metrics can lead to serious errors in judgment, destroying decades of customer trust with a single error in judgment.
As I argue in my book Futureproof, the surest way to safeguard your business’ future is to balance performance with ethics, in every evolving technological sphere. Here’s how that balance plays out.
Three perspectives on ethical dilemmas
Whenever you’re approaching the underlying ethical questions associated with the new disruptive forces, it’s important to consider what I call “slices of the PIE”:
- The personal: What do I believe as an individual?
- The internal: How can I help my organisation operate better?
- The external: How do I want to operate in regard to my stakeholders, including my external partners?
These might sound like elementary questions, but their implications can diverge in some surprising ways.
For example, there are serious problems with the idea of handling all technology-related decisions from a strictly shareholder-oriented perspective, by proceeding full steam ahead as soon as those decisions are approved by your legal department. After all, what’s legally right isn’t necessarily ethically right—and in fact, laws are struggling to keep up with the cutting edge of technology, just as many businesses are. Moreover, those laws vary widely from one region to another.
Externally, we also need to worry about the types of partners with whom to work. In a world filled with so many emerging technologies, every business must collaborate to leverage new capabilities. But with a broadened network comes broadened vulnerability: If one of your partners commits an ethical breach, the bad news will put your brand at risk, too. The more strongly your organisation holds its own ethical line and the more like-minded your partners, the more effectively you can anticipate and avoid risk on this front.
At the end of the day, ethics are a personal matter and your customers, partners and employees evaluate them on a personal level, not a legal one.
Looking at these decisions from a personal standpoint opens up a different set of questions. What kind of legacy do you want to leave behind, in terms of how your actions made customers and employees feel? Would you be comfortable talking to your children about the ethical calls you’ve made? Would your grandmother be proud of the stances you’ve taken? Most of us are uncomfortable with the idea of leaving our personal ethics at the office door—as well we should be.
This brings us to the final “slice of the PIE”—the internal, operational perspective. It’s crucial to upgrade your organisation’s ethical backbone, strictly from the viewpoint of maintaining your operational effectiveness. Here are three reasons why.
Three reasons to upgrade your business ethics
The first reason to shore up your organisation’s ethical backbone is that your organisation’s internal cuisine and culture is no longer shielded from public scrutiny. We have seen more and more companies and bosses whose ethical practices have been outted, with material negative consequences on the involved executives and the company’s share price.
The second reason to upgrade your business ethics is that technology brings constant change. As you use new technologies to drive your business, you’ll encounter exciting new opportunities—sometimes as a first mover—but you’ll also enter areas in which there’s no clear law or precedence. With emerging technologies such as genomics, 3D printing, autonomous cars, and artificial intelligence, there are burgeoning ethical questions. This means you’re going to have to decide for yourself what’s in the best interests of your customers and the long-term health of your business. Will your company be known for being an upstanding part of society or a shark prepared to win at all costs? I call this conundrum: “Whose (bottom) line is it, anyway?”
Thirdly and finally, you need to strengthen your organisation’s ethics because it’s the most reliable way to balance near-term pressures and results with long-term customer loyalty. Every business will face the temptations of finding quick and easy wins, such as increased clicks and conversions. In one large organisation I worked with, the CEO’s response to lower clickthrough rates was to add more spammy emails to the weekly schedule. But this kind of metrical myopia doesn’t just drive away customers, it also damages the trustworthiness of your organisation and repulses the top performers you want—and need—in your talent pool.
So, what does all this mean for your business? First, the role and discussion around ethics need to be upgraded to deal with complex, rapidly evolving, technology-related issues. Second, as a business leader, you need to bring your personal ethics to work with you. And thirdly, don’t let the legal team run your ethical line. A growing body of research shows that employees want to work for companies where the means matter just as much as the ends—and many studies show that consumers will tend to opt for the company with the better moral compass.