Why You Should Future-Proof Your Ethics to Future-Proof Your Business Means

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.

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