Why Businesses Must Relearn the Art of Ethical Discussion

The collecting and use of personal data excites marketers, but scares the public. With new technologies, such as big data, it is easy to cross the “creepy” line.

The question of ethics arises when technology is moving so fast that we struggle to process all the possible implications of its use, according to Frank Buytendijk, research vice president and distinguished analyst at Gartner.

People generally avoid talk of ethics and morality in the workplace, but we need to master this way of thinking again, said Mr. Buytendijk. Businesses do not exist in a moral vacuum where we measure success or failure solely by clear metrics such as efficiency, effectiveness, profit or shareholder returns. Businesses exist in a world full of customers, regulators, media and activists who judge everything through a moral lens. This collective sentiment directly affects the environment within which any business operates.

The digital era is enabling exponential growth in the amount of data we can collect, store and analyze about almost anything or anyone. Businesses that seek only profit and do not consider the moral ramifications of their actions could face serious repercussions.

Almost all organizations already claim to be “doing the right thing” with data — pointing to their compliance officer or compliance reporting. Compliance, however, is just the bare minimum and largely irrelevant from an ethical perspective.

An angry public does not care whether or not an organization is compliant with the law if, through its action or inaction, sensitive information about them falls into the wrong hands or is used in undesirable ways. Successful businesses will be keenly aware of the moral climate they operate in, and will operate well within acceptable thresholds.

It’s simply good practice to take a more ethical approach to doing business, preferably because ethical behaviour shows what the organization stands for but also because it provides a competitive advantage that is hard for others to copy. Businesses cannot afford to avoid ethical discussions without risking a backlash, so applying data science in a way that takes into account the moral concerns of the public will create value while reducing risk.

Mr. Buytendijk will examine digital ethics at upcoming Gartner Business Intelligence & Analytics Summits (London, and Las Vegas) and Enterprise Information & Master Data Management Summits (London and Las Vegas). Clients can get additional insight in the report “Digital Ethics, or How to Not Mess Up With Technology.”

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