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Digital Ethics Loom Large

Digital technologies and platforms enable brands and organizations to communicate with people they might not otherwise be able to reach. They also generate oceans of data that help companies gauge which customers are eager for new products and services. While an inexact science, brands continue to improve their ability to harness data in order to gain market share and a competitive edge. But what about the moral, ethical and human dilemmas that digital data present for brands and organizations?

Avanade asked 500 C-suite executives, business unit managers and IT decision-makers throughout the world to get their take on some of the ethical issues that are looming on the horizon in a post-digital age.

The result is a key study for board members and brand managers, titled, “Navigating ethics: a new priority in a digital world.” The study was sponsored by Avanade and conducted by Wakefield Research.

The study poses several questions that companies of all stripes must consider vis-a-vis their employees, customers, prospects, partners and audiences. For example, the study asks: “Would you be comfortable with the cookies that track your online presence and shopping habits being shared to offer you a better experience next time you use a kiosk, phone or screen?” and, “Would it be a strange if that same information were shared with a human employee, who used it to support you in a customer interaction?”

These are nettlesome questions for upper management, more unchartered terrain online to navigate. The onus is on boards of directors, C-suite executives and top-line communicators to create protocols and processes in order to deal with new ethical and digital dilemmas wrought by the Internet (and social channels) and make sure the systems are distributed and acclimated companywide.

Indeed, 92 percent of the study’s respondents said they believe companies will need to establish and adhere to digital ethics guidelines to be successful, while 43 percent of business and IT leaders said they are developing new roles that focus specifically on digital ethics.

Companies are putting their money where their mouths are when it comes to funding digital ethics practices. Eighty-four percent of the respondents said they are likely to invest in digital ethics in the next five years, with a majority targeting up to 10 percent of their IT investments in this area.

Senior managers are wise to invest in digital ethics. But they also have to intellectualize questions (and solutions) about digital ethics throughout the organization, rather than debate the issues solely within the inner sanctum sanctorum, and establish companywide guidelines.

As digital communications eclipse traditional media vehicles, brand managers have to create sturdy guardrails when it comes to digital ethics. They also need to educate their employees on the repercussions of being fast and loose with digital ethics and why it’s mission-critical to adhere to the company’s guidelines.

In a Gartner column, Frank Buytendijk, research VP and Gartner Fellow, recommended a few digital ethics guidelines that are useful in most situations:

  • Use the golden rule: ask yourself how you would like to be treated as a human being, citizen or customer.
  • There are always unintended consequences: embrace new positive uses of technology, and block undesirable uses.
  • Success usually comes from exercising discipline and self-restraint in using technology, rather than pushing the limits.

There’s a causal relationship between how companies take digital ethics to task and preventing an internal problem from becoming a bona fide crisis affecting customers and other stakeholders. Boards of directors and senior management need to steer their companies in a positive direction when it comes to grappling with digital ethics and not give the issue short shrift. If companies downplay digital ethicsand just assume that the rank-and-file will do the right thing when it comes to ethical questions that often can be open to interpretationit may come back to haunt them. Not taking digital ethics seriously can however circuitously cost the company dearly, in terms of loss of revenue and brand reputation.

What’s your brand’s game plan for dealing with digital ethics?

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