There's an app for that: Avoiding the ugliest business problems

Can mobile apps help us make better decisions in regulated environments?

The kindergarten rules for living well -- like "share everything" and "play fair" -- aren't much use in the regulated corporate world. Those rules can even get you in trouble.

Now, there is an app for business complications of the worst type. It's not one of those cheap $3.99 apps; it involves some development and requires a service contract, but the end result will run on your mobile phone.

And the app's maker is not your typical developer. It's Stroz Friedberg, a risk management and investigations firm.

Large, regulated companies may have directories filled with PDFs advising employees on best practices, rules and regulations, and what to do and not to do in certain countries. But no one really wants to hunt through files, especially when the question may be seemingly simple and files may not be easily accessible.

Say you're in China and you just had dinner with a prospective business partner and the bill is more than $50: Do you let the host pay? Does it matter if the host is a manager of a state-run enterprise? What if you host is offering you tickets to a sporting event? What is your company's policy in this instance?

Business rules usually follow a logical course. They can be broken down, turned into a decision tree, a flow chart, and then adapted to an app that Stroz Friedberg calls Navigator. The app works by asking the user a series of questions and then providing some guidance. In the scenario above, for example, it would ask about the cost of the dinner, what country you're in, and who the guests are. If the question is more complicated, the app can be used to immediately contact Stroz Friedberg's risk managers for a recommendation. It's also possible to set up a database of compliance issues.

Scott Peeler, a managing director at Stroz Friedberg, said compliance rules can vary country by country, and anticorruption laws can restrict what people can do when interacting with a government official or other business associates.

By making these business rules more accessible via the app, more people may pay attention them, says Peeler. The idea is to help companies avoid major problems such as bribery investigations and other headline-generating scandals that can cost millions of dollars. "More people following rules mitigates risks," said Peeler.

Having policies -- and ethical guidelines -- close at hand in a mobile app makes sense, says Irina Raicu, the Internet ethics program manager at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.

The Markkula Center wants to turn its own Framework for Ethical Decision Making into an app. Unlike the Stroz Friedberg app, the ethics framework doesn't address specific ethical problems. Instead, it raises general questions that can be applied to a problem to help guide a person in making the right decision.

For instance, the framework asks users to consider such questions as: "Which option will produce the most good and do the least harm?" and "Which option best respects the rights of all who have a stake?" as well "Which option leads me to act as the sort of person I want to be?"

Converting the ethics framework into an interactive mobile app may help people make good decisions by making the framework more readily accessible, said Raicu.

There are apps that help you make buying decisions, such as whether a product is environmentally responsible or not, but Raicu said "there are no apps that take you through an ethical decision-making process."

Patrick Thibodeau covers cloud computing and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at  @DCgov, or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His email address is

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Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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