IT ethics needs to be addressed at top level, says BCS

The use of IT can challenge business ethics and therefore must be considered at boardroom level, according to a new research paper from the British Computer Society.

The paper, launched in partnership with the Institute of Business Ethics (IBE), said: “For any business project a company’s ethics policy needs to be the benchmark, and this includes any project involving IT.”

Doing business ethically goes beyond legal compliance, according to the paper, which said the main corporate tools for implementing ethical values include an ethics code or policy or statement of business principles in order to provide guidance for staff.

This is in addition to members of professional bodies who are usually required to follow their codes of practice, such as those set by the BCS for IT professionals.

IT can challenge business ethics in circumstances where it brings change, for instance, in processes and procedures, and by raising new ethical dilemmas not covered by existing guidance.

A new IT system may raise environmental issues, with a trade-off between the environmental costs of disposing old equipment and the implementation of new, energy-efficient systems, being commonly accepted.

Moreover, a drive for innovation and the pressure of competition may lead to the use of untested IT without realising the consequences of failure on the business and its stakeholders.

Ethical dilemmas may also be raised by businesses’ dealings with IT suppliers. The complex nature of technology means that businesses could be vulnerable to exploitation by IT suppliers, while technical terminology could also be an obstacle between IT and non-IT staff collaborating on projects, with misunderstandings leading to unethical consequences.

In terms of procurement processes, a buyer may be so focused on meeting the requirements of an overly-bureaucratic procurement process that they take a narrow view of their options, inadvertently denying equal opportunities for smaller or more innovative suppliers that do not tick all the boxes.

IT suppliers may also be unfairly excluded in cases where buyers impose conditions on the tendering process because of cost and time constraints.

The report exemplifies this with a case study about the London Ambulance Service, which, in procuring a new despatch system, only shortlisted companies that accepted a timescale of three weeks. This is despite many of the bidders expressing serious concerns about the unfeasible timeframe.

Dr Penny Duquenoy, report author and consultant manager of BCS’s Ethics Strategic Panel, said: “It is important to align business ethics strategy with IT operations, which means taking responsibility for the alignment at board level and including CIO’s in discussions at board level to avoid ethical compromises through IT.”

“Developments in company’s ethical policy should be included in IT operations. Monitoring ethical outcomes of initiatives should be incorporated within company practices and ethical codes, and reviewing processes should be in place.”

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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