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Ethics and trust are key parameters. Now to the how


ANALYSIS. Products in the digital economy must be ethical- and secure- by design. That is one of the major takeaways in a brand new global report from Accenture.

The research company identifies five fundamental forces in today’s digital economy. Besides well known phenomenons like automation and platform economies, Accenture includes digital trust as a key parameter. “Businesses that get this right will enjoy such high levels of trust that their customers will look to them as guides for the digital future,” Accenture points out, referring to the fact that 83 per cent of the respondents agreed that trust is the cornerstone in the digital economy. An economy that will account for 25 per cent of the total global economy in 2020.

These findings are important, because they are correct. Trust will indeed play a profound role i the digital economy. Simply because the interface is different. The individual is not interaction with another person, but screen and software, always ready to change in real time. This flowing, elusive experience demands trust in the names, companies and institutions. It is not only the customers who require more focus ethics; 80 percent of knowledge workers expect strong ethical framework in the company they work.

Business consultants such as Accenture are also right to suggest that this is a new dimension for most companies which is why they should identify executives responsible for governance models, taxonomics, and principles-based codes. Thus actively making ethical decisions a part of the digital business model.

Ethics one more than one level

So far, so good. The decisive question, however, is: What constitutes trust and ethics in the digital economy? Is it based on the same values and parameters as in the real world? Or, more likely, has digitization also changes the rules of this particular game?

Right now, the definition is up for grabs. Which is not a bad thing. The changes brought by digital technology are so profound that things need to be examined and discussed thoroughly. That is why my esteemed collegaue Gry Hasselbalch has submitted a thoughtful analysis on a new digital ethics.

In this context, we focus on what companies are doing currently, at this early stage of data ethics in the digital age.

Step One: Protection from the outside

The premise today is that companies control a substantial amount of personal data for commercial purposes. The question is what constitutes digital trust for the individual vis-à-vis the company? What can the company do?

One basic way of looking at it, is security. You expect the company to protect your data from any outside intrusion, abuse and unintended use. This obviously applies to criminal activities, but also overreach from governments. American tech companies have a history of fighting government on such matters, these days evident in the debate on backdoor encryption. Apple, among others, are refusing to construct a special gateway for government agencies to the commercial trove of user data. That is one basic definition of digital trust: I expect you to hold on to my data and defend it from abuse, vigorously. I this case, Apple has apparently lived up to the expectations of its customers and the public at large, as the opinion is largely on the tech company’s side.

Step Two: Trust from the inside

But we are from home yet, and the other part is a tricky one. The data may be secure from outside abuse, but what about the inside? Users rightly feel apprehensive about the implications of personal data crunching, intrusion of privacy, surveillance, etc. How can the company address that?

That question is still very hard to answer. The Accenture report illustrates that by being uncharacteristically vague on benchmarks and concrete measures. The reason being that it is an extremely fluid situation right now. The technology keeps presenting new opportunities, and the ethical company has weigh that against the interests of its users.

What do the users think? Again, not easy. Most public surveys present significant concerns about the use of personal data. But the users do no vote with their feet, or in the digital world, fingers. Google recently announced a total of seven products with more than a billion users.

So what is a company to make of that? How big is the concern, what is the concern, and how does the company address that?

There is no ready formula, but two of the main ingredients are transparency and authenticity. Let the customers know what you are doing and why. One such is example is Coop, the largest retailer of consumer goods in Denmark. Their overarching position is that technology presents lot of opportunities , but they have to be in the interest of the 1.4 million members of the cooperative. Coop explains in user-friendly terms, how they handle and protect the members’ data, whilst also applying data to tailor special product offers, benefitting the members. Perhaps a cooperative as a well suited business model for sustainable data ethics, as the members are the only ones to benefit financially from the enterprise.

However, this should not discourage other business models also to strive for transparency and authenticity. Because it works, also outside the immediate data realm. Take the restaurant chain Chipotle, a “fast casual trendsetter,” according to Fast Company. Chipotle recently encoutered the most massive crisis in its history, when reports linked the company to a number of foodborne illnesses.

In an unprecedented move, Chipotle shut down all of its restaurants across the United States on February 8 to have a company-wide meeting with all employees. Chipotle presented a number of stricts measure to prevent future incidents, but the most remarkable was the transparency throughout the event. To extent that Chipotle openly admitted that they had not yet identified the ingredient that brought on an E.coli outbreak. Some observers characterized Chipotle’s endeavor as desperate, but can also be considered brave; and a matter of trust. In this case, the company is betting on the trust of its customers. That transparency, and by extension, honesty pays off, if you belive in your customers. And why shouldn’t you?