Business ethics are in the spotlight. Almost every day, banner headlines and sardonic tweets tell of personal data lost or misused, of jobs at risk from automation, of algorithms generating an unfair “computer says no.” These aren’t—usually—things that business leaders were aiming at, but harmful side-effects seem to be piling up. At the same time, we’re hearing more about “tech for good”—a belief that IT can be used to “hack” some of the world’s most intractable problems. What’s going on?
Today’s emerging technology—artificial intelligence, big data, the internet of things—is certainly different. It’s technology with consequences: far-reaching and fast-acting effects on stakeholders far beyond the usual producer-consumer relationship. These spill-overs, positive or negative, mean that business leaders are having to face new questions. Some examples: What will automation mean for our workforce? Will our AI show bias? What should our autonomous vehicle do in an accident? How resilient are we to cyber-attacks? How should we use, or not use, personal data? Are our investments improving the way the world works and lives?
Business leaders agree that the contours of business responsibility are shifting. We surveyed more than 500 financial decision-makers in UK businesses. Fifty-two percent of respondents told us that technology is meaningfully changing what it means to be a responsible business; only 15 percent felt it had no impact. In this environment, what new market positions, organizational capabilities and culture will successful businesses need?
A first priority—cited by 62 percent of respondents who acknowledged the shift—is to develop mastery of tech-led innovation for the business without inflicting unfair side-effects on its stakeholders. The kinds of things that can help with ethical innovation? Tech tools to reduce unfairness in AI (such as Accenture’s Fairness Tool, developed in conjunction with researchers at the Turing Institute). Data-driven insight and simulation-rich environments for retraining workers for the jobs of the future. Broad-based impact assessments of major business initiatives. Ethical codes governing particular technologies or business-model innovation in general.
Almost equally important (cited by 54 percent of respondents at this stage) is the need for businesses to promote inclusive growth. This means finding the win-wins for society and business that become possible only with the scalable, low-marginal-cost promise of tech such as AI, cloud and blockchain. Think personalized medicine; roads that are safer, less congested and less polluted; tailored education; agricultural and food systems that generate minimal waste. Making “markets for challenges” such as these starts with assembling the ecosystems they need in order to work—very likely a multi-industry, multi-stakeholder exercise.
Today’s technology means that competitiveness, more than ever, is a team game. What might guide tomorrow’s successful businesses as they govern these critical stakeholder relationships? Our research suggests that companies mastering the Responsible New are doing six things right:
For many, rebooting business responsibility is about doing the right thing by solving societal problems and innovating ethically. It can also be a route to new and differentiated business opportunities for today. But above all, it’s increasingly an investment. By helping to create deeper talent pools, more dynamic customer markets, healthier industry ecosystems, stronger economies and more vibrant societies, investing in the Responsible New is investing in the competitiveness of the future business.