Navigating Ethics in a Digital Age

Narayanan Vaidyanathan | October 18, 2017 |

“Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.”

― Confucius

This may offer some food for thought in a fast moving digital age, where organizations grapple with new technology-linked ethical dilemmas. Sustainable progress will be driven by the middle ground between stubborn resistance and blind insistence. Finding this middle ground may well depend on the ability to stay connected with the simple idea of “doing the right thing.”

It is not always clear what the “right thing” actually is. But that is the next level of detail—a matter that can be tackled with sufficient education and application. In the context of ethics and technology, figuring out what the right thing is can be an iterative process. A process that requires pro-actively engaging with technology, reflecting on errors of judgement, and incorporating the learning into the next, hopefully improved, iteration.

Why does this matter?

For the simple reason that in a digital age one is dealing with a moving target. No sooner has one come to grips with a new ethical dilemma than one is faced with the next big unknown. So what to learn is arguably less important than how to learn. Integral to this is a mind-set of continuous learning and professional development—a willingness to continually challenge one’s comfort zone. Equally important is the other side of the coin: how to unlearn! Challenging, and if necessary changing, historical ways of thinking can be one of the most important barriers to overcome.

The accountancy profession plays an important role in developing individuals with the knowledge, skills, and mind-set to support the ability to do the right thing. Being a credible steward of the organization’s values, and acting as its “ethical conscience” are important contributions that professional accountants can and do make. This becomes valuable in a digital age where there is new information to be understood and interpreted. Having a strong grasp of the potential ethical pitfalls in a digital environment is a value-added contribution that supports the organization’s risk management.

Consider the case of using analytics-driven insights. Data has famously been called the new oil. One might argue this is a somewhat misplaced analogy. The amount of oil under the ground is finite, while the volume of data is constantly increasing and allows for more robust analytics and greater monetization potential.

This can have the effect of incentivizing companies to acquire data by all available means in the hope of gaining an edge within a competitive marketplace. Professional accountants, with a good grasp of the digital dimension, will be better placed to interrogate the systems and processes that underpin the acquisition, management, analysis, and disposal of this data. They are crucial connectors between the technology, the processes, and the resultant financial performance. Their ability and opportunity to ask the right questions drives the organization’s ability to do the right thing.

Ethical judgement and business judgement are two sides of the same coin. Sustainable commercial returns are backed by sound ethical behavior. The reputational damage from unethical practices can take years to repair. Professional accountants, therefore, have a role to play in focusing the organization on generating sustainable returns, and championing ethical behavior.

Another element that is closely allied with the concept of ethics is trust. For professional accountants, being ethical is closely associated with being reliable, truthful, and having the necessary abilities. The Code of Ethics for Professional Accountants, issued by the International Ethics Standards Board for Accountants, specifically mentions the principles of objectivity, confidentiality, integrity, professional competence, due care, and professional behavior. The public cannot trust a professional accountant if ethics are in doubt. Against a backdrop of on-going change in the digital age, stakeholders in organizations seek a few familiar certainties. One of these can be to trust the judgement of their professional accountant when confronted with new information or situations. This is much more likely to happen if there is a strong belief that the accountant is unquestionably ethical. The ethics of the accountants is, therefore, a key enabler that helps with building trust with stakeholders.

Ultimately, technology may have an impact on the details one needs to understand in order to be ethical, but it does not change the centrality of being ethical. Navigating ethical challenges in a digital age must come back to a simple reality as true in the time of Confucius as it is today: that ethics is about human behavior not technology.

In conclusion, technology may have an impact on how, when, where information is gathered and distributed—this challenges ethics. But unethical behavior doesn’t come from technology, we have to remind ourselves that navigating the digital age is navigating human behavior.

This article draws on a recent research initiative conducted by the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA).

Narayanan Vaidyanathan

Head of Business Insights, ACCA

Narayanan Vaidyanathan leads ACCA's futures research, and focuses on how future trends will impact business and the accountancy profession. With a global remit for the topics he covers, he inspires our team of subject-matter and policy experts to explore specific future trends. Particular areas of thought leadership within his research portfolio include work on the global economy, emerging technologies and business models, sustainability, social mobility, as well as sector specific insights, in relation to the public sector, financial services and oil and gas. He's also our staff expert for the Accountancy Futures Academy Global Forum, and represents ACCA on government, industry and academic forums such as an all-party parliamentary group in the UK and an international standards body. See more by Narayanan Vaidyanathan

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