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  • David Howell

The State of Responsible Technology

Learn how your business can make responsible technology decisions to connect with environmentally aware audiences. Discover how to harness responsible technologies today.

According to MIT, which looked closely at responsible technology, nearly three-quarters of survey respondents either strongly agree (30%) or somewhat agree (43%) that “responsible technology considerations will eventually come to equal business or financial considerations in importance when organisations make decisions about technology use.”

The definition of responsible technology according to Thoughtworks is: Responsible technology is the active consideration of values, unintended consequences, and negative impacts of technology. Responsible tech includes various voices in the adoption and deployment process and seeks to manage and mitigate potential risk and harm to all communities affected by that technology.

Linked closely to other initiatives such as the lifecycle of products, recycling levels, carbon emissions, and how ESG must be tangibly expressed, responsible technology is imperative for all enterprises. Indeed, how organisations manage responsible technologies across their companies will impact brand loyalty, customer advocacy, and market differentiation.

A balance must be struck between the ROI of the deployed technologies and their sustainable credentials. The investments being made are taking place through a lens that does focus on the environmental aspects of technology, but this focus must be multifaceted as many other factors will impact buying decisions, not just sustainability.

Silicon UK spoke with Martin Butler, Professor of Management Practice at Vlerick Business School.

How do you define responsible technology?

“Responsible technology encapsulates four broad themes. First, technology should not adversely impact the business and external environment by having a negative social or ecological effect. This includes the entire set of technologies, from hardware procurement and disposal to software and internet usage by organisations and individual users.

“Secondly, and less common, how technology can be used to support all processes and initiatives addressing the broad responsibility agenda in organisations.

“Thirdly, and often embedded in regulations in the business environment and guided by corporate policy, is the secure and ethical treatment of data and information in line with regulations.

“And fourthly, the more modern definition includes human-computer interaction to ensure employees are adequately capacitated to use technology efficiently in an ethical, secure, and responsible manner whilst also being protected from the potential adverse effect on their health and well-being.”

What are the critical elements of a responsible technology policy?

“At the highest level, technology live cycle management for physical technology artefacts – from procuring to have a minimal impact to disposal responsibly, recycling or donating to entities that can still gain value from equipment.

“Technology procurement transparency for software – how software is procured and used, including ensuring that an enterprise’s legal, up-to-date, and secure versions of all software used are correctly licenced.

“Technology use policies – setting and communicating policies and the unintrusive monitoring to ensure technology is appropriately used within established guidelines, for example, web browsing, email and lately, using AI within defined principles and organisational values.

“Security and privacy guidance – establishing guidelines and monitoring adherence to guidelines for secure behaviour and respecting the privacy of clients and employees alike.

“Impact on employees – acknowledging and dealing with the potential adverse effects of technology on the health and well-being of employees and, if dealing with technology products, clients.”

Do businesses need help to remain competitive and innovate within an environment of responsible technology?

“Only when it is seen as an afterthought when designing a house, and once it is completed, start thinking about the steepness of the chairs, the slipperiness of the floors and shielding of electric cables and ease of access for homeowners, it is painful and costly to deal with these oversights.

“When we construct buildings, designing ‘responsibility’ is embedded into the design process. Similarly, it is not a struggle when responsible technology use is baked into product and process design. It is the way we do business. It could also become a differentiator to attract talent, have unique products and lowers the cost of doing business by not lumping non-value-adding activities onto poorly designed processes. It provides an opportunity for innovation. It does not stifle innovation.”

How should businesses place responsible technology considerations within their decarbonisation strategies?

“No! It is a very simplified and highly undesirable idea. Decarbonisation is a reactive strategy to deal with past legacies that have caught up with us. Responsible technology only partially falls in the same legacy that caught up with society. There is an unmistakable opportunity here to create processes and products and capacitate employees, providing a distinct business advantage if viewed with the correct mindset.”

Are enterprises reaching out across their supply chains to understand how sustainability and responsible technology policies can be created?

“We are probably in the early phases of business ecosystems and supply chains dealing with this, which is entirely understandable. Current initiatives are primarily data-driven, as data is the oil of modern supply chains. However, the last decade has changed how we treat data and information disclosure.

“Most global organisations are much more responsible regarding how potentially sensitive information is stored, processed, and shared. Regarding the other critical elements of responsible technology, we are growing in maturity with different levels of adherence to best practices evident from research.”

Is there a clear financial aspect to responsible technologies as end customers use sustainability credentials as a core differentiator when choosing vendors?

“The question is somewhat problematic. Should we define responsible technology use as dealing only with the potential adverse effect (sustainability credentials)? Probably not. I struggle to see sufficient value in the sustainability part of responsible technology to be a core differentiator. At best, it is not an entrance hurdle. Customers will be open to business with an entity based on the sustainable use of technology but only sometimes choose to do business with them rather than their competitors.

“However, should the definition of responsible technology include redesigning products and processes and capacitating people to use technology appropriately and not be negatively impacted, the results of this could be products and services that excel on dimensions that customers deem essential. Thus, the mechanism could underpin the core differentiators, not necessarily a core differentiator.”

MIT comment that large companies take the initiative while smaller companies react. Is it now critical to be proactive when responsible technology is considered?

“I’ve read the MIT responsible technology report but have not seen this comment. Yes, it is critical to be proactive in dealing with responsible technology. For example, in the early days of securing technology, it was a distinct activity added to the end of the process, or at least in different places in systems development and design.

“Today, organisations embrace the principle of Security-by-Design and security is baked into the entire process from start to finish and is not seen as an add-on or compliance matter. The same is true for UX. Responsible technology usage requires embeddedness more than proactiveness.

“Proactive is getting ahead of something; embeddedness is how things are done. Organisations, small and large, need to embed responsible technology usage in all the right places. For example, staff development and career progress planning should focus on how staff are capacitated to use technology efficiently and responsibly.

“Marketing plans should deal appropriately with the fine line between mass customisation and overly intrusive. Procurement plans should look at the circular usage of technology hardware. These are not proactive steps; they should be embedded in business practice. Responsible technology practices will continue to grow in importance and impact employment desirability and brand perception across a broad group of stakeholders.

“Although the IT industry does not have a code of conduct or professional standards, apart from specifically focussed sub-disciplines, we must consider its responsibilities towards all technology users. Failing to address the adverse effects of technology may negatively impact an organisation’s regulatory compliance, brand reputation, customer retention and employee well-being and efficiency. Conversely, appropriate practices benefit multiple business success metrics and social and ecological sustainability.

“In addition, providing proof of responsible technology use will also be essential to counter the growing hostility toward Big Tech. The ever-increasing concerns about the intrusive nature and difficulty of observing the adverse impact of technology are evident.

“Ultimately, technology is like a knife. Putting the same knife in the hands of a Michelin star chef versus a criminal leads to different outcomes. When the act of ‘knife placement’ is as omnipresent yet tacit as technology in its various guises, guidelines and practices for responsible technology use are imperative.”

Martin Butler, Professor of Management Practice at Vlerick Business School.

Martin Butler is a Professor of Management Practice at Vlerick Business School, where he lectures in digital transformation, project management and innovation management. Martin specialises in “making complex things simple;” examining the relationship between in the relationship between digital capabilities and strategic intent.

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