New research: Where organisations are on their digital ethics journey

by Jen Rodvold - Head of Digital Ethics & Tech for Good
| minutes read

Organisations today are under increasing pressure to demonstrate ethical values, while fighting to keep their businesses viable against a global pandemic and the worst economic depression in 80 years. Technological transformation may offer a viable solution to some ethical challenges, but also introduces a new and complex set to navigate.


To progress, organisations need to understand and prioritise the most significant digital ethics challenges in their context and establish effective means for mitigating negative impacts and enhancing positive ones.


Sopra Steria is conducting research into how organisations are grappling with these issues.  In a recent survey of over 100 senior IT decision makers, we asked what digital ethical issues businesses are considering in their digital strategies, how they are tackling them and who is responsible for doing so.  Here we present some of the highlights of that research. 


What are the concerns?


Top Concern: Prioritising Privacy


Perhaps unsurprisingly, privacy comes in top in the list of ethical considerations businesses make in their digital strategies, with 62% of organisations selecting it.  The legal obligations imposed by GDPR – and the threat of significant fines for non-compliance – have driven this up the corporate and digital agendas. 


However, Sopra Steria believes that organisations that go beyond compliance – for example by embracing a privacy by design approach – will see business benefits in terms of increased stakeholder trust.  Global consumer research shows that 91% of respondents are concerned about privacy, while 90% of consumers say they should be able to see and delete the data that companies collect about them. A business that embodies these values, then, could stand to capture a significant share of the market, while 79% of consumers would leave a brand if their personal data is used without their knowledge. As businesses continue to develop their business models around the use of data, these issues need to be considered.


A majority of organisations also consider employee engagement (59%) in their strategies.  However, far lower numbers reported considering the related topics of workforce displacement (40%), diversity, inclusion and accessibility issues amongst employees (30%) and digital safety (31%), which suggests a possible disconnect between digital strategies and key ethical issues. 


Reputation also scored highly, with 54% of businesses reporting it as a key consideration.  But as with employee engagement, there may be a lack of understanding between the desire to protect a good reputation and the ethical considerations that support it.  For example, only 35% of respondents said that they considered stakeholder trust in their digital strategies; high levels of trust sustain organisational reputation. 


Lowest concern: Bias in algorithms


At just 9%, the lowest priority recorded as a priority within digital transformation strategies was bias in algorithms. This contrasts with the ongoing media narrative which exposes the impacts of algorithmic bias across industries, including health, justice and finance. We expect that this disparity between media sentiment and organisational priorities may be linked to perceived organisational uptake of AI. Though many businesses claim to utilise AI, around 40% of these businesses were found not to use any form of machine learning. Businesses, as a result, may consider bias in algorithms a lower priority within their digital transformation strategies.


However, as more organisations make use of digital tools – such as those for recruitment and training (HR), or provision of services (financial services, government, retail), they may not be well prepared to recognise unwanted bias.  As businesses embrace more of these kinds of technologies throughout their businesses, they will need the right expertise, policies, and tools for assessing this kind of risk.  A lack of action in this area will undermine businesses’ other ambitions – as expressed in this survey- around employee enagement and protection of reputation.



Digital Ethics Management


Thirty-seven percent of the respondents reported having formal mechanisms in place for managing ethical concerns in their digital strategies, or did not know what mechanisms their organisations used.  This is, perhaps, not surprising given the newness of the topic and the continued lack of clarity around standards and tools.  Amongst the organisations that did have management tools in place, most (40%) cited a Digital Code of Conduct, which may not be sufficiently specific to the ethical issues arising from technology.  Codes of conduct, combined with risk management processes that include digital ethics issues, as well as governance forums that involve people with sufficient expertise are important for organisations wanting to more effectively manage the increasing risks arising from ethical concerns in digital programmes


Although the relatively small sample size of the study prevents the presentation of strong conclusions by sector, there are differences between sectors when it comes to managing digital ethics that are worth further exploration.   IT, and Business and Professional Services firms reporting more than double the number of internal methods for managing digital ethics than organisations in ‘retail, distribution and transport’ and ‘manufacturing’ industries, with ‘financial services’ also trailing but to a lesser extent. While it seems reasonable that businesses closer to digital technology, like IT businesses, would have more methods in place for managing digital ethics, management is equally important across industries in different ways. The steps an organisation may need to take  in order to develop ethical technology will be quite different to the steps an organisation outside the IT sector will need to take   if they were procuring technology which had been developed by a different business.  It is therefore a concern that very few organisations (18%) reported having guidelines in place for procurement teams.


The financial services industry was amongst the lowest scoring verticals for implementing mechanisms for managing digital ethics. A heavily regulated sector, these organisation may feel compliance with data and consumer protection standards is sufficient.  However, as public expectations of business evolves, and consumers expect them to go beyond compliance and demonstrate meaningful contributions to social issues, and as trust in businesses and their use of data and technology comes under more scrutiny, an approach to digital ethics that goes beyond compliance will be key. 


Read more

Learn about our approach to Digital Ethics and how we work with our clients to place ethics at the heart of their change programmes, in our latest whitepaper ‘Digital Ethics: breaking down complexity to enable practical action.’



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