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11/20/2001
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Industry Comment: The Ethics Of Information Technology

The phrase "business ethics" isn't an oxymoron. In fact, says Bob Rubin, in the era of collaborative business, IT ethics are more important than ever.

Sometimes, we discover that two apparently unrelated topics are actually closely connected. For example, we couldn't have the modern automobile without high-temperature rubber compounds for tires. And who would have thought that raspberry sauce really is a key ingredient for chocolate cake? Life is a process of discovery. It wasn't until a short time ago that I connected the important role of college graduates' ethics education with our ability to succeed in collaborative business.

I recently moderated a panel at Interchange, the annual event of the Society for Information Management. Among the high-caliber conference speakers was Bob Evans, editor-in-chief of InformationWeek, who spoke persuasively about the future impact of collaborative business. Working collaboratively with another company requires not only computer system integration but also an understanding and acceptance of corporate cultures--potentially a very difficult task.

As I listened to Bob's presentation, I mulled over the fact that the business world he described requires a very real appreciation for privacy, security, and personal values. These old issues are leavened with large doses of advanced technology that create new ways to affect people's lives.

My session, scheduled for the following day, was listed in the agenda as "Ethics: Education and Practice in the University." It would focus on what students learn in school about ethics and how universities practice (or don't practice) what they preach. Initially, collaborative business seemed like a very different topic from ethics. But I concluded that the two subjects aren't very far apart; I realized that I'd be discussing a necessary ingredient to the business world Bob was describing.

One of an IT executive's tasks is to regenerate the company continuously, position it for the future, bring in fresh ideas--and, all the while, keep the shop running. To a significant degree, the success of a collaborative business is dependent on the individual attitudes, biases, and experience of the people involved--what we often call corporate culture. In turn, the culture of any company depends on its senior management's day-to-day ethical choices and direction. Ultimately, the enterprise's culture is a reflection of its leaders. The leaders of tomorrow are the entry-level people we're hiring today. What do we know of the principles that guide them?

For the most part, universities and colleges are the wellspring for the new talent that enters our industry. Yet, CIOs do not place a high priority on knowing what is being taught to those whom we recruit for our companies. For that matter, even though many of us have a child, spouse, or sibling attending a university or college, how much attention do we pay to what they learn about the ethics they should follow in their chosen careers?

Based on the panel attendance and the questions from the audience, the subject must have been of interest. The professors spoke about the responsibilities of a university and its faculty in examining the ethical conduct of the profession. We discussed topics that ranged from the ethics involved in a professor using graduate students on private research projects to the propriety of students offering professors stock in their start-up business ventures.

Two disturbing questions--both of which remained unanswered, because the panelists couldn't speak for the nation's universities and faculties--were broached during the session:

  • Will new graduates follow our rules? In an era where students do not seem to mind copying music without paying attention to copyright laws, what can we expect when these same young people enter the business world?
  • Are universities walking the talk? Students are taught to respect the rights of the individual, but if a student violated the privacy of another student or of a professor, would he or she face serious consequences?
Many IT jobs used to be purely technical jobs, sheltered in the back room. Because of collaborative business and the pervasiveness of information technology, those roles now have dimensions far broader than we could have imagined 10 or 20 years ago.

The young people who enter today's workforce will run the IT shops and businesses of tomorrow. We ought to consider whether these new hires are getting enough training on what is right and proper--the "here's how we want to do things around here" rules. It's incumbent of us to ensure that those who come after us have suitable guidance to make the right decisions. Our future as a profession depends on it.

What are biggest ethical issues that your company faces? How well do you feel the younger employees are prepared to answer them? How would you answer the difficult questions raised? Share your thoughts in the Listening Post discussion forum.

Robert M. Rubin is CEO of Valley Management Consultants, a firm specializing in E-business and information-technology strategy, organizational design, and evaluation. Prior to joining VMC, he was senior vice president and CIO for Elf Atochem North America, a $2 billion diversified chemical company. The recipient of multiple industry awards, he is a contributing editor to InformationWeek and a member of its advisory board. He can be reached at valleymc@home.com.

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