Information Technology (IT) is now an inescapable part of life, and work. Despite its all-pervasive presence, attitudes towards IT are divided. It’s easy to find yourself blessing and cursing your computer screen on the same day. There are the evangelicals, proclaiming that IT gives us greater freedom, flexibility, creativity and productivity. And then there are the demonisers, warning that IT is creating dependence on technology and that it routinely opens up the private world to public view.
This subject featured in Article 13 discussions when we were undertaking the latest review of our performance against the UN Global Compact. IT came into the frame around the two UNGC principles related to human rights:
• Principle 1: Business should support and respect the protection of internationally proclaimed human rights.
• Principle 2: Business should ensure that they are not complicit in human rights abuses.
The link between business performance and the human rights agenda has formed the backdrop for recent Article 13 research and as we considered what might impact on human rights in the workplace, we realised that information technology is at the heart of this issue.
Potential pitfalls - IT and CSR
Let’s look first at the potential downside of information technology for a company trying to tackle issues of CSR.
The connectivity now possible through the Internet and the ability of even a domestic-scale microprocessor to handle vast volumes of data rapidly, has led to an increased capacity for surveillance. This has immediate human rights implications. One recent study suggested that software providers themselves are operating unethically in providing products which can then be used for state censorship1. The Openet Initiative study focussed on Myanmar which has been under military rule for several decades. The Internet in Myanmar is heavily filtered and monitored as a matter of government policy. Myanmar’s web regulations are quite clear. They forbid "any writings detrimental to the interests of the Union of Myanmar”. Sites like Hotmail, which offer free e-mail services, are blocked so that Myanmar citizens have to use one of the two officially approved and easily monitored Internet service providers.
This is not just an issue for far-flung states. A report in the New York Times suggested that US companies such as Microsoft, Cisco and Yahoo, amongst others, were operating unethically by assisting the Chinese government to monitor use of the worldwide web in its territory2.
In business, IT’s surveillance capability has led to a lack of security for ideas which could be vital for business success. At the end of October 2005, the BBC suspended its Blackberry e-mail service because portions of other electronic conversations were appearing in e-mail accounts that they were not intended for. This may be simply amusing when it concerns a TV executive’s comments on the candidates for new shows, but it could have severe financial consequences if the details of a product under development, or a particular client relationship, reached an unintended audience. Industrial espionage must now be a very lucrative line for hackers.
A responsible company also has to consider whether technology opens up opportunities for fraud which have the potential to damage relationships and reputation, as well as having legal and financial costs. Internet fraud is lucrative and on the rise. There are two areas of concern. Firstly, fraudulent use of credit cards or bank accounts is possible even if only a very small proportion of the tens of thousands of broadcast spam e-mails are successful in their attempts to duplicate a reputable brand image (Ebay and Barclays have both been victims). Such campaigns dupe customers into handing over personal and financial information. Second, and much rarer, are the software glitches that do break down the security of a website, making bank details, for example, available to other customers. Both problems have severe consequences for corporate reputation.
Beyond issues of surveillance and fraud, there is the more systemic threat that IT poses to social responsibility in its ability to reshape communications and communities. We see various types of dependence developing with IT products.
The Blackberry that caused the BBC problems is becoming ubiquitous. The combined email, phone and internet device has been called the "crackberry" because of its addictive use amongst executives3, with users obsessively checking for new email messages. Many businesses have developed a dependence on another set of professionals, in-house or outsourced, to keep their ever-larger IT systems running. And the more complex the system, the greater the dependence and the higher the risk – the massive cost overruns of IT system installations in UK Government departments such as the Passport Service and the Child Benefits Agency have done little to aid the argument that IT is a cost-saving move for organisations.
One danger for a large organisation is that in trying to streamline the use of IT, it is easy to create another set of processes which regulate, rather than enable, staff in doing their work. The on-line expenses system that takes half a day to complete and submit a claim, the e-mails that soak up the first hour of the day, the cascade briefing system that relieves managers of the responsibility to sit and talk to their staff – all these are examples of where IT is misused and steals a company’s most precious resource: staff time. Enabling staff to fully understand and participate in company values is an important aspect of CSR and IT -overload threatens that company attribute.
A socially responsible company sees itself as part of a community, an actor in a neighbourhood or neighbourhoods. IT is also sometimes blamed for playing a part in the shift in modern urban life which has reduced neighbourhood vitality. The internet can help put you in touch with new contacts in Florida and Sydney and Berlin; it can help a business accept a tight deadline from a client on the other side of the world, but it does not help to put you in touch with the hundreds of people who live within ten blocks of you, with the myriad skills and trades and information they have to offer.
IT - a tool for innovation
But those contacts in Florida, Sydney, Berlin and beyond should not be overlooked. They are part of the positive contribution of IT to corporate citizenship, setting up creative, trusting networks of customers and suppliers that were impossible even a decade ago.
IT’s connectivity is also allowing innovative organisations to reshape themselves, finding new entrepreneurs and placing them in virtual teams. In November 2005 Article 13 featured GE’s “Ecomagination” work as an example of best practice in our “Coping with Unpredictable Change” expert view. Now GE and Dow Jones are looking for environmentally conscious entrepreneurs with big ideas for green businesses. They’ve put their “ECOnomics: The Environmental Business Plan Challenge” on a website4, and they’re offering US$50,000 to back the best one. The website is both a promotional tool, and a great way to capture ideas and nascent business plans from a much wider audience than possible in a pre-IT era.
Used intelligently, IT is also able to shape the processes of product design and customer feedback by allowing a greater volume of data to be collected and by use of tools which make consultation and engagement accessible to all. Companies like ourselves at Article 13, and others such as Dialogue by Design, have been able to carve out important areas of business by using IT in feedback and dialogue, helping people understand each other better, which is the bedrock of CSR. Public policy is also seeing a growth in engagement and participation, especially around controversial or complex issues such as sustainable development. The “citizen’s panel” is possible with a degree of representation that policymakers have struggled to achieve until now. And beyond the public sector, IT-based consultation is enabling new ideas and actions to gather from the ether. ‘Changemakers’ is an example of organisation that regularly runs “open sourcing social solutions" competitions on its website5.
Beyond consultation, IT can be important in product innovation itself, helping companies shift their products and services into more socially responsible areas. The iPod is often cited as an important example of dematerialising a product – replacing a cupboardful of CDs and a Hi-Fi with a small white box that uses a fraction of the world's resources in its manufacture, to achieve the same result for the music listener. At this seasonal time of year, companies find unexpected cost savings in sending e-cards rather than the traditional paper variety. The production and sale of e-cards is one example of a business that could not have existed without IT, in this case providing a source of income for enterprising artists. Another example of where IT can support product innovation with direct environmental benefits is the software that is essential for the reservations and recording systems that make car-pooling clubs possible.
Let’s not forget the most quoted business benefit from IT: the way IT can support flexible working, another important aspect of a company serious about CSR, diversity and work-life balance for employees. Internet and network connections from the home office can radically improve a commuter’s quality of life. Intel, Qualcomm, and Oracle topped the US Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA’s) second annual list of Best Workplaces for Commuters from the Fortune 500 Companies6 and IT systems were essential in their performance. Teleworking can link people and ideas, without them having to be in the same place.
Demon or saviour?
Linking back to our starting point for this exploration, the connections between IT and human rights, we’d suggest that openness is a crucial concept. Advocates for open systems, developed by teams of people without particular copyright or intellectual property rights say that they are “more reliable, more accessible, and better able to be connected to other systems” 7. Those advocates, like the writers at www.worldchanging.com, also claim that the nature of open source software development encourages collaboration and gets a wider input from interested stakeholders than would otherwise be the case.
So – is IT demon or saviour? The answer is, of course, more complex than either. A company can map a path to successful, ethical use of IT, and the costs savings, improvements to customer relations and product innovations that IT can bring, but it won’t follow that path by accident. An organisation needs to be clear about the strategy and intent driving the company’s progress so that it has clear values to guide the use of IT. We argue that thinking about the range of issues in CSR will help you identify those values and draw up the right map for IT in your organisation.
- “Internet Filtering in Burma in 2005: A Country Study”, The Openet Initiative, October 2005
- Zeller, T, “Study Says Software Makers Supply Tools to Censor Web”, New York Times, 12 October 2005
- Gibson, O, “BBC suspends Blackberry use after e-mail leaks”, The Guardian, 27 October 2005
- “ECOnomics: The Environmental Business Plan Challenge”, presented by GE and Dow Jones, entry deadlines is 15 December 2005
- “How to End Human Trafficking”, solutions which grew out of a Changemakers.net competition and online discussion posts, Changemakers.net. The next update is “Meeting Disaster: Before, During, After”
- “Computer Industry Dominates EPA's 'Best Workplaces for Commuters' List”, 21 October 2005
- Cascio, J, “Open Technology Roadmap: The Tech Bloom – Collaborative and Emergent Technologies”
Also in this feature:
© Article 13 - December 2005