Data Ethics enables innovation
For many organizations the idea of data ethics is crippling. “We want to be good, maybe that will be unethical, don’t do it whatever it is!” But it doesn’t have to be like this. If ethics is faced head-on, and principles and values are made clear, then the story is very different.
Ethics is about how one lives their life, or, in the case of some form of collective, like an organization, how the inner processes are expressed in the outside world. When faced with new and unknown situations, ethics is a tool to explore and to guide the path chosen.
The story that has been told by many, especially in the run up to the introduction of Europe’s digital privacy laws, the GDPR, is that ethics restricts innovation, that it holds companies back, and should be avoided. This idea can only really arise from a misunderstanding of both ethics and innovation.
I’ll drop a small note in here to make it clear that GDPR is not about ethics, it’s about privacy and basic compliance. GDPR is a tiny step towards respecting data as something powerful and personal — but compliance and ethics are very different things. Data ethics defines a shared understanding of right and wrong, of do and don’t, and a way to evolve when there is no historical precedent. Ethics is much bigger, and far more powerful than compliance. Ethics is about aspiration, about purpose and meaning, while compliance is about avoiding punishment. Carrot and stick.
Now, lets get back to the idea of what innovation is. In the world of start-ups and high tech, like anywhere else, innovation is about harnessing the creativity of skilled humans to find new ways of solving problems. To do it well, the people involved need to be curious, engaged and able to try things that might fail. To be honest, most organizations don’t have much innovation going on. A few people, somewhere high enough in the power structure, are close enough to those who make the rules to feel able to judge whether or not their decisions will be rewarded or punished. In a tech company, there might be a bunch of coders who can do new things, with their code, because no-one else really understands it, but the organization as a whole is not really innovating. This is what a clear ethical framework changes.
When ethics are made explicit, when the investment is made to develop a real shared vision of where the organization is going, of what amounts to right and wrong, of what is a true expression of the internal culture and values — then the space for innovation opens up. When the power to decide whether or not something is allowed resides within the hierarchy at some point, then only a few types of people are willing to take the risk and try something new. If however, the power is taken from the hands of individuals, and transferred to something open and shared, then the possibility for far more people to share their creativity emerges.
Think of data ethics as a constitution, as a set of guiding principles, that defines a shared vision for the future, and the rights of every individual employee to take part in that future. When we believe that innovation involves a few people at the top doing what they want, unfettered by any rules, then our organization is far poorer, and the creativity and engagement fades away.
When this constitution and the ethical principles it embodies, is seen to be honoured by all within the organization, that no-one, not even the chief executive, is above the law, then creativity and innovation can flourish. Ethics, and data ethics in particular, when expressed clearly, may be one of the greatest enablers of innovation possible.