Committing to Responsible Digital Transformation

Schools must emphasize personal responsibility as they educate the next generation of digital leaders.
Committing to Responsible Digital Transformation

IN PREVIOUS INDUSTRIAL revolutions, the failure of businesses to deploy new technologies in responsible ways arguably created some of the global threats we face today, such as climate change, environmental degradation, and social inequality. Now that we are in the midst of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the only way we can address such threats is through responsible digital transformation.

We define digital transformation as the integration of digital technology into all aspects of an organization’s operations and strategy, in ways that deliver value for customers. But responsible digital transformation is an ethical framework that considers the impact that any organizational change or entrepreneurial effort has on society and the environment. It requires business leaders to look beyond shareholder value creation, to ask questions related to a wider purpose: How can they design sharing economy business models to best serve all stakeholders? How can they deploy Internet of Things (IoT) solutions that eliminate production waste, track pollutants, or guide policy formulation? How can they build artificial intelligence algorithms without biases?

In short, how can they create value by solving big social and environmental challenges?

We hold that responsible digital transformation is not a different kind of transformation, but rather a different process that accounts for business and social outcomes. All organizations and all business graduates must be aware of the ethical dangers that digital technologies represent.

Ultimately, business leaders who do not understand how a digital technology is designed and built will be incapable of asking the questions required to responsibly use it. They will be unable to interpret its outputs or challenge its behavior. As technologies grow more complex, business leaders could come to value efficiency and reliability over transparency. They could overlook the fact that technologists, who likely lack ethical training, are making critical design decisions divorced from ethical considerations. These decisions could lead to technologies that become “black boxes,” which execute algorithms in ways that users, decision-makers, or even the designers themselves do not fully understand.

Unethical digital transformations will be magnified, as cloud computing advances access to algorithms “as-a-service” and autonomous robotic systems insert them into our environment. At that point, these “black boxes” could become unquestioned sources of truth.

All organizations and graduates must be aware of the ethical dangers that digital technologies represent.

Many business leaders tell us that they feel unprepared to deal with such issues. They say they lack resources within their organizations to educate themselves about these technologies and their potential impact. Some have no training in change management, and others find that their organizations resist change no matter how skilled the change agents or how pressing the need.

And, yet, it’s clear that business schools have a key role to play in preparing business leaders to be responsible users of technology. That’s why an interdisciplinary team of faculty at Babson College in Wellesley, Massachusetts, has created the Digital Experience Initiative (dXi). In dXi, we research the launching and scaling of digital platforms. We teach students about the human side of digital transformation and the responsible deployment of emerging technologies.

For example, Rubén Mancha and Steven Gordon, co-authors of this article, and associate professor Donna Stoddard completed a study of the digital platform LBRY uses blockchain technology to enable multimedia developers to sell their intellectual property directly to end consumers, bypassing intermediaries such as the Apple Store or Google’s YouTube. The case analyzes the design and development of blockchain technologies, explores the founders’ goals and values, and examines the business model and its social challenges. We teach the LBRY case in our blockchain and graduate technology courses.

For another research project, David Nersessian, another co-author of this article, and Mancha surveyed experts in artificial intelligence about the ethics and legal consequences of AI solutions. The authors offer a framework to help AI users consider their own ethical framing and legal liability stemming from AI solutions. We teach their findings in a graduate technology course.

We also aim to create responsible digital leaders by emphasizing the following in our courses:

An understanding of digital technology principles. We provide students with mental models to anticipate digitally driven change in complex business environments. We want them to become active participants in the design of digital technologies.

A capacity for independently learning new technologies. To “future- proof” emerging business leaders, we design experiential projects and courses to create confident and independent learners. For example, in the course “Agile Experimentation,” students conceive and prototype IoT solutions—building and programming a sensing device, as well as designing an app. The experience boosts the students’ resourcefulness and self-confidence in their ability to learn new technologies.

Self-awareness and exploration of personal goals, values, and assumptions. We use cases and experiential projects to guide students toward a better understanding of how they fit within larger societal contexts. This involves not only assessing their individual perspectives, but understanding others’ perspectives.

A sense of personal responsibility. We want students to know that just as digital technology presents opportunities for profit creation, it presents equal or greater opportunities to accelerate existing social ills. For example, big data analyses and algorithms can embed racial, gender, or other types of discrimination—or create new ones. As students build and justify digital innovations, they learn that they are personally accountable for the ends they serve.

Experience using ethical frameworks. We expose students to different ethical frameworks, from government- driven regulations such as the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) to professional ethical guidelines such as the Association for Computing Machinery’s code of ethics. In addition, Babson uses a model called Integrated Sustainability (IS), which blends innovation, value creation, and social responsibility. From the outset, IS asks students to weigh the economic value proposition of particular digital transformations against the social benefits and drawbacks.

Digital ambidexterity. To navigate times of high uncertainty, digital leaders must be both creative and experimental; in times of greater stability, leaders must be able to make reasonably reliable predictions so they can incrementally develop new products, services, and processes. In short, they must be both adaptable and responsible when facing challenges and opportunities.

It is incumbent upon higher education institutions to teach students to harness the power of digital transformation—but we must inspire them to do so ethically. We must equip our graduates with the skills of digital innovation and the wisdom to apply those skills in responsible and socially useful ways.

Learn about the Digital Experience Initiative.

Ruben Mancha - Committing to Responsible Digital TransformationRubén Mancha is an assistant professor of information technology and faculty director of the Digital Experience Initiative at Babson College in Wellesley, Massachusetts. His research focuses on digital platforms and the responsible deployment of emerging technologies.

Steve Gordon - Committing to Responsible Digital TransformationSteven Gordon is a professor of information technology at Babson, and his research focuses on blockchain theory and applications, digital platforms, and the role of social media in support of social movements.

David Nersessian - Committing to Responsible Digital TransformationDavid Nersessian is an associate professor of law at Babson, and his research focuses on human rights and business and the role of ethics in technological innovation.

This article originally appeared in
BizEd's January/February 2020 issue. Please send questions, comments, or letters to the editor to [email protected].

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