Part 2 of a 2-part series. Read Part 1.
In part 1 of this series, I focused on trust as the basis for everything we do. This second part turns to the topics of ethics and purpose.
Digital ethics: the “how”
In the digital age, the topic of ethics is arguably more relevant and important than ever, as it brings up many difficult-to-answer questions. Certainly, no one person has the solution to the most fundamental ethical challenges that come with technological trends such as artificial intelligence (AI).
Ethics and technological change
Autonomous driving is one of the most obvious and discussed examples of this. Here we run into potentially unsolvable ethical dilemmas, such as the well-known “trolley problem.” This is the reason why autonomous cars, for example, should not be empowered to make such decisions based on potential victims’ individual attributes.
In the business world, there are many AI-related questions that also include ethical aspects that are not matters of life and death but are nevertheless important and must be addressed.
Ethics in the context of technological change involves finding and redefining behavioral standards for new kinds of interaction. It is not only about adapting to, but also shaping, new standards. These standards could be for a technology itself or an ecosystem. Companies can no longer drive disruptive innovation on their own. The more individuals and companies team up, the more diverse the ecosystem.
What holds partners together are the mutual benefits they gain from working together, and this is also the mechanism through which we can embrace a common ethical understanding of how to collaborate. Viewing every stakeholder as a partner within a wider ecosystem helps me to view questions and challenges from a different perspective, be it in conversations with colleagues, customers, or “traditional” partners.
A broad range of ethical standards obviously already exists, from adhering to confidentiality and obeying legal frameworks to – on a more abstract level – putting people and accountability before profit. New standards will be needed in the digital world as roles change with the advent of emerging technologies.
Machine learning as an enabling technology
With the help of machine learning, we can optimize processes and assist employees in their everyday lives. This automation will free humans from tedious, repetitive tasks and allow them to focus on higher-value work using their creativity and ability to solve complex problems.
Only automation can help tackle the challenges of the sheer volume of data and transactions. Humans – in contrast – can and should supervise enterprise systems, handle the exceptions, and explore new opportunities.
Consequently, new technologies require us to develop a new understanding of the human’s role and work in a highly automated and connected world, and, therefore, new or adapted ethical standards as well. This means, in turn, that ethical discussions and aspects need to be an integral part of AI-related innovation projects.
Answering the question of which specific decisions can be made by machines is absolutely crucial, as is defining the right use cases and areas for AI in an enterprise environment. As a second step, we need to be aware that huge amounts of data can also be biased. As a result, people will continue to be at the center of critical analyses and decisions. The technology augments and enables, but the responsibility remains firmly in our hands.
Societal and ethical concerns related to AI need to be addressed openly from industry, policy, and academia leaders – with the goal to agree on common standards that are aligned with existing frameworks and therefore ensure that new technologies will be accepted broadly.
Overall purpose: the “why”
In addition to these two aspects, a company’s sustainable success is also tied to a bigger purpose that functions as a guiding star in today’s complex and hyperconnected world. This means we need to find ways to effectively manage increasing complexity, rethink today’s business, and consequently move organizations forward, while at the same time still considering the impact on society. I firmly believe that in today’s world, the former cannot succeed without the latter. We need to look beyond the current innovation curve, the pure technology shift, and the concrete product innovations we bring to the market. We need to create meaning out of it.
From trustful relationships to ethical standards to purpose-driven innovation
As AI enables the focus to shift from completing repetitive tasks towards enabling creativity, organizations and employees alike agree that job satisfaction is one example of how a company’s success depends on more than just strong top- and bottom-line figures. It also depends upon the deep impact businesses have on society.
Thought leaders from academia, industry, and politics have been discussing how organizations can identify meaningful goals. Many of these institutions, including SAP, have announced their commitment to the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are spearheading an advanced organizational culture and mindset. These goals are a strong foundation that can help unite industries in pursuit of a better world.
However, truly purpose-driven companies must also consider an additional third pillar – the economy. When a company has a clearly stated reason for being, it can ensure that every job it provides directly supports that reason. And when a company knows its true purpose, it can turn to frameworks such as the SDGs to help ensure that it conducts business responsibly and in ways that support the greater good.
Companies understand that trust-based relationships with their stakeholders – and society as a whole – are vital. Acting in a purpose-driven manner, companies’ behavior inevitably also has an effect on entire ecosystems: employees, customers, suppliers, business, and technology partners.
Relationships within these ecosystems will evolve into partnerships based on more equal terms and similar values built on a foundation of trust and ethics. They turn towards a purpose that puts their common basis on a higher level. The whole ecosystem must operate within a shared value system to foster trust and a responsible approach to business.
Business should see the goals of a strong purpose and profitability not as contradictory, but rather complementary aims that together have a greater impact.
From theory to reality
In the world of software engineering, one interesting example of purpose-driven thinking is that of sustainable programming. Sustainable programming is all about designing and developing software with the most efficient use of computing resources. When we consider the phenomenal number of business transactions taking place every day in enterprise systems around the world, this optimized use approach would obviously scale up to have a huge impact. Put simply, efficient software uses fewer resources and energy in every respect and throughout the entire value chain.
Purpose-driven co-innovation projects between partners from different industries also aim to have an important impact on the world as we know it.
One such example is the innovation project Cargo Sous Terrain, in which the partners are working on developing a completely new transport system for goods in Switzerland by building a new underground route exclusively reserved for transporting goods. The goal is to connect cities and logistic hubs by 2030. Developed by companies for companies, it’s not just business that will benefit, but society as a whole: less traffic on the roads, faster and more efficient logistics cycles, and the consequent resource and energy savings.
With this purpose-driven innovation approach, technology is just the enabler, the ecosystem is the driver, and it is not only the companies but also society that benefit. In short, this positive outcome on all sides makes the effort and investment worth it for everyone.
Innovating and coping with change today requires a high level of flexibility, agility, and creativity – which also means that new ways of doing business need to be tested. We will see new forms of engagement that build trust, new required norms for business ethics, and a purpose-driven mindset that ensures that everyone benefits. There are still many challenging questions to be answered, but the solid foundation of a purpose puts us in a strong position to find convincing and effective solutions.
SAP’s sustainability and corporate social responsibility (CSR) focus is an outgrowth of our vision to help the world run better and improve people’s lives.