Recently, I participated in a number of global forums on responsible business conduct (RBC), innovation and development.
Behind all conversations, regardless of the industry sector or subject being examined, there was absolute consensus about how Information and Communication Technology (ICT) is central to economic growth, and aids to address social challenges. ICT is seen as a tool to end poverty and give entire social groups better lives.
So much so, that human rights often describe access to digital networks as a basic right, and social inclusiveness is also measured by how different society groups are affected by their access (or lack thereof) to digital communications (internet and others).
The above brings a new level of responsibility for the ICT sector, and ties it to the daily lives of billions. Thus, there are now other dimensions to the work we do, other than the software produced, the applications designed and the services delivered.
As we know, there are hundreds of definitions of “Quality management” (just google it…) However, we can agree that it is a total approach to ensuring that the products and services delivered to customers meet the contractually agreed requirements. To achieve that, Quality management includes every aspect of an enterprise business practice and oversight.
As such it is just reasonable that it also incorporates business social responsibility and innovation requirements into its activities.
Business social responsibility
Although intuitive, business social responsibility is principally concerned with abiding by the laws of the country (ies) where the enterprise operates. Having said that, it also relates to many other issues like,
- Human rights and internet freedom
- Employment and industrial relations
- Bribery, Bribe solicitation and Extortion
- And more…
The following are a few important business social responsibility issues that relate specifically to ICT.
The ICT industry has become the backbone of every other industry in the planet. This is the case even in remote parts of Africa, or small villages in Vietnam, for example, where the only way to do banking is through mobile technology.
In some of those places, the regulatory, legal, and institutional frameworks are underdeveloped or fragile, so the temptation to get ahead in business by circumventing them is great, and sometimes even encouraged by locals.
Dehumanisation of Users
While working on this article, I found one in the Washington Post in the context of a “Facebook” research project:
Headline: “Cornell ethics board did not pre-approve Facebook mood manipulation study.”
Summary: “Facebook’s controversial study that manipulated users’ newsfeeds was not pre-approved by Cornell University’s ethics board, and Facebook may not have had “implied” user permission to conduct the study as researchers previously claimed.
In the study, researchers at Facebook tweaked what hundreds of thousands of users saw in their news feeds, skewing content to be more positive or negative than normal in an attempt to manipulate their mood. Then they checked users’ status updates to see if the content affected what they wrote. They found that, yes, Facebook users’ moods are affected by what they see in their news feeds. Users who saw more negative posts would write more negative things on their own walls, and likewise for positive posts.”
In a follow up article, the second in command at Facebook said that they do not apologise for the study, and that it was just the way how companies research products.
The difference is, this time “we” are the product.
Is Facebook the only ICT company that behaves in that manner? Absolutely Not – I could find articles on the subject about Google, Amazon, and others big and small, from every corner of the world.
We are so used to accepting the “Terms and Conditions of Use” without reading them, that we do not realise the implications of doing so.
Even if it’s partly our fault, companies should have a transparent and ethical code of conduct in their dealings with their customers, which must be part of the company’s management system, so it can be regularly evaluated against practice.
This example brings an array of moral issues, and the realisation that a strict standard must be implemented to ensure users are properly respected and protected.
One of the major challenges of the day in the ICT industry, is the issue that even in the simpler of systems, we are constantly collecting an enormous amount of personal data about each one of the system users. Coupled with that is the fact that the “Cloud” has become the cheapest way to implement many of those systems, and as a result, the data “travels” around the world, in most cases without the customer knowing about it.
We could argue that this in itself is not a problem. It is only the way we use and preserve that data that could be the issue. And as we all know, it is…
There hasn’t been a real debate about how ICT companies should behave in this new situation, and the industry is basically setting some rules as it goes. It seems the right time to bring the issue to the forefront.
The International Institute for Sustainable Development suggests a business definition of “sustainable development”,
“Adopting business strategies and activities that meet the needs of the enterprise, and its stakeholders, today while protecting, sustaining and enhancing the human and natural resources that will be needed in the future.”
See the following link for the concepts of business strategies for sustainability on: http://www.iisd.org/business/pdf/business_strategy.pdf
Business strategies and plans can incorporate sustainability requirements, while taking into account the enterprise need for profitability and growth.
We know already that innovation is central to boosting productivity, competitiveness and job efficiency, but we also need to ensure that enterprise innovation is responsible, and it is linked to social and environmental requirements.
Previous experience around the world shows that innovation is more successful, when the private and the public sectors cooperate. It is in a company’s best interest to collaborate with the local and/or national governments and bodies to develop policies and projects that will take into account financial advantages and socially inclusive benefits.
New Customer Requirement
“The Customer” is leading the charge in addressing most of the previous issues.
In the last few years the behaviour of customers has fundamentally changed. Customers now value a company not only by the final product or service and price, but also by its actions. Amongst them,
- Use of child labour
- Misuse of personal data
- Collaboration with governments, special if they have not been elected democratically
- Depletion of natural water supplies
- Inhuman labour conditions or human rights abuses
Some of the above are relevant to the ICT industry world-wide.
In a nutshell, Customers are asking that providers of goods and services strike a balance between “bettering their companies and bettering the world”.
Acting responsibly provides a strong business advantage. And a responsible business practice is an efficient way to manage risks and reputation, diversify and increase productivity.
Proactively respecting the rights of stakeholders, while creating new value, should help any enterprise to achieve their business goals, and continuously grow. In addition, companies adopting global business guidelines are considered better business partners, and given access to more global business deals.
Imagine what would happen, if companies would apply the principles of business social responsibility to all their business relationships? Since the tendency in enterprises of all business sectors is focusing on their core business and outsource the rest, the domino effect would be enormous, and provoke vast change.
The New Quality Concept
Quality must include now not only the quality of the goods and services delivered to the Customer, but also other aspects of the process, like
- physical environment
- social environment
- human rights
In the current “Quality” practice, most of these areas are addressed (if, in fact, they are) by separate management systems and standards. Often different people, with different business strategies and objectives are assigned to look after these systems and processes, creating overlapping, fragmentation, waste of valuable resources and sabotaging success.
All international guidelines developed to assist enterprises with implementing their responsible business practices and protecting their customers, start from
Step1: Establish a strong enterprise management system
Of course benefits will depend on the extent to which these systems are complete, implemented and followed. It is worth noting that a lot of work has been invested in progressing the adoption of socially responsible management systems. However, it has been based on individual areas of applicability.
The current situation needs a coherent and interconnected set of guidelines and standards, in support of the will to act responsibly, whether this is in a controlled or uncontrolled market.
There are numerous sets of standards addressing one or several aspects of all the issues discussed in this document.
For sustainability alone, there are more than 140 standards operating in over 80 countries, which relate to more than 60 sectors.
These are some of the categories where we can find the ones related to ICT:
- Data protection
- Green IT
- Information and records management
- Information governance
- Information security
- IT in education
- IT network security
- IT service management – ITSM
- Knowledge management
- Software and systems engineering
- Software asset management
- Supply chain management & risk
- Web design, accessibility and management
- And more…
A lot of work has been done developing these standards, and unless we find a way to simplify and integrate, enterprises will never be able to take advantage of this valuable resource.
Regarding the concepts included in this article, there are some examples of standards and guidelines that can be integrated into any management system, and that can bring about a fast and profound change.
ISO 26000 Standard “Guidance on social responsibility”
“Organizations around the world, and their stakeholders, are becoming increasingly aware of the need for and benefits of socially responsible behaviour. The aim of social responsibility is to contribute to sustainable development. An organization’s performance in relation to the society in which it operates and to its impact on the environment has become a critical part of measuring its overall performance and its ability to continue operating effectively. This is, in part, a reflection of the growing recognition of the need for ensuring healthy ecosystems, social equity and good organizational governance. “
It is a voluntary standard, and its adoption could be greatly influenced by the role of governments favouring companies demonstrating responsible business behaviour in their purchasing processes, thus leading by example during “public buying”.
ISO 9001 is in process of improvement and a new version is due in 2015. At least, the sections about management responsibility should refer to responsible business conduct requirements, ensuring that the certification and validation processes around this standard, advance the implementation of social responsibility and sustainable business management.
UN Guiding Principles
On 16 June 2011, the UN Human Rights Council endorsed the “Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights: Implementing the United Nations ‘Protect, Respect and Remedy’ Framework”
You can find the full text at the following link:
The New Quality Manager
With new challenges, comes the need for new leadership. People with a mindset such, that they can help their Executive Management Teams to insert new concepts in their new business strategies, and facilitate the inclusion of those new requirements into the company’s business plans.
The Quality Manager has always been the “conscience” of the company: the person aiming at setting the highest standards of management and operations for the enterprise, and leading the Management Team to implement better practices.
The Quality Manager must have a broad view of how the company responds to society and law changes. Including the role of the company in the industry where it operates and its responsibility to society as a whole.
The latter requires additional education and training, and the development of interpersonal communication skills. As well as being abreast of global and local issues and developments.
When we look at the company’s management system we should ask, does anybody in the management team know if,
- a child is involved in getting something done in the supply chain?
- are we using too much water in our computer refrigeration systems?
- are we recycling obsolete materials?
- are we using outsourced subcontractors, where people work in inhuman conditions?
- is the environment where people work safe? (not just in the company’s home country)
- are we wasting energy?
- is anybody in our company involved in providing illegal incentives to potential customers?
It is easier to answer these questions in management systems developed by big or multinational enterprises, where scrutiny is great and resources are abundant.
We cannot say the same for medium and small companies, where the fragmentation of guidelines makes implementation almost impossible. In the best cases, they will choose one, often a management system standard like ISO 9001.
That is why making ISO 9001 more robust on social responsibility will guarantee a level of adherence to these set of principles by enterprises of all sizes.
Food for thought
Innovation and technology development are constantly evolving, producing technological advances and changing practices. Accordingly, the disciplines supporting and improving the enterprises involved in those developments, especially in ICT, should evolve too. Quality is one of them.
It is also essential, that a comprehensive and integrated approach is taken, that the minimum concepts of social responsibility and innovation are embedded into the enterprise management system, and validated regularly against practice. Quality Managers should be the ones pressing on with these improvements.
Implementing The New Quality demands
- Active leadership
- Eliminating the current fragmentation of guidelines
- Making these concepts part of business strategies
- Including these concepts in all plans and considerations, instead of as an after-thought
- Auditors and assessors to proactively recommend areas for improvement related to these concepts
There are laws being legislated continuously to catch up with new developments, but nothing can replace the power of good practice.