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Ethics, Shmethics

Ethics, Shmethics

Unfortunately, today's "ethics industry" provides little to no meaningful guidance to any serious IT executive. Take a few moments to review the academic literature and "business ethics" curricula; you'll burst out laughing at their naivety and fundamental dishonesty. They're con jobs in idealism

CIOs should stop trying to do the "right thing" when implementing IT and focus instead on getting their implementations right.

Be honest. Would you look your employees in the eye and tell them something that wasn't quite true if it would dramatically increase the chance that your key IT implementation would be finished on time and on budget? I would.

How about deliberately withholding important information from your boss because you know that its disclosure would provoke his immediate counterproductive intervention in an important project? I would.

Suppose that once your major CRM system implementation is completed and rolled out in a year, your company plans to outsource maintenance and support. There's a better than 60 percent chance that you'll lay off two-thirds of the IT workers who were involved. Is it "unethical" for you not to fully disclose the details of their possible future (or lack thereof) as they work feverishly to make deadline? I don't think so; do you?

I'm provoked into asking these questions by an accelerating and dangerous trend infecting boardroom and office suite discussions. That trend is the pea-brained "ethics-ification" of business decision making and implementation: CEOs are supposed to be Chief Ethics Officers; CIOs should be Chief Integrity Officers. How noble. How politically correct. How silly.

Much like "quality" in the 80s, "ethics" and "integrity" have become business buzzwords, materializing in too many CEO internal communications and speeches. Many well-intentioned and well-educated people think this "ethical emphasis" is a healthy development; I don't. I think it's awful.

Today's emphasis on ethics sets up C-level executives — CIOs in particular — to be branded as liars and hypocrites. Why? Because the ethics of effective implementation are seldom compatible with the implementation of effective ethics. So am I advising CIOs that effective IT implementation is inherently unethical? Of course not. What I'm saying — moreover, what I've observed — is that the ethical conflicts IT most frequently confronts have less to do with dishonourable executive behaviour than with the genuine clash of competing business principles. Too many people are trying to turn legitimate business disagreements into illegitimate ethical conflicts.

Unfortunately, today's "ethics industry" provides little to no meaningful guidance to any serious IT executive. Take a few moments to review the academic literature and "business ethics" curricula; you'll burst out laughing at their naivety and fundamental dishonesty. They're con jobs in idealism.

Even worse, look at the mainstream media - The New York Times Magazine's Sunday "ethics columnist" in particular - if you want to appreciate the glib and immature way that truly serious ethical issues are addressed in the public discourse. The business press is just as bad. The debacles of Enron, WorldCom and Arthur Andersen are treated as case studies in ethical failure. Nonsense. They are case studies in professional malfeasance, fraud and criminal behaviour.

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