Social Responsibility: Doing the Right Thing

By Edward Cone  |  Posted 09-10-2008

Social Responsibility: Doing the Right Thing

Students at Baruch College of the City University of New York can choose a brand-new, interdisciplinary minor this semester: "Information Technology and Social Responsibility." The course work includes topics familiar to any corporate IT manager, such as workplace diversity, but it also gets into areas such as the ethics of information sharing and the ins and outs of new media.

"A lot of people are concerned with the way data is used," says Linda Friedman, a professor of statistics and computer information systems at Baruch's Zicklin School of Business and one of the program's creators. "The Internet allows information to travel at incredible speeds. At the same time, people are giving up personal information and acting anonymously." The increasingly complex role of electronic information in everyday life was an impetus for the creation of the minor.

The same trend is redefining the way IT professionals look at social responsibility. Much of the traditional thinking in this area has involved general principles of community involvement, including volunteerism, donation and proper disposal of equipment, and inclusiveness. As important as these concepts are--and they form the basis of our recent survey--there is not much about them that is inherent to IT. The folks down the hall in accounting can pursue much the same agenda.

A broader view is coming into focus, one that incorporates some real IT flash points. Issues that have long been concerns of corporate technology managers, including security, privacy and intellectual property, are increasingly understood as matters of ethics and good citizenship. This perspective is far from universal. Our research shows that while IT managers are highly aware of "the larger effect of technology on people's lives," nearly half those surveyed say IT pros are "not very concerned" about it.

This more global understanding of technology's powerful role in society is not new. An organization called Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, which deals with related issues, has been around since 1983. Much has been written on technology's impact on the way we live and work, including musings on the moral aspects of a wired society. But the sense that these issues pervade the day-to-day operations of corporate IT seems to be gaining currency.

"It's part of the maturing of IT," says Donald Amoroso, chair of the computer science and information systems department at Kennesaw State University in Georgia. As the job becomes less about the technology itself and more about the information, the definition of responsible corporate citizenship changes, too. "Social responsibility has to do with being a good person in different parts of the community," Amoroso says. "It determines how you will function and do your job in a societal sense, not just as part of the community you do philanthropy with."

At last year's conference of the Information Resources Management Association, Amoroso co-chaired a track called "Social Responsibility in the Information Age." Topics included security, privacy, intellectual property and electronic monitoring of employees, along with more familiar corporate concerns like diversity. Such issues are not just technology problems with regulatory and legal compliance implications; they are ethical concerns that say something important about the people who deal with them daily, and about the corporate culture in which they work.

"This is maybe a different frame, a different dimension, to look at these things as social responsibility issues," Amoroso says. "A lot of these things are ethical issues first--everything from developing codes of conduct for the use and management of information, to confidentiality with partners in e-business."

Problems like data security and privacy are more than technical questions or issues of potential liability; they demand that people handling sensitive information have a sense of doing the right thing. "This is about more than the letter of the law; it involves the spirit of the law," Amoroso says.

Tech-Centric View

The wider focus makes sense to Jim Magnus, IT manager for Anheuser-Busch's Packaging Group. "Maintaining high ethical standards is part of the way we operate," he says. That includes concern over issues such as data privacy and intellectual property. "There's a huge social responsibility that goes beyond any sort of legal or pragmatic concerns," he adds.

In some ways, Magnus says, the tech-centric view is more in keeping with the mission of his department than volunteerism. "It's not my job to go out and teach the world about technology, but this is part of a much larger picture," he explains.

That's not to say the more traditional focus on social responsibility is unimportant, just that it's not as essential to the core purposes of the IT job. "There's a line between volunteerism and going out into the community, and responsibility to the public on intellectual property and protecting and maintaining people's information," Magnus says.

Still, our research shows that IT people are engaged in the community-based approach to social responsibility. "IT almost universally sees itself as a community that must support itself across organizational boundaries," the report states. "It believes in sharing the benefits of IT in education among the needy and in the developing world. This is part of the community zeitgeist, not self-interestedly to provide a more attractive working environment." Much of this feeling is generated by individuals at the grass roots, according to the research. "It's not particularly promoted by heads of IT."

Not all this is altruism. Most IT managers see the benefits of social responsibility accruing to the company's image, and more than nine out of 10 say it's a smart policy.

More than half the survey respondents say they donate used equipment to groups or individuals in their communities, with financial services companies most likely to do so (and to get the resulting tax benefits). Volunteerism is encouraged, especially at large companies, although formal volunteer programs within these companies are relatively rare. Volunteering through local and national IT associations is more frequent. Most of this work is done with students, along with charitable organizations and community, religious and political groups.

While most companies in the survey have anti-discriminatory policies that they view as effective, few consider such policies (or other social responsibility issues, including labor practices or contributions to charitable causes) when selecting IT vendors. Diversity programs receive only lukewarm support from CIOs; as our recent article on IT workplace diversity noted, these programs have a certain eat-your-spinach feel to them, and cannot create a real culture of diversity on their own.

One place where the impact of technology registers strongly is on the people who actually work in IT. In fact, 82 percent of respondents say that IT departments should work to reduce the negative effects of technology, such as stress or constant unwanted availability.

Kennesaw State's Amoroso sees a great deal of growth ahead in the conception and practice of social responsibility for IT. Sophisticated research into the field is just getting cranked up, and new positions on the corporate IT organizational chart, like vice presidents of relationship management, may become more common. 

Benefits Beyond the Workplace

IT Shares Its Benefits Beyond the Workplace
CIOs almost universally see the IT community as one that runs across organizational boundaries, with much to offer the world. This goes beyond just a belief in how technology has improved business and the way people work--it reaches greater levels of activism than you might guess. There is a strong belief that IT is an industry and profession whose practioners have much to give, whether prosaically through equipment donations and sharing of knowledge, or more intangibly by influencing socially responsible practices in their companies and beyond. --Analysis by Guy Currier

IT Volunteerism

IT Volunteerism Benefits the Company, Not Staff
However much they may value such opportunities, volunteer programs don't contribute much to IT professionals' company loyalty. Managers see the benefits of such programs much more in company image, teamwork and productivity. They're more like medicine than candy to staff; perhaps, that's why the CIO is not known to be particularly supportive of volunteerism.

Diversity in IT


Diversity in IT Could Be Improved
CIOs also are not particularly supportive of programs designed to bring people of varied backgrounds into IT--at least, not of programs produced by IT associations. While nearly all CIOs think their firms have effective antidiscriminatory policies in place, nearly one-third report at least one harassment complaint brought against an IT member since 2006.


CIOs Remain Cautious About Telecommuting
In the end, is technology making us happier? While CIOs believe very strongly in the positive effects of technological development, when it comes to IT's role in our daily lives--at work and at home--they express ambivalence.


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