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.

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