The unintended consequences of digital

Bronwyn van der Merwe, GM Asia-Pacific for Fjord/Accenture Interactive
By Bronwyn van der Merwe, GM Asia-Pacific for Fjord/Accenture Interactive | 29 November 2017
Bronwyn van der Merwe

Across every sector, many organisations are looking to rewire themselves to become more customer-centric by harnessing digital technologies. But attempts to meet changing customer demands have resulted in some unfortunate unintended consequences. Organisations need to think harder about the implications of the business decisions they make and their impact on not just the customer or employee experience but on society as a whole, or face detrimental effects. 

The effect of tailoring news to individuals, for example, has led to issues with fake news and lack of exposure to balanced opinions, as reflected in the widespread misinformation that plagued the 2016 US presidential election. The security issues associated with Snapchat’s new location function have also highlighted some of the pitfalls of ill-conceived innovations. Microsoft suffered the embarrassment of having to shut down its artificial intelligence chatbot, Tay, last year after it started espousing racist comments on Twitter days after being launched. 

However, it’s not only the unintended consequences of new digital products and services that organisations need to consider. It’s also the impact of AI, automation and robotics within the workplace. As has been widely documented, we’re likely to see a significant risk of job losses as the AI revolution takes hold.

These incidences are driving a growing interest in digital ethics and conscious capitalism. Media and consumers alike are beginning to challenge the actions of the organisations that impact their lives, putting digital ethics on corporate and legislative agendas. The pressing challenge for organisations now is to start addressing the social impact of business decisions. 

To guard against the unintended ramifications of their actions, businesses must address the bigger picture and effectively redefine business structures and decision-making protocols. Organisations must: 

  1. Think social experience: Organisations readily consider customer experience. Now they must address social experience too. They must question what impact their actions will have on society or the environment, where there will be hidden costs, and where they are most likely to be exposed.

  2. Make people the heart of everything: It’s essential that organisations ask which roles can and should be undertaken by a human workforce, or a workforce augmented by machines, and which should be fully automated.Businesses must find ways to preserve and promote the dignity of work and ensure the value of human beings sits at the heart of their digital services.

  3. Prioritise diversity: Closely considering the diversity of the people you are designing for and the people who design for you is key. A digital service is only ever the product of its creators, as such, ensuring the diversity of teams developing these new products and services will be essential. Furthermore, embracing social experience means accepting the moral obligation to reach and include the excluded.

  4. Learning and evolution: In a world that’s constantly changing, continuous learning and development is critical to stay relevant. The best employers will look for and provide for employees hungry to learn, and the best employees will look for routes to facilitate their own growth.

The digital age generates enormous potential upside for businesses; however, there will always be risks in how it is applied. Consumers are becoming increasingly aware of these implications and are pushing for organisations to consider their social impact and to revise their stance on digital ethics. Businesses who don’t take heed of this call to action are putting themselves in a precarious position.

By Bronwyn van der Merwe, GM Asia-Pacific for Fjord/Accenture Interactive

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