Exploring Ethics in Business Intelligence

Originally published September 23, 2008

Thanks to the misbehavior of a few individuals at Enron, MCI, and Tyco, many firms and individuals have become increasingly sensitive to ethical issues in the workplace. The Sarbanes-Oxley Act and other financial accountability regulations have made us all more aware of the need to address ethics as an important factor in organizational behavior and operations.

Paying attention to ethics is good business. Most of us have read articles in the news about a business’ unethical behavior, and my guess is that we look poorly upon firms that exhibit it.

What most people don’t realize is that ethical practices affect the very nature of an organization’s processes, products, and services. That is, how a firm behaves, the quality of its decision making, how it performs and delivers services, and the very essence of the products it produces all depend upon the intellectual capital of the organization and how it is manifested. Hence, if employees engage in unethical behavior, to think that the firm will somehow be unaffected is naïve.

Companies and professional organizations that ask workers to adhere to strict guidelines of ethical conduct are being proactive, but this action may be of little consequence if no one actually monitors adherence to these guidelines. Organizations often only pay attention to ethics when they find themselves facing liability due to the consequences of some unethical activity.

In business intelligence, the focus of ethical concern is typically data security, integrity, and privacy. There is even the hope, by some, that business intelligence analytics will detect negligence and fraud. Of course, this presumes that the business intelligence (BI) analysts and the analytical processes employed are operating within ethical guidelines. One way to evaluate whether this is happening is to promote discussions of ethics with those engaged in the BI function.

In an article discussing ethics in business intelligence, Richard Hackathorn argues that ethical issues can be confusing in our diverse and global culture. People sometimes want to avoid the subject altogether, evading what they perceive may cause controversy that could generate ill will among their colleagues. Others believe that it is difficult and sometimes impossible to find compromises that provide a balanced solution for all aspects of a given ethical issue, so they avoid the issue altogether.

Just because something can be difficult does not mean it should be avoided. Dealing with ethics may be hard to swallow, but it is inevitably good medicine as it affects the fitness and integrity of the organization. The problem is often not ethics itself, but how to manage its dialogue.

It is reasonable to assert that there are real benefits that can be gained from meetings where the topic of discussion is ethics. First of all, meetings are one of the rare occasions when managers get to functionally demonstrate their leadership skills. To be able to manage a discussion on ethics represents an opportunity to manifest this ability, provided you have the knowledge and skills to facilitate the discussion. Second, having group discussions about ethics conveys the message that ethics is important.

To that end, it is worth examining the issue of how to lead and manage a discussion on ethics. I base my information on a course that I took this summer at Saint Joseph’s University offered by the Arrupe Center for Business Ethics. The mission of the Arrupe Center is to integrate ethics into every aspect of business education. While the course itself was intensive, I will try to keep what I learned brief, but functional. I offer it as a quick primer for facilitating a discussion on ethics. However, I need to first caution you that there are, in fact, no correct answers in a discussion on ethics. What is important is the open debating of ideas and opinions accompanied by the expression of the specific reasons that support them.

There are three basic approaches that many people take to state and justify their position on ethics:

  1. Relativism

  2. Utilitarianism

  3. Rights

The first approach, relativism, is the tactic that some people take to basically wash their hands of the whole issue. Someone taking this approach will say something like “There is no right or wrong, because it depends on whom you ask. Peoples’ views on ethics differ!”

The problem with entertaining this viewpoint is that it promotes a dead end to further discussion and it functionally ignores any reasoning. You don’t want to let anyone taking this approach get away with it. To counter it, you might take the extreme position that because you are obviously the brightest person in the room, your position is the only one that should count for anything and anyone else simply doesn’t know what he or she is talking about! My guess is that most of your colleagues will not accept this. You can use this example to point out the futility of the relativist’s approach and then insist that further opinions be backed with reasoned justification.

The second approach, utilitarianism, examines ethics from a net cost/benefit perspective where the objective is to realize the most good for the most people. This approach allows for deviations in conduct if the actions and the subsequent consequence(s) can be seen to foster the overall common good. When employing this perspective in discussions, the key is to not focus simply on choices made at the individual level, but to assess whether the means justifies the ends – a good aggregate outcome. Using this approach also requires examining the probability that actions have hidden costs. This approach is similar to creating a balance sheet where the sum of credits to the common good clearly outweighs the costs.

A simple example of a utilitarianism dialogue might be the consideration as to whether YouTube content should be edited and access to it restricted versus whether the constitutional right of free speech should protect uncensored expression on this medium. Reasoned arguments can be made for both sides, and any judgment on this issue should be based on weighing the sum effect of potential positive and negative consequences for the points of view considered. The goal is to find the best net outcome for the organization overall – while acknowledging that there are potential costs to be expected. Utilitarians often state, “That’s not fair!!” and they should be able to tell you why. This contrasts to the relativist voice that says, “It depends who you ask!” waiving any responsibility for reasoned justification.

A third way of examining ethics is by adopting the “rights” approach. Here you focus on consequences that affect the inherent value of an individual. Common good is subservient to the sanctity of individuals. For example, the right to bear arms in the United States is controversial. The utilitarian might say that arms should be banned to protect the common welfare. The person adopting the “rights” approach, however, might disagree arguing that individuals should have the right to use arms to protect themselves from harm. The key here is to insist upon the articulation and elaboration of the “right” and to ascertain what is included in this “right” so as to make transparent the interests that describe and define the party’s claims in their defense of well being.

One issue in the “rights” approach is to consider what one is trying to achieve. That is, there are both positive and negative rights and duties. Positive rights include the right to be given and receive as well as the right or duty to provide or assist. Negative rights and duties include the right not to be interfered with and the duty to not interfere. Negative rights and duties tend to be easier to specify.

When the ‘rights” view to ethics is taken, a key tactic to adopt would be to ask for evidence that can be provided that would require your organization to protect this interest.

In business intelligence, analytics seek to find optimal answers. In ethics though, analytics will yield no right answer. However, as in business intelligence, the insistence on evidence and reason in ethics is critical. To facilitate this happening, opinion with reasoned justification is the critical data that is required for effective decision making.

  • Richard HerschelRichard Herschel

    Richard is Chair of the Department of Decision & System Sciences at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia. Before becoming an educator, he worked at Maryland National Bank, Schering-Plough Corporation, Johnson & Johnson, and Columbia Pictures as a systems analyst. He received his BA in journalism from Ohio Wesleyan University, his Master’s in Administrative Sciences from Johns Hopkins, and his Ph.D. from Indiana University in Management Information Systems. He has earned the Certified Systems Professional designation, and he has written extensively about both knowledge management and business intelligence. Dr. Herschel can be reached at herschel@sju.edu.

    Editor's Note: More articles and resources are available in Richard Herschel's BeyeNETWORK Expert Channel. Be sure to visit today!

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