Think of corporate responsibility. Then, situations linked to people, nature, pollution, climate change and philanthropy come to your mind. Now, think of technology, and smartphones, drones, virtual reality and, almost unavoidably, artificial intelligence are recalled.
We tend to dissociate them because, in principle, they belong to different dimensions, the real (physical) and the virtual. That appreciation, however, falls short in today’s reality. It could have been justifiable when technology was a synonym for machines and factories, but that’s clearly not the case anymore. The “new ways” that the digital hordes are imposing as they take over the world are blending both dimensions.
A conquest has never been a gentle process and its long-term outcomes aren’t set in stone either. Or, well, on perfect algorithms. History has taught us that.
It has been shaped by revolutions, when a technological innovation or a new ideology has had a profound impact on both economic and social structures. Examples of that are the agricultural revolution during the second half of the 18th century, and the several industrial revolutions during the 18th and 19th centuries. Then, there is also the technological revolution in the 20th century, with the development of semiconductors, computers and the internet.
Now, we’re in the middle of the 4th industrial revolution, which, according to Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum (WEF), is far from being a simple extension of the third. As he wisely points out, there are three reasons that support his theory:
- The speed. Unlike the previous ones, our ongoing revolution is deploying at an exponential and non-linear speed.
- The quicker upgrades. Each new technology is developed more quickly, usually generating new ones, even more powerful than their predecessors in a short period of time.
- Breadth and depth. Digital is at the root of the current revolution.
However, if digital technology is, until now, having a sizable dose of positive impacts, potentially harmful new breakthroughs, unethical practices and unscrupulous activities are thriving too. For instance, are still-a-work-in-progress inventions taking into account if both society and the planet may undergo significant change once they are released?
The following statement is powerful: what we humans do about technology and with technology is ultimately our decision. Certainly, we’re responsible for our future with it. A mounting challenge is shaping a common future that is for all, powered by technology but not submitting to it.
Daring to challenge the fact that technology is a powerful enabler and enhancer to the economy would be audacious. But there is more. Technology transfer or technology exchange are desirable because they equilibrate the disparities between territories or countries whose capabilities to bring about advance technology are still limited, standardise processes and mechanisms, and all and all, democratise access to many new information sources.
But technology, in one way or another, impacts humans, organisations and the environment. A more conscientious, thoughtful and beneficial adoption requires the participation of all actors, including business and governments. The central subject of this article is the convergence of technology development and corporate responsibility that seem to have followed, until now, different directions.
When technology is fear
The undermining of privacy whether online or in the physical world (surveillance), and, likely, a hyper automated workplace that will result in massive loss of jobs are very present technology-related fears. Both have a common actor, artificial intelligence (AI). There is also the worry of a slow but irreversible disruption of human interactions as we know them, and people becoming fully-dependent on digital technology to communicate and express as a result. As Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple once said: “I am not worried about artificial intelligence giving computers the ability to think like humans. I am more worried about people thinking like computers without values and compassion, without concern for the consequences.”
But among them, it’s wealth disparity, boosted by the growing need to produce more with less costs.
There is no doubt that the winner in the 4th industrial revolution is the consumer. Consider this: you can get a cab, order food, do money transfers, listen to music, watch a movie… online. Everything is digital.
One of the main questions that raises nowadays is what is related to the benefits of having a human workforce. The truth is that today you need less people to create the same value.
In the 1990, the biggest enterprises in Detroit had a market capitalisation of 36 billion USD, a turnover of 250 billions and around 1.2 millions workers. In 2014, the three Silicon Valley giants had a capital market of 1,090 billions USD, more or less the same turnover 247 billions, but ten times less employees. This is due to a simple fact in the digital world: marginal cost tends to zero, which has a deep impact on wealth disparity.
The winners are the owners of intellectual or physical capital such as investors and shareholders, a fact that also explains the gap of wealth between those depending of their work versus those owning capital.
Another growing concern among the people is unemployment, severely boosted by AI. And because of the (still) present feeling that businesses (and their shareholders) will prioritise profit rather than taking a more responsible approach that puts people and the environment first or, at least, et equal levels, the fear becomes even more real.
This is when corporate responsibility (CR) has a fundamental role to play. However, the common visual metaphor “put the glasses on” used to highlight “the need for adoption” doesn’t apply to CR anymore, if it ever did. Being responsible in business isn’t a “put on / take off” action, it’s an approach—and even a philosophy—that calls for long terms, for a tattoo-like metaphor instead of the one with the glasses.
For new technology, for instance AI, to enhance business steadily, it has to augment humans capabilities, not to set them aside or fully replace them. We have to trust AI so we dare to accept it. We need to understand what a technology development, whichever, is for, and how it makes us better.
Trust is the key to unleash the power of new technologies in business, and for users and consumers adoption. It’s the bridge between the digital world and the physical one, it’s the invisible stream between any honest corporate responsibility commitment and the stakeholders.
We likely don’t fear technology but the shadowy future it can trigger.
How far we want to go with technology
Dealing with technology that thinks without understanding how it does it, is anything but reaffirming. Yet that’s more and more the case of complex neural networks powered by AI. Beyond the conspicuous case of AI, innovators, decision makers, business and other societal stakeholders should take some steps backwards and reflect on why we want certain technological developments and how we are going to use them.
Valérie Arnold, our Sustainability Leader, puts it this way,
We need to talk, we need to debate on how digital technology is shaping the world we live in, its impact on the way we produce, consume and communicate. Certainly, it comes with enough positive things for us as consumers, but it also poses important challenges. One thing is discovering how far we can go and another is to answer how far we want to go. The latter, that’s crucial, will be conditioned by the human being’s ability and will to shape the world for the greater good.
Among countless debates about the impact of new technology in our lives, there is an ongoing one whether robots, especially the ones powered by artificial intelligence, will take over human jobs and other human functions. While they have already replaced certain tasks, the true extent of how much of our work we want to be transferred is yet up to us. Finding a balance between operational efficiency, cost optimisation and, most importantly, human well-being, that’s the golden intersected area where we ideally want to be.
When corporate responsibility meets technology
More specifically in the business realm, an honest and participative CR strategy helps existing and future plans of technology implementation to be successful. By involving different stakeholders and putting trust and transparency as underlying pillars, technology fears vanish or are mitigated.
Terms such as corporate digital technology, technological social responsibility, coined relatively recently account for the growing need to converge these two aspects—and realities—of the business world, CR and technology.
Whichever the term used, the convergence is more than a nice statement that intelligently combines both. Firstly, it likely requires an update of the CR domains within the firm, because CR needs to appropriate the advocacy of ethical and sustainable tech-related practices. It’s certainly not a new matter but it’s under the current circumstances, with more and more concerns and fears around technology developments, when it’s going mainstream and requires more attention.
If CR is, in itself, a still-under-scrutiny subject in many organisations, its foray into ethics and technology issues can be seen as an intrusion. Voilà why a second aspect to take into consideration is dialogue, that is, putting all the interested departments around the table to align points of view, needs, business objectives and the sustainability vision of the organisation.
Certain visionary organisations accelerate growth with a serious bet on technology investment, one that drives innovation and doesn’t have the replacement of the workforce as an unsaid goal. Innovation doesn’t happen because of highly sophisticated systems or machines but when different skills get together to solve real problems, powered by machines.
These organisations know that, for new technology—and more noticeably digital— to work, teams need to apprehend it. Then, it’s necessary to support the people along the path of technology-led work transitions and to enhance or increase their skills or develop new ones. Upskilling touches the boards and management as well. Because the boards’ buy-in can truly boost any technology adoption initiative.
Technology is already influencing CR
If CR supports the implementation of new technology in a way that takes into account business goals, people and the environment equitably, technology developments, on the other hand, are already advancing CR in different ways.
Sustainable practices implementation, with organisations getting more and updated information to make better decisions, for instance, on internal operations, regional operations, supply chains, delivery tracking, etc. As a result, CR’s activities and objectives are more adjusted and grounded.
Sustainability monitoring and reporting, with real time updates that validates practices or alerts about the need for adjustments.
Improve stakeholder engagement, because with richer information, their involvement in corporate governance matters, business strategy and sustainability can be greater.
Improve communication with stakeholders by means of new channels such as social media or streaming services, reach media such as videos, interactive infographics or interactive websites, and augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR). This also influences reporting quality.
New technology can be used to improve workplace experiences, create adaptations for disabled employees, generate educational opportunities that bridge the digital divide, improve business ethics and, in general, enhance society.
Better education and outreach programmes. Through the use of technology, any CR-driven activity or programme linked to education, research, communication, health, etc is enhanced, and its reach is also greater.
What we humans do about technology and with technology has always been up to us. We prefer to state that, once more.
Business sustainability finds its true anchor when it answers human needs. New, digital technology nowadays is poised to evolve the human experience. Never before have we been that equipped to provide greater access to information and better job satisfaction, to enhance and democratise education, make the unbanked bankable, have more informed leaders to make the right decisions or get closer to the ones that are thousands of kilometers away.
However, fear of technology is real too, an understandable human reaction before things and ways we don’t know. That’s why organisations cannot set aside the need for managing the process or transitions – at all levels but especially when it comes to the workforce – when adopting new technology. Far from being a “nice-to-have”, it has to rank high in today’s CR agenda.
What we think
We cannot deny nor battle the disruption we are facing. What we need today is to battle against four crises that are very connected: crisis of prosperity, of technology, of leadership and of institutional legitimacy. Each crisis is urgent and must be answered to with creativity, imagination and a strong sense of purpose. It gives business in an every important role: coping with the disruption with a clear sense of responsibility not solely to their shareholders but to all their stakeholders. Technology can be definitely a force for good, it just needs to be used and deployed with this purpose in mind.