What is Corporate Digital Responsibility?

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Rigged elections, e-waste, racist algorithms, increasing income inequality…what is the dark side of digital transformation? In this post, we share a framework for integrating corporate digital responsibility practices across your organization.

Digital products and services are ubiquitous in our lives. They impact everything an organization does. However, unintended consequences can occur when digital practices aren’t carefully tested, implemented, or managed over time. Tech media publications, for example, have increasingly featured stories about racist AI algorithms and autonomous vehicle deaths. Privacy and security continue to be ongoing concerns.

Conversely, socially conscious investors increasingly evaluate companies by their environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) practices. Digital can play a huge role in how companies achieve higher ESG standards. As impact investing increases and the stories of tech products gone sideways become more common, we need to fundamentally shift how organizations implement responsible digital practices.

As a digital-native company, Mightybytes is deeply committed to using digital products, services, and practices responsibly in ways that positively impact all stakeholders. We want to help our clients do the same. As a Certified B Corp, we also work to build a more inclusive and regenerative economy. That’s why we’re embracing a new set of standards for corporate digital responsibility. Let’s dig a little deeper into what this actually means.

People sitting around a computer screen with the earth on it

The Next Evolution of Digital Sustainability

Imagine the damage that could be caused by a weapon controlled by malevolent AI, the impact of a total loss of personal privacy, or the social and economic costs of unregulated gig-economy jobs with few or no social protections. The potential outcomes of these and other scenarios are starting to be openly discussed within governments and civil society. Now corporate entities need to join the debate.

— Michael Wade, MIT Sloan Management Review

In 2013, Mightybytes set out to rethink how teams create digital products and services. The internet’s environmental impact is massive and we wanted to do something about it. Through our efforts pioneering sustainable web design, we were one of the first agencies to apply sustainability principles to the process of creating websites, apps, and other digital products. We committed ourselves to helping others follow suit through books, presentations, products, online educational materials, even a TEDx Talk. Now, a burgeoning global community of designers, developers, and other digital-native professionals interested in using their skills to fight climate change has emerged. We’re thrilled to see others taking up this charge.

However, things change quickly in the digital world. AI, blockchain, IoT, and other emerging technologies require that we expand our view of stakeholders impacted by our digital choices. While the planet is arguably our most important stakeholder—we’re in a climate emergency, after all—the impacts of these technologies, whether good or bad, are far-reaching. It’s time we evolve the definition of digital sustainability to embrace this expanded view. 

Why Corporate Digital Responsibility?

The ethical design and uses of digital technologies and related data is not solely a technological challenge (e.g., developing algorithms for ethical reasoning). Rather, it requires organizations to develop a comprehensive, coherent set of norms, embedded in their organizational culture, to govern the development and deployment of digital technology and data.

— Corporate Digital Responsibility, Journal of Business Research, Elsevier

The digital products and services you choose and the policies that support them play an important role in your organization’s success. However, decisions made in the name of digital transformation can have dire consequences as well. Often, the results of these decisions are unintended or not fully understood when they are made. In the hands of bad actors, abuses can run rampant. Left unchecked, big problems can arise.

The reasons for these problems are many. Here are just a few:

  • The “move fast and break things” mentality at startups and tech companies focuses on striking it rich through meteoric growth strategies, often at any expense, rather than defining how a digital product or service will impact people’s lives, society, or the environment long-term. This is especially critical with emerging technologies.
  • In-house digital teams are often siloed with little influence on organizational decision-making, yet every department makes digital-specific decisions every day.
  • While ESG-driven impact investing is on the rise, it is still just a fraction of overall investments. Plus, awareness of digital-specific ESG issues is scant at best.
  • Technology project creators often fail to consider the entire range of stakeholders impacted by their products or services. This can result in implicit biases against age, race, gender, and so on.
  • Hundreds of thousands of agencies around the world create digital products and services for their clients, yet rarely do these engagements include risk analysis or adhere to established standards for accessibility or other more inclusive measures.
  • Similarly, agency clients often make decisions based on price, which can undermine the quality of delivered products and services. Also, a pervasive project mindset vs. a product mindset restricts continuous learning and ongoing improvements for digital products and services. 
  • Due in part to how they are funded, nonprofits and social enterprises don’t often have the resources or expertise necessary to properly vet and implement emerging technologies, let alone manage them over time.

Of course, these aren’t all the reasons. In fact, they just scratch the surface. Still, it’s a significant enough list that any company or nonprofit should feel compelled to develop policies and practices that will address the potential consequences. 

Corporate Digital Responsibility in Four Parts

Corporate digital responsibility is broken down into four key subsections:

  1. Economic Digital Responsibility
  2. Environmental Digital Responsibility
  3. Social Digital Responsibility
  4. Technological Digital Responsibility

Let’s dig a little deeper into what each of these mean.

Economic Digital Responsibility icon

Economic Digital Responsibility

Economic digital responsibility is concerned with the economic impacts of our technology-related choices. Hiring practices, licensing and legal considerations, data ownership, and responsible outsourcing all fall into this category.  

Sample Questions to Ask

  • Are you paying employees or contractors doing digital work a living wage, providing work-life balance, and offering good benefits?
  • Do you responsibly outsource digital work to organizations that offer these things to their own teams?
  • Are you sharing in the economic benefits of your digital-specific work?
Environmental Digital Responsibility icon

Environmental Digital Responsibility

From emissions generated by data centers to responsible e-waste practices, Environmental Digital Responsibility addresses the ecological ramifications of our technology choices. 

Sample Questions to Ask

  • Do you have responsible e-waste recycling programs in place?
  • Are you supporting ‘right-to-repair’ legislation in your country?
  • Do you practice responsible power consumption practices with your digital products and services?
Social Digital Responsibility icon

Social Digital Responsibility

Social Digital Responsibility addresses how your organization uses technology to create a harmonious relationship with people, communities, and society overall. This is a broad category. Your brand identity, how you communicate with customers and other stakeholders, your hiring procedures, or any other people-centric practices that take place through or are influenced by digital channels factor into an organization’s performance.

Sample Questions to Ask

  • Can your organization bridge the digital divide between those with and without connectivity and offer access to clear, factual information? 
  • Are you engaging in blind hiring practices for digital positions?
  • Do you protect stakeholder data from exploitation and ensure privacy? 
Technological Digital Responsibility icon

Technological Digital Responsibility

Not producing digital technologies that could harm society is at the heart of Technological Digital Responsibility. From fighting algorithmic bias to protecting customer privacy and data security, this is where designers, developers, product teams, and digital agencies like Mightybytes and others can create the most positive social and environmental impact. 

Sample Questions to Ask

  • Do you map all potential stakeholders and run a risk analysis on any potential new digital project?
  • Are AI and machine learning algorithms transparent so that unintended biases can be easily identified and fixed?
  • Have you implemented responsible cybersecurity and response practices?
  • Do your digital products and services meet Web Content Accessibility Guidelines?

Making changes in these four categories requires both vision and operational commitments to plan, test, and implement long-term strategies. Let’s explore how.

Implementing Corporate Digital Responsibility

Acting with digital responsibility requires that the organization is not only aware of the various potential effects of the digital on consumers and society but also concerned for how its own actions may prompt such effects. Accordingly, CDR culture must establish that designers and creators of the technology bear responsibility for consequences that arise from its creation, operation, impact assessment, and refinement.

— Corporate Digital Responsibility, Journal of Business Research, Elsevier

As noted above, due to the ubiquitous nature of digital products and services within organizations, corporate digital responsibility needs to be implemented throughout an organization and not owned by a single department. Buy-in from senior leadership is critical to set the tone and provide vision. However, to enable CDR principles organization-wide, people must be empowered to incorporate these guidelines in their day-to-day activities. Here are some things to consider. 

Mission/Vision/Values

To ensure organization-wide cultural and operational adoption, CDR concepts must be aligned with your mission. People increasingly want to work for, buy from, and invest in companies that act responsibly, so make responsibility in all its forms a core part of how you conduct business, including with your digital products, services, and practices. 

Technology Creation and Data Capture

Legal and regulatory guidelines often require methods by which users can provide informed consent about how you use their data. Digital product teams within your organization as well as external vendors should be educated and empowered to adopt more responsible design and development practices.

Operations and Decision-Making

Whether it’s a new HR system or technology to manage financial transactions on the blockchain, operationalizing CDR requires organization-wide buy-in. Leadership needs to set the vision then empower teams to make decisions aligned with the organization’s overall mission, vision, and values. This won’t happen overnight. 

Audits and Impact Assessment

In order to improve CDR efforts, you first need to establish a baseline. Figure out where you are right now, learn where potential risks or roadblocks exist, then make a plan to improve over time. Decisions made here must translate to clear, actionable guidelines. 

Test-Driven Improvements

Finally, embrace collaboration and continuous improvement. Adopt a test-driven approach for multidisciplinary teams within your organization. Earmark the resources necessary to test hypotheses, learn, and improve your efforts over time. 

Committing to Corporate Digital Responsibility

CDR is a nascent discipline. In researching this post, the paper I quoted several times above noted that only eight leading journals have published about 50 papers on this and related topics since 1986. Most of these don’t offer concrete advice. However, the breakneck speed at which technology is advancing requires that we put ethical guidelines in place across sectors, the sooner the better. 

As a veteran digital agency and part of the global Certified B Corp community, responsibly considering stakeholders when making business decisions is in our DNA. Good corporate governance practices—including those related to using digital products and services responsibly—are key to how we follow through on our commitments.

That’s why we’re picking up the CDR baton and running with it. In coming posts, we’ll explore various concepts and examples of these practices in action, including detailed breakdowns of the four categories mentioned above. We plan to implement our own CDR policies and practices as well. This will ensure that both our client work and internal projects adhere to the highest standards of accountability, transparency, and social and environmental responsibility. 

If we truly want a more inclusive and regenerative economy, organizations of all stripes need to put corporate digital responsibility practices at the heart of their operations and culture. We’re making this commitment. Will you? 

Tim Frick founded Mightybytes in 1998 to help mission-driven organizations solve problems, amplify their impact, and meet business and marketing goals. He is the author of four books, including Designing for Sustainability: A Guide to Building Greener Digital Products and Services from O'Reilly Media. Follow Tim on Twitter or connect with him on LinkedIn.