3 lessons in tech ethics from a tech giant

tech ethics company culture

Tech ethics are increasingly being embedded into the culture of tech companies Image: Photo by Marvin Meyer on Unsplash

Brian Green
Director, Technology Ethics, Santa Clara University
Emily Ratté
Project Specialist, World Economic Forum
Christina Zhang
Senior Manager, Ethical and Inclusive Products, Salesforce
Rayce Smallwood
Content Specialist, Ethical and Inclusive Products, Salesforce
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  • In the wake of data breaches and questions about surveillance and artificial intelligence (AI), it is hard for tech companies to gain the trust of consumers.
  • Following case studies on Microsoft and IBM, the World Economic Forum’s Responsible Use of Technology project community worked with Salesforce to dive deep into its journey towards more intentional innovation.
  • Responsible Use of Technology: The Salesforce Case Study shows how some of the industry’s most influential businesses see their role in designing a trustworthy way forward for tech.

The more people live with technology, the less they seem to trust it. In the wake of data breaches, questions about surveillance and increasingly consequential decisions being made by artificial intelligence (AI), it’s no surprise that the average person’s relationship with technology companies is complicated. But at one of the world’s largest tech companies, a dedicated team of tech ethics and accessibility experts is working to make it easier to believe that trustworthy technology is possible.

As part of an ongoing effort to understand how ethics, accountability and action evolve in the tech industry, members of the World Economic Forum’s Responsible Use of Technology project community worked with Salesforce to dive deep into its journey towards more intentional innovation. In tandem with our reports on Microsoft and IBM, Responsible Use of Technology: The Salesforce Case Study shows how some of the industry’s most influential businesses see their role in designing a trustworthy way forward for tech.

Tech ethics: core lessons from Salesforce

These are three core lessons to be learnt from Salesforce’s experience with tech ethics and responsible innovation.

1. You can grow a great corporate culture if you lead with values

The elephant in the room with any work on ethics is the reality that difficulty - and even crisis - come eventually. At Salesforce, where using business as a platform for positive change has always been part of the company culture, it was real-world challenges that offered an opportunity to translate company values into real-world action. This came in the form of both grassroots employee activism and executive-level action. After an employee-penned open letter to the CEO expressing concerns about the company working with US Customs and Border Patrol, Salesforce created the first-ever Office of Ethical and Humane Use.

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How is the World Economic Forum ensuring the responsible use of technology?

2. You need a responsible innovation process you can trust

A core part of Salesforce’s approach is turning its ideas into processes that aren’t dependent on any one person’s vision. The company starts with foundational principles and employee buy-in. From there, teams prioritize connecting with consumers to keep their approach grounded in the real world. Insight from a dedicated Advisory Council, to help shape decisions, and centralized accountability within a dedicated tech ethics office, with a dedicated Chief Ethical Use Officer, allows the business to balance the need for perspective with the need for action.

A systemic approach democratizes the work that goes into making a sound, informed decision, taking a wealth of different contexts and perspectives into account when providing guidance for business leaders. And, to work effectively, people need to trust that relevant voices are heard, that the same principles guide every decision and that there’s clear communication and feedback channels that leaders take seriously.

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3. Operationalize tech ethics to drive impact and accountability

Scaling for impact and accountability on tech ethics and inclusion topics requires sharing responsibility across the many areas where decisions about products and processes happen.

Some ways to operationalize principles include: making space for diverse perspectives; having readily available and actionable product-use policy and guidance; embedding ethics into how products are designed, rather than only using after-the-fact reviews; educating and enabling employees; and, investing in multistakeholder collaboration across the industry.

Ultimately, Salesforce’s vision is to be increasingly proactive. While there’s no way to anticipate every risk, it’s easy to imagine the Office of Ethical and Humane Use as a group of weather-proofers. To them, making sure that the proverbial building is built for any weather is as important as being able to predict a storm.

When the people building and using technology know that protections for their privacy, safety, human rights and identity are core elements of the products and services — not patches applied after harm happens — then, Salesforce believes, trust in technology can be restored.

The path forward

As we’ve now seen at Salesforce, IBM and Microsoft, responsible technology is already a priority. And, it’s likely to be at the forefront of more conversations as public awareness, regulatory attention and academic research grow. Today, ethical considerations form the cornerstone of many consumer choices. For individual businesses and interconnected economies, success may depend on making responsible use a foundational part of how products are imagined, designed, maintained and marketed.

But, our case studies also illuminate that no company navigates these issues alone. By closely examining the stories of organizations that don’t shy away from addressing tech ethics, we can learn a great deal about how to shape the road ahead. Every step might not be clear along the way, but by moving together with their peers, partners and the people they serve, organizations can rely on a world community to keep them headed in the right direction.

When we work together to choose our path, it is hopefully possible to make trust an intrinsic part of the journey.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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