Ethics has taken on a new role. As defined by philosophers, ethics is the collective agreement about what’s right and wrong in a given community or professional situation. As life increasingly becomes technologically mediated, a new ethics is needed.

In today’s business world, ethics manifests itself in conversations about which behaviours are acceptable and which are not. While the ethics of business are not new, the potential harms and benefits of technology are.

And a great deal is at stake. Organisations that fail to address digital ethics risk four key harms: a loss of customers to more ethical competitors; a loss of employees to more ethical employers; public harm through systemic inequalities; and the loss of a competitive edge.

Yet even those organisations that manage to create a digital ethics strategy still face challenges. They must turn their ideals into actions, which requires new tools and techniques.

Further, these tools and techniques need to be adapted for what Leading Edge Forum (LEF) has defined as the three evolutionary stages of technological maturity:

  • Innovation: Early work is done by “pioneers” who explore new concepts, conduct core research and create completely new — yet only occasionally successful — products and services.
  • Growth: The most promising creations of pioneers are transformed by “settlers” into something useful for a larger audience. Prototypes are turned into products that can be manufactured and made profitable with a viable business model.
  • Industrialisation: The growth work of the settlers is industrialised by “town planners” who take advantage of economies of scale. Products are transformed into utilities and commodities.

Each of these three groups needs an evolutionary ethics framework. First, they will need to identify the group’s unspoken ethical rules and implicit beliefs. Next, they should consider the implications of both existing and potential future components. And finally, they should consider the possible consequences of a technology’s development in the future.

This framework for evolutionary ethics will look different for each group. Here’s a breakdown of each evolutionary stage’s ethical issues:

1. Innovation / Pioneers

  • Core concerns:
    • Which ethical problems do we consider interesting?
    • Which ethical concerns about the innovation we’re developing interest us the most?
    • Are there novel ethical questions in novel fields that interest us?
  • End-directed ethics:
    • Whose ends are being served?
    • Whose means are being used?
    • Are there people or groups who are being treated as either ends or means?
  • Future design thinking:
    • For this technology, what are the best/worst possible uses?
    • Is the system we’re developing fair? If not, how could we design it differently?
    • How are our stakeholders being informed about the technology? And how can they make decisions about it?
    • What are the consequences of inaction? If we did not build this, which inequalities would we be perpetuating?

2. Growth / Settlers

  • Core concerns:
    • Who are our stakeholders?
    • What prior ethical concerns and industry examples exist?
    • Who in our market is underserved, and therefore someone we could build for?
  • End-directed ethics:
    • What is the full extent of our stakeholders’ needs?
    • Whose interests require our custodianship?
    • What would a reasonable third party say?
  • Future design thinking:
    • What level of influence should different stakeholders have in our design or business-process flow?
    • For a given technology, what are its likely positive and negative implications for the future? How can we mitigate the negatives and emphasise the positives?
    • For a given decision or action, what are the likely consequences? How severe or long-lasting are these consequences likely to be?

3. Industrialisation / Town planners

  • Core concerns:
    • Who would be angry or react negatively if they are not served well?
    • Which laws and frameworks must we consider?
    • What are the ethical concerns of our supply chain and other platforms that serve us?
  • End-directed ethics:
    • How can we practice ethics as a process-focused, duty-oriented utility?
    • What if everyone did what we just did?
    • What are the relevant legal frameworks, regulatory bodies, standards and professional associations?
  • Future design thinking:
    • How can we translate implicit ethical frameworks into explicit, codified approaches?
    • For a given decision or action, what are the likely consequences? And how severe or long-lasting are they likely to be?
    • Can we use ethnographies and oral histories to evolve undocumented norms into a codified form? If so, can we account for likely memory lapses, issues of trust and the overlooking of “natural” factors?

To create your team’s ethics framework, first decide where your team is in this trio of evolutionary stages. Then ask — and answer — the appropriate questions. In this way, you can take a valuable first step toward defining your organisation’s ethical expectations and transforming them into an ethics of real-world action.