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Digital ethics: main ingredient for successful digital transformation


To the organisation of the future, digital ethics is not just another buzzword, but at the heart of its success

Organisations that are successful in their digital transformation distinguish themselves by broad support for and confidence in the way they use digital technologies. In order to achieve this, it is important that organisations pay attention to digital ethics on time in the transformation process and make it an inseparable part of their business operations. The focus is on their willingness to take responsibility for complying with their own values, according to PwC professionals Mona de Boer and David van de Merwe.

Trust in digital technology cannot be taken for granted

Digitisation is at the root of major economic and social shifts in our society, now and in the future. Innovative (data) technologies - such as 'intelligent automation', artificial intelligence (AI) and blockchain - have enormous social and economic potential. In the COVID-19 crisis, for example, we saw organisations and governments unquestionably turning to digital technologies to deal with the (consequences of the) crisis: technology for working from home, corona apps, drones. At the same time, headlines and the public debate also showed that trust in digital technology cannot be taken for granted. And that trust is desperately needed, because the use of unfamiliar digital technology is causing society and organisations a great deal of (unnecessary) costs.

Now that - accelerated by the crisis - we are on the eve of the next wave of digital transformation with a wider reach than before, it is more important than ever for organisations to pay attention to digital ethics. Digital ethics revolves around the ethical principles that an organisation applies in order to develop and implement digital technologies in a responsible manner. This way, an organisation's digital ethics steers its actions towards its stakeholders.

Further digitisation raises ethical questions

At the same time, we find that the complexity and impact of digital technologies are increasing. In the past, the emphasis of digitisation was mainly on automating relatively simple, standardised and repetitive tasks in order to make processes more efficient. Nowadays it is mainly about supporting complex(er) decision making, with more far-reaching consequences for individuals, such as customers, employees and other stakeholders of organisations. Digital technologies are now entering previously inaccessible areas, such as human rights.

Digital ethics goes beyond data protection and privacy issues

When it comes to trust in digital technologies, currently the focus of organisations' attention is mainly on data protection and privacy. This is understandable, because with the introduction of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in 2018, legal standards have emerged for this aspect of digital ethics and there is an urgent need to comply with them. However, digital ethics has a broader scope than only that. In addition to privacy, there are other key ethical concepts relevant to organisations, for example, autonomy, non-discrimination, transparency, accountability and social justice.

This broader scope is also illustrated by the 'Ethics Guidelines for Trustworthy Artificial Intelligence' published by the European Commission in 2019. These guidelines identify the ethical principles and associated values to be respected in the development, implementation and use of AI systems. For example, they make it clear that AI systems must be developed, implemented and used in a manner consistent with the ethical principles of respect for human autonomy, prevention of harm, fairness and accountability. 

Design their digital transformation in a value-oriented way

In the context of digital transformation, with many organisations this issue is often still uncharted territory. At the same time, there is no luxury to address this issue of trust once the digital transformation is complete, because fundamental design choices cling to it. A broad social acceptance of new technologies and business models can only be achieved if organisations design their digital transformation in a value-oriented way, or 'ethics by design'.

Digital ethics must be operationalised as an integral part of business operations

It is currently difficult for organisations to implement digital ethics, mainly due to a lack of recognised ethical regulations to strengthen society's trust in the digital economy and a lack of staff with the necessary skills to do so. At the same time, achieving the set result of their digital transformations and the pace at which they can achieve them in a dynamic market, it is crucial that organisations invest in this.

In practice, digital ethics requires the following concrete actions from organisations:

  • Determine what requirements the organisation must meet (legislation and regulations) and wants to meet (ethical principles and values) in its digital transformation. 

Ethical principles and values provide a framework for what an organisation considers 'right' and 'wrong' and usually stem from the mission, vision and strategic policy of the organisation. Insurers, for example, are familiar with the principle of solidarity, a core value from which they derive their raison d'être. An important value in healthcare is 'autonomy', respecting the patient's wishes as much as possible. Such principles and values have important implications on how an organisation can (and wants to) use digital technologies and what its stakeholders expect. For this reason, there must be clarity about this at an early stage of the digital transformation process.

Incidentally, identifying the ethical principles and values mentioned above for the deployment of digital technologies is not an isolated exercise in relation to business operations in the broad sense. More and more organisations are focusing from the core of their activities on (re)defining their broader social impact and translating this into their strategy. In this respect, the seventeen Sustainable Development Goals set by the United Nations in 2015 are not only a driver for this process, but also an instrument to give substance to these social ambitions. The use of technology is an inseparable part of this.

  • Operationalisation of the chosen principles and values. Which means:
    • Giving further meaning to these principles and values in terms of content and how, during the development of the relevant digital technologies, it will be ensured that they are met. Characteristic of ethical principles and values is that they have several generally accepted definitions. Fintechs and recruittechs, for example, have to deal with more than twenty statistical measures of the value of 'honesty' when using artificial intelligence in their lending or job matching processes. An organisation will therefore have to make a targeted investment to further define the chosen principles and values using recognised standards.
    • Determine where potential conflicts between the various principles and values may arise and how the organisation intends to address them. It is not unusual for ethical principles and values to come into conflict with each other or with business economic values. For example, transparency in algorithmic decision-making can conflict with data protection. As well as efficiency with, for example, non-discrimination. Within the boundaries of legislation and regulation too - there is no right or wrong. The organisation will have to determine what balance effectively serves its goals and those of its stakeholders. This requires both clear ethical leadership towards stakeholders and more concrete dialogue with stakeholders on digital-ethical issues.
  • Measuring and steering compliance with the principles and values during and after the implementation of the relevant digital technologies, and (being able to) account for this to the stakeholders of the organisation.

This requires deeper cooperation between employees who implement the technology and representatives of the selected principles and values. In this way, what is expected to become operational is actually technologically guaranteed. 

Above all, the actions mentioned above should not stand alone. Preferably, they should fit in with existing choices, working methods and processes within the organisation. This ensures that digital ethics are always aligned with the core of business operations, and that more regulations with which the organisation must comply are not unnecessarily created. Towards the future, the emphasis will be on the integration of digital ethics principles as opposed to attempts at retrospective control.


Mona de Boer

Mona de Boer

Partner, Assurance Risk Assurance, PwC Netherlands

Tel: +31 (0)61 088 18 59

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