The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic ushered in a golden era of technology – but companies must consider the full social, economic and ethical implications of digitalisation, experts said during the Business School's annual conference
COVID-19 accelerated digital transformation across business and society, with technology – from telemedicine to videoconferencing – transforming everyday life for many people. But deploying tech without balancing the social impact can lead to financial and reputational repercussions for organisations.
On the other hand, companies have a unique opportunity to use technology thoughtfully to create a society that’s more inclusive, resilient and sustainable. Experts urged companies to grasp the opportunity at Imperial College Business School’s sixth annual conference, “Leading responsibly in a world moving through crisis”.
Naveed Sultan, Chairman of Citi’s Institutional Clients Group, called for responsible leadership that balances the expectations of every stakeholder including investors. His rallying cry reflected the aims of the Centre for Responsible Leadership at the Business School, set up jointly with Citi’s Treasury and Trade Solutions division.
“Leaders really need to focus on purpose, engagement, fairness and inclusiveness, in addition to, of course, boosting the business capabilities, which is your digital tools, techniques, technologies, data-driven agility and productivity,” said Sultan.
If we can achieve this, then we will go a long way to creating a society that’s more inclusive, resilient and sustainable
Catherine O’Neill, Managing Director at Citi, pointed out that companies were using data to drive key strategic decisions. “Data is probably one of the most valuable assets that companies will have,” she said.
However, she called for companies to be more transparent on user data to strengthen consumer trust in businesses. “Corporations should and will be thinking about how to harness the power of data while also considering the ethical criteria, without it being an impediment to innovation,” O’Neill said.
Even as data privacy regulations tighten in Europe, she feared it could be “too late to put the genie back in the bottle”.
“We have an Internet that has been effectively created on the basis of it being free – in exchange for data,” she pointed out.
Data is being combined with artificial intelligence, but O’Neill called for companies to consider carefully the ethical implications. There is a danger, in some instances, of it unintentionally “creating wider societal divides and inequalities”. This means tough decisions for businesses, she suggested: “Creating [social] value and profit is not always going to go hand-in-hand.”
Philip Sasse, Vice President of Treasury at Unilever, highlighted the potential impact on human jobs. He said automation was performing routine tasks in the corporate treasury – such as transactions – more efficiently and accurately than humans.
He suggested that technology creates new opportunities to free up time of employees to focus on higher value tasks: “We’re redeploying [human] resources in areas that can drive innovation and value for the business, for example in cash forecasting, foreign exchange risk management, or ESG investing.”
Corporations should and will be thinking about how to harness the power of data while also considering the ethical criteria
Sasse underscored the importance of reskilling the workforce in a world of automation. “We have to make sure we take our people along, provide opportunities to obtain future-fit skills and support them through the change and related challenges,” he said.
Although AI is forecast to displace many jobs, there is at least one area where demand for human capital remains robust: cybersecurity. Naina Bhattacharya, Global Chief Information Security Officer for Danone, urged companies to shore up their digital defences, saying that cyber risk could be “the next pandemic”.
She pointed out that hackers were targeting the digital supply chain – the hardware and software that makes up a computer network – to potentially gain access to vast quantities of consumer data.
Therefore, cybersecurity is not just the IT department’s problem: it has also become a boardroom issue. “If you want to be a leader for a digital future, you really need to start thinking about cybersecurity", said Bhattacharya.
Leaders need a values-based approach, which is grounded in an individual’s moral conscious
A critical first step, she suggested, is to determine your organisation’s risk profile and what level of risk you are prepared to accept. The second step is to identify the “crown jewels” – the most important digital assets to protect. The third step is putting in place a plan to prevent and respond to a breach. Increasingly it is a question of “when, not if”, she said.
Although digital transformation was creating risks, the panel concluded that technology had the potential to make a positive contribution to society.
Sultan left attendees with important guidance: “Leaders need a values-based approach, which is grounded in an individual’s moral conscious,” he said. “If we can achieve this, then we will go a long way to creating a society that’s more inclusive, resilient and sustainable.”