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March 7, 2023

Ethics, Digital Transformation, and Frankenstein vs the Gingerbread Man

By Leah Brown

“If there’s an elephant in the room, it must be chased out quickly or it will leave a bad smell.” That’s how the new book from Mark Schwartz on business ethics in the digital age starts. It’s a particularly “Mark” way of starting a book, and perhaps refreshing for a book on what can be a dreadfully dull subject.

But Mark Schwartz, author of classics like A Seat at the Table and The (Delicate) Art of Bureaucracy, would never be described as dull. Instead, he is known for his smart wit, goofball humor, and keen ability to slice through the BS and call things like they are. Who else could write a book that compares War and Peace to the world of IT, or could harpoon the great white whale of bureaucracy and turn it into something we love?

So, when Mark came to us to say he wanted to write a book about ethics, you can be sure we were excited, eager, and just a little trepidatious about what we would receive. But we knew we wouldn’t be disappointed. And it aligned with a lot of the challenges we were seeing our community talk about.

In his forthcoming book Adaptive Ethics of Digital Transformation: A New Approach for Enterprise Leaders (Featuring Frankenstein vs. the Gingerbread Man), Mark brings a fresh voice to what is a heated and messy conversation.

As he puts it in the preface to the book:

Every genre of writing has its conventions, and books on ethics have high standards for fear-mongering, soberness, seriousness, smugness, and—damn it—authorial qualifications. I’m sure there’s value in all that, but it just wasn’t me.

So, what could I bring to the conversation that was new? It occurred to me that maybe that in itself was the right angle; maybe I could write from the point of view of someone with only a soupçon of anger, trying to think through difficult ethical issues, as puzzled as anyone else, figuring out as I went along what I was supposed to have learned in graduate school.

But don’t worry, this isn’t just a book of ethical musings and authorial rambles. We are also treated to something much more than empty philosophizing. Mark helps us wade through the murk of what it means to be an ethical business leader in a vastly changing world.

Organizations have been struggling with change since the start of the technological revolution,

“…brought on by advances in technology, emerging ideas on good ways of working, new generations of workers and consumers arriving in the marketplace with different values, and changes in government regulation and geopolitics. Large, traditional enterprises like banks, healthcare companies, and even government agencies are trying to learn from more nimble and disruptive digital native businesses, and finding it confusing and stressful.”

Instead of focusing on the sexy ethical quandaries we read so much about (“Is it okay to kick a robot dog?” famously among them), Mark focuses on the everyday issues of digital business ethics that are affecting nearly every customer and employee today.

Instead of writing about evil, greedy, tech companies with foosball tables and free soft drinks in their offices, I could stick to the subject I’ve been writing about for years: how can large organizations with built-in dysfunctions (they all have them) who are trying to do a digital transformation (whatever that is) think about ethical issues (that they were probably ignoring). The stuff they knew in the back of their minds they probably would need to deal with after emptying the inbox, escaping from the endless budget review meeting, or finding a new coffee shop after the one they’d been going to closed during the pandemic.

In fact, Mark argues that one reason so many organizations have found digital transformation difficult is because it involves a deep change in ethical outlook and an adjustment to the business’s fundamental values. “Company leaders find themselves with one foot stuck in the bureaucratic world of traditional enterprises and the other foot desperately trying to plant itself in the always-moving digital world.”

We’ve seen endless presentations and read countless articles about how successful digital transformation is really a cultural transformation, a mindset shift. And yet we still struggle to actually transform. After all, culture feels amorphous. How do you change something that you can’t hold in your fingers? And what is the right culture, if there is such a thing?

In the book, Mark shows us that what we think of as a culture shift is really a fundamental shift in values, a shift that is starkly different from the bureaucratic values most enterprises have been built on. And bureaucracy, as Mark pointed out in his last book, is a type of ethics.

You might not have noticed that your work takes place in an environment structured with ethical assumptions. I want to drag those assumptions out of their hiding places and scrutinize them. I want to think through some moral puzzles with you, rather than pretending I have the answers. And I want to suggest that just as digitally transforming an enterprise is hard, so is making responsible moral decisions. In fact, there’s a connection between the two.

Unless you have your MBA, business ethics isn’t likely to be a subject you took in school. And many of you might argue that business ethics in and of itself is a bit of a misnomer. Mark frames the ethics of digital transformation as a matter of “cultivating and applying virtues rather than applying rules.” As Mark points out:

We usually think of business ethics in terms of evil, smirking billionaires doing vile things like defrauding grandmothers and feeding people carcinogenic rigatoni. But most ethical challenges in business are just situations where there are competing ethical demands, and we have to choose between them.

It’s these daily competing ethical demands that I think make Mark’s book so appealing. He’s not trying to solve the ethical problems of AI (though there is a great chapter on it), but to help us in our daily ethical dilemmas of things like fairness to our coworkers versus duty to our employer, using customer data to increase shareholder value or honor implied trust with our customer.

The book shows that ethics in the digital world, our world, needs to be driven not by rules but by values. Sounds pretty agile to me, which should fit comfortably into our agile digital world.

We’ll be posting more about Mark’s upcoming book in the coming weeks as we lead up to its publication in July, but we want to leave you with one last disclaimer, in Mark’s own words:

I know, the apocalypse is coming, and this book will not be opinionated enough to stop it. But that’s no reason not to read it.

PS. Curious about that Frankenstein vs. the Gingerbread Man in the book’s subtitle? Yeah, we were too. But we’ll explain it more in our upcoming post.

- About The Authors
Leah Brown

Leah Brown

Managing Editor at IT Revolution working on publishing books for the modern business leader.

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