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July 25, 2023

Leading in Digital Transformation

By Mark Schwartz

This post is excerpted from Adaptive Ethics for Digital Transformation by Mark Schwartz.

If you are the leader of a digital transformation, I suspect that no one has told you that ethical visioning is part of your job. But it is. It is the powerful but subtle component of the transformation from traditional to digital ways of thinking. You can no longer be neutral and impersonal, as the bureaucratic ethic would have you be. A digital organization is full of people who have brought themselves to the office, and their selves have feelings, beliefs, and preferences. You must care for them, as Victor Frankenstein did not care for his creation. You have customers and a public who want to preserve their dignity as autonomous human beings and are therefore sensitive to being manipulated. You can’t just “do what the data says.” You are compelled to make ethical decisions.

The challenge for all of us who try to lead large-scale digital transformations in our enterprises is that we’re faced with conflicting imperatives. We must maximize returns for shareholders and we must satisfy social obligations. We must empower teams and we must make sure they produce reliably. We must adapt to changing circumstances and we must predict results and deliver on our predictions. We must build deep relationships with customers and we must preserve their privacy and refrain from manipulating them inappropriately. We have powerful new digital tools, and we know some of them will improve the lives of customers, but we face a shifting ethical environment and no clear guidance on what is or isn’t acceptable.

We’ve dealt with challenges like this before, albeit in a different context. In software delivery, for example, we’ve learned that we can deal with complexity by maintaining a strong overall vision for where we want to go but making smaller, incremental steps to get there, using lots of feedback to stay on course. We’ve learned to listen carefully to customers, and today they are telling us that we need to communicate an ethical vision. It would be a mistake to think of ESG as just a matter of doing the minimum necessary for compliance. Customers want to know where we stand.

My book is about ethics in digital transformation. But to talk about ethics in the abstract is to miss a key point: ethics, or proper behavior, only makes sense in relation to a desired target state. I can’t tell you what rules to follow, because a rule book just doesn’t exist. If it did, it would be incomplete and outdated in a week, and impossible to apply in the real world. Besides, as I said, I don’t want to fight with your spiritual advisors. I’m afraid that Socrates will corner me in the market and start asking me why my ethical rules are better than anyone else’s. And who am I to tell you what to do? My only qualification is that I spent many hours over my keyboard writing this book.

Ethics is not about rules handed down from the past, but about a future state we desire. We aren’t limited by some kind of legacy ethical technical debt, rules that haven’t been upgraded since Immanuel Kant and are no longer supported. Ethics is about transforming to an envisioned state.

Instead of worrying about robot dogs, we should focus on the most critical of ethical questions: What do we want? Or, to put it in techno-business terms, what does success look like? What are we trying to optimize?  

The Age of Enlightenment, the age that created deontology, bureaucracy, and shepherdess hats, gave way to the Romantic Era in Europe. In The Free World, Louis Menand explains the change:

Romanticism rejected the end of self-understanding and replaced it with the end of self-creation. Science, reason, and universalism, the values of Enlightenment thinkers, were replaced by a new set of values: sincerity, authenticity, toleration, variety. It is from this tradition, not the Socratic tradition, that liberal pluralism derives.

Now we’re talking: these sound a lot like the new values of the digital organization. But Menand is quick to point out that the Romantic tradition was also the root of fascism. In our transition to digital ways of working and being, we must be sure that we retain the values of caring and humility. Manipulating customers against their best interests recalls the fascist manipulation of crowds. The potential class distinction between elite, self-satisfied, techno-savvy and agile-savvy folks and old-school techno-fearful folks is a danger. The flourishing workplace we’re looking to build is one of joint support and joint learning, a community of humans engaged in a mission.

That life we’re shooting for—well, it’s not like we know exactly what it is. It’s something we will learn incrementally. As with any good agile, adaptive approach, we accept change, uncertainty, complexity—and the influence of the other people we share the world with. 

That is digital transformation, stripped of its ERP systems, waterfall or agile initiatives, project or product models, its squads and tribes, its disruptive business models, and its machine learning models. It’s a creative project that we execute together, giving birth to neither unmentored Frankenstein creatures nor runaway desserts, but a world—and a workplace—we’d like to live in.

Read more in Adaptive Ethics for Digital Transformation by Mark Schwartz. Coming July 25, 2023.

- About The Authors
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Mark Schwartz

Mark Schwartz is an iconoclastic CIO and a playful crafter of ideas, an inveterate purveyor of lucubratory prose. He has been an IT leader in organizations small and large, public, private, and nonprofit. As an Enterprise Strategist for Amazon Web Services, he uses his CIO experience to bring strategies to enterprises or enterprises to strategies, and bring both to the cloud. As the CIO of US Citizenship and Immigration Services, he provoked the federal government into adopting Agile and DevOps practices. He is pretty sure that when he was the CIO of Intrax Cultural Exchange he was the first person ever to use business intelligence and supply chain analytics to place au pairs with the right host families. Mark speaks frequently on innovation, bureaucratic implications of DevOps, and using Agile processes in low-trust environments. With a BS in computer science from Yale, a master’s in philosophy from Yale, and an MBA from Wharton, Mark is either an expert on the business value of IT or else he just thinks about it a lot.

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