Sunday, December 12, 2010

Can a process be ethical?

By: Frank Buytendijk, chief marketing officer

Ethics is the philosophical discipline that studies morality. Morality is about what is fundamentally right and wrong, towards yourself as well as to others. I wonder how often 'what is right and what is wrong' is being asked in organizations. It should play an important role in strategic decision-making, particularly in these days, as making ethical mistakes can lead to serious consequences. Most organizations have a code of conduct all employees need to sign. 'Doing the right thing' has become more important than risk management alone.

Many have discussed the idea of what constitutes an ethical organization, or ethical targets and performance indicators. If aggressive cost saving targets leave a procurement officer no choice but to work with suppliers that use environmentally unfriendly materials or even use child labor, that is clearly unethical.

But I have never heard of ethical considerations when designing a process. On the philosophical level, for me, a process is a promise. A process promises that if you use it, the outcome will be timely, predictable, and correct. Processes are often obligatory. You have to use it. If the process itself cannot live up to the promise (because it is for instance too slow), it creates frustration, anger, and in the end lethargy. And it drives people to think of ways to circumvent it. Unethical behavior, yes, but driven by an unethical process.

Considering what is right and what is wrong, ethics in other words, shouldn't only be a strategic discussion, they should be part of every business case, or systems implementation.