IT MATTERS: Ethics, Information Systems, and a Steel Ax
Ethics has been a growing concern within the Information Systems (IS) community for years. A variety of authors, both academic and practitioner, have encouraged IS professionals to “do the right thing” when it comes to the ethics of information and technology. This ongoing discussion often examines issues such as “ad-ware,” “spyware,” illegal file sharing, and pornography in the workplace. However, very little attention is given to a much more basic ethical impact of information systems technology—the IS enabled redistribution of power within an organization.
Power and Ethics
The distribution of power is an ethical issue. Power is often discussed in terms of one person’s or group’s ability to influence another person’s or group’s behavior. Thus, anytime one individual or group influences a change in behavior in another individual or group, that influence can be viewed as an act of power. Such exercises in power are inherently laden with ethical implications. Does the new behavior create a “just” outcome? Does it maximize the common good? Does it maximize the good for those in power at the expense of those without it?
For example, consider the 1999 example of Enron’s board of directors waiving the corporate Code of Ethics to allow Enron financial officers to complete the now famous off-balance-sheet deals that ultimately led to their bankruptcy. Very few would argue that this exercise of power was based on adequate ethical consideration. Many business and IS professionals, however, find the ethical implications of IS decisions less obvious. After all, they argue, isn’t technology value-neutral?
Is Technology Value-Neutral?
It is clearly much easier to identify the ethical implications of Enron’s off-balance-sheet endeavors than to find the ethical implications of IS, for instance an Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) implementation. Many would argue that technology is, in itself, value-neutral. According to this argument, the technology is simply a value-neutral tool bereft of ethical implications.
I do not find this argument very satisfying. Admittedly, technology has no value in-and-of itself—ethical or otherwise. What gives technology value is its application to address business problems and transform organizations, that is, to redistribute information and consequently power throughout an organization. Therefore, the implementation of information technology requires serious reflection about the ethical distribution of power.
Perhaps an example can clarify my meaning. Lauriston Sharp recounts an interesting story of how a new technology (the steel ax) introduced profound ethical problems for the Yir-Yiront aboriginal tribe of the Australian outback. The Yir-Yiront were a nomadic tribe whose culture was largely unchanged for centuries. The central technology of the Yir-Yiront was the stone ax, which they used for producing food, building wooden huts, and gathering firewood. However, because of a lack of natural resources, the Yir-Yiront were unable to manufacture their own stone axes and instead acquired them through trade with another local tribe at annual religious festivals. Thus, stone axes were a precious commodity among the tribe and were exclusively owned by the tribal elders. Young men and women, who did much of the manual labor for the tribe, borrowed stone axes from their fathers, uncles and/or husbands according to custom and well-established social order.
When Christian missionaries approached the tribe, they distributed many steel axes to the tribal people, both as gifts and as a method of payment. The missionaries believed the lighter, harder, and more durable steel axes would rapidly improve living conditions for the Yir-Yiront. Unfortunately, little social progress was evident. Instead, Sharp reported that the tribal laborers used the increased efficiency of the steel ax as a reason to allot more time for sleep. Furthermore, since the tribal elders did not trust the missionaries, the young men and women were the ones most likely to adopt the steel axes. This division within the tribe led to a severe status disruption in the tribe’s social order. Tribal elders, who were once highly respected throughout the tribe, became dependent upon the young men and women and thus were forced to borrow steel axes from these social “inferiors.” The superiority of the steel ax tools ultimately even affected the Yir-Yiront’s broader social and religious order as younger tribe members were no longer interested in participating in the annual religious festivals during which trade with other tribes had occurred.
It is beyond the scope of this column to analyze and criticize the actions of the Yir-Yiront, or of the Christian missionaries who accidentally inflicted dramatic social changes upon the tribe’s ancient culture. However, the story of the Yir-Yiront demonstrates how the implementation of a technology as simple as a steel ax can have dramatic and unexpected ethical influences throughout an established social system. So what does this anecdote have to do with information technology?
Information Technology as a “Steel Ax”
In this example, one can argue that a steel ax is in itself value-neutral. It is equally obvious, however, that its implementation among the Yir-Yiront was laden with ethical implications. In a similar way, many of the organizational technologies employed by organizations are in themselves value-neutral. There is nothing inherently (un)ethical about information systems such as ERP, Customer Relationship Management (CRM), and Business Intelligence (BI) systems. However, once installed within an organization, such systems inevitably lead to new formations of power.
In a classic article on “Power, Politics, and an MIS Implementation,” Lynne Markus describes how a centralized accounting system elicited enormous user resistance precisely because of its impact on the power structures of a firm. By centralizing the accounting system, management hoped to create new efficiencies, reduce labor costs, and create a common financial picture throughout the firm. End users, however, read between the lines of this justification and believed that the centralized system was in fact an attempt by management to consolidate more power at headquarters. Notice that the technology itself—a combination of hardware and software for monitoring financial information—may arguably have been value-neutral. However, its application was not viewed as value-neutral by end users because it seemed to take power from them while increasing the power of centralized management.
These examples demonstrate the heart of this issue: In practice, information systems are inherently laden with values and thus are ethically charged. That does not mean they are “bad” or “evil” or “unjust.” It does, however, necessitate reflection before implementing such systems.
When Implementing IS
Reflection on the ethical implications of implementing an information system involves answering at least four distinct questions:
1. Who gains power?
If as the saying goes “knowledge is power,” then answering this question should be fairly straightforward. When a new system is implemented, who gains access to or control of new, improved, or more valuable information?
2. Who loses power?
When a new system is implemented, who loses the ability to view, manipulate, or control access to relevant information?
3. What are the intended consequences?
The final two questions must be answered from the perspective of both groups above—those who gain and those who lose control of information as a result of the new system. Those who stand to gain power from the system will often answer this question with responses such as “increased efficiency,” “reduced cycle-times,” or “more user-friendly systems.” However, those who stand to lose power may have a completely different view of the intended consequences of a system (e.g., “micromanagement”).
4. What are some possible unintended consequences?
Of the four questions, this one is clearly the hardest to answer, but in many ways, it is the most important question. Possible answers may include both positive consequences (e.g., increased flexibility for more rapid response to business changes), and negative ones (e.g., strained relationships between executives and line managers).
Although information systems may be objectively value-neutral, their implementation within a social setting is necessarily laden with ethical implications because these systems restructure the flow and control of information—and thus power—within organizations. As seen with the introduction of the steel ax to the Yir-Yiront tribe in Australia, new technology can have far-reaching and sometimes hard to predict implications for a firm that adopts such systems. By answering the four questions listed above, IS and business managers will have foresight into the likely ethical implications of an IS implementation and may therefore have the opportunity to address potential ethical concerns beforehand to increase the success of an IS implementation.
 For instance, see Gotterbarn, D. “Do the Right Thing,” CIO, 15 May (12) 1992: p. 26-27; and Smith, H. J. “But What Is the ‘Right Thing’?: Ethics and Information Systems in the Corporate Domain,” MIS Quarterly Executive June, 3 (2) 2004: p. 106-115.
 Emerson, R.M. “Power-Dependence Relations,” American Sociological Review, February, 27 (1) 1962 p.1.
 For a fuller treatment of ethics in the workplace, see Charles Kerns’ GBR article, “Creating and Sustaining an Ethical Workplace Culture” at http://gbr.pepperdine.edu/033/ethics.html/.
 Kidder, R.M. “Ethics at Enron,” Ethics Newsline, 22 January, 5 (3) 2002.
 Sharp, L. “Steel Axes for Stone Age Australians,” in Edward H. Spicer (ed.), Human Problems in Technological Change. (New York: Russel Sage Foundation): 69-72.
 Markus, M.L., “Power, Politics, and an MIS Implementation,” Communications of the ACM, June, 26 (6) 1983: p. 430-444.
About the Author(s)
Michael Williams, PhD, is an assistant professor of Information Systems at the Graziadio School of Business and Management at Pepperdine University. Dr. Williams earned a PhD in Information Systems from the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University. He received an MDiv and an MA from Abilene Christian University. Prior to entering academe, Dr. Williams was an IT consultant in the Washington, D.C. area.