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  • Published on: 24.08.2021
  • 6:01 mins

A call to Action

Five Ideas for Integrating Corporate Digital Responsibility into Corporate Strategy

Digital Responsibility – A call to Action

In the final article of our 5x5 ideas series, we shine a light on the topic of Corporate Digital Responsibility (CDR) – but from a wider perspective. Like Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), this topic requires urgent action. For this reason, rather than discussing the specific topics covered by CDR again, this article is an appeal to act on this issue and to not leave it as late as we have done with sustainability. Do not wait until significant and irreparable damage has already been done. The question is: Are we willing and able to learn from the mistakes of the past? The idea of consuming less today to continue living tomorrow seems to be an unappealing prospect for many. An entire generation of adults has utterly failed this “marshmallow test.”

A Bad Deal: Data for Services

Digitalization is now becoming a beacon of hope for achieving a more sustainable future. Perhaps going without is not the only way to relieve the burden on people, animals, and the environment. However, besides offering the world many undeniable advantages and opportunities, digitalization – like industrialization – also represents some considerable disadvantages and risks. The Internet, now an integral part of our daily lives, may be the best example of this. As in the early days of the barter economy we exchange our data for any number of services. More and more people are now realizing that these services that appear free of charge come at a cost after all. Yet the vast majority of users still do not know the true value of their own data. If you trade your digital sovereignty for free access to Facebook, you are making a bad deal and giving away gold in exchange for nothing but a few colorful glass beads.

What’s more, the scale of the problem is widely underestimated. For a long time now, the issue has extended beyond our data being collected unnoticed when we visit a website and then sold in auctions within milliseconds so that other companies can understand us better and predict our behavior. We are now being actively influenced to behave in a certain way. These activities are facilitated by comprehensive findings from scientific behavioral research, which forms the basis of “behavior design” in the economy. As unflattering as it sounds, our reward system works in exactly the same way as that of the pigeons and rats conditioned by the behavioral scientist B. F. Skinner. Anyone who believes that they navigate through the Internet of their own accord is sorely mistaken. Unfortunately for us, our reward system craves validation, which is why we are all obsessed by clicks and likes on Facebook and LinkedIn. The higher the numbers, the more dopamine our brains receive.

A Danger to Societies

But it is not only our individual sovereignty and our consumer behavior that is put at risk by this principle. It is becoming a serious threat to entire societies. Despotic states, unscrupulous interest groups and internationally organized crime gangs have waged war on the free democratic world for many years. Fervent social media users have their opinions reinforced – and are rewarded – by feedback loops. The bubble created around these users becomes increasingly impervious. These issues can only be counteracted by all stakeholders taking a coherent approach. And this includes companies – they must wholeheartedly accept their digital responsibility!

The aim extends far beyond a fair data economy or a hate- and manipulation-free Internet. The concept of CDR applies both to risks and to opportunities. According to our definition, “CDR is about building trust and managing the trade-offs of digitalization.” For example, digitalization can make a significant contribution to 70 per cent of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Digital technologies have the potential to reduce Germany’s emissions by more than half of the total reductions needed. However, it is important to recognize that digitalization also offers Germany the opportunity to ensure that it retains a leading position in the global economy. Policy-makers and economists therefore have a responsibility to fully exploit the available potential and in doing so champion a triple-bottom-line framework.

We view CDR as a consistent development or indispensable extension of CSR. It is the logical consequence of the analog industrial and digital tech worlds converging. The illustration shows a simplified, clear depiction of the approach. In the “old” world, responsibility ended at the point we call “first use,” i.e. the point where products became the property of customers. Today, responsibility extends far beyond that point because digital technologies mean that companies remain permanently connected to their products.

Time to Act!

It’s time for responsibility to also be reassessed within companies. For example, artificial intelligence (AI) is likely to be the key factor that determines whether or not an entire economy will continue to be successful, not just an individual company. In this context, being successful means being prepared for disruption of the labor market and protecting basic democratic principles and established human rights against the possibilities of AI misuse. AI can threaten human dignity in the same way that climate change can threaten life itself. The EU has now recognized this issue and produced the first legally binding framework on ethics and AI. We also explained why this was absolutely essential in our article “Artificial Intelligence and Ethics – A Paper Tiger Waiting to Be Set Free” [https://www.mhp.com/en/company/for-a-better-tomorrow/artificial-intelligence-and-ethics-a-paper-tiger-waiting-to-be-set-free].

There are several other important aspects of corporate digital responsibility that I could outline here but instead, I am initiating a call to action. Since the 1980s, we have been certain that climate change will happen, that it is a man-made problem, and we have known what devastating effects it will have. Nevertheless, over the last forty years we have taken barely any action, and we have even knowingly made the situation worse. In the case of digitalization, things are moving much faster. The industry giants already control our every move in the virtual arena. We cannot and must not allow ourselves to make the same mistake again and let decades pass without taking action.

Five Ideas for Corporate Responsibility

CSR and CDR are inextricably linked and require action as equally urgent issues under the umbrella of corporate responsibility. So what can be done?

Companies can base their actions on these five ideas:

1. Act now and define goals

  • Start with a workshop and familiarize yourself with the concept of CDR.
  • Identify the possible project stakeholders.
  • Define the first rough goals.

2. Work out relevance

  • Set up a project.
  • Determine which CDR topic areas are relevant to your organization.
  • Prioritize the topics.

3. Map with CSR activities

  • Align CSR activities and strategy with your identified CDR issues.
  • Work out synergies and define a consolidated corporate responsibility strategy.
  • Define your modified corporate citizenship strategy as part of this.

4. Create Pareto roadmap

  • Create a roadmap where speed counts. Pareto is a good approach.

  • Define clear responsibilities across disciplines and functions.

  • Keep in mind that change management will be a key success factor.

5. Anchoring as a competition-relevant topic in the corporate strategy

  • Digitization and sustainability are merging into one big transformation and should be top issues with the C-suite.
  • Avoid any green- and bluewashing.
  • Define Integrity and Trust as essential goals for the company and the employees.

Especially for point 5, it is important that we stop viewing ethics as negative moralizing and responsibility as an expensive hindrance. Instead, we should focus on the wealth of opportunities created by well-informed ethical action and establish an appropriate corporate policy. We must all take responsibility. It is the only way to protect people, animals, and the environment, as well as democracy, human rights, and human dignity.

I hope the "call to action" does not go unheard – I would be delighted to hear your thoughts and suggestions via messages to my LinkedIn profile.

About our author

A "Better Tomorrow" is not possible without...:
the will to take responsibility beyond what is necessary and the realisation that there are no simple causal chains, but that we live in systems and have to think like them. A little less "I", a little more "we"; a little less "now", a little more "tomorrow"; a little less hedonism, a little more stoicism and then the better tomorrow could work.

My heart beats faster for..:
Home Sweet Home

Marcus Schüler

Associated Partner, MHP