Ethics for Technologists (and Facebook)

Harvard Business Review

I recently finished writing a book about business experimentation and its future. In retrospect, if I had to write it again, I’d include a section or chapter on ethics.

The ongoing explosion of technologically-enabled business opportunities inherently expand the ethical dilemmas, quandaries and trade-offs managements will confront. Consider the global controversies surrounding Facebook’s “social mood contagion” experiments. (Full disclosure: My brother is a senior Facebook executive; this post does not reflect our conversations.) As Big Data resources and analytic opportunism become more prevalent, larger themes materialize around the nature of relationships between organizations and their communities of interest. Ongoing organizational learning is essential — but does that justify treating selected customers and clients as virtual lab rats or guinea pigs? What level of explicit consent or awareness permits customers to become resources to be exploited, explored, or cultivated for knowledge and insight? Indeed, what does “informed consent” even mean when neither the customer nor the researcher can know in advance what the potential risks and impacts of —say—a social media experiment may be?

What makes today—and tomorrow —so very, very different from even a decade or five years ago is how the cost and complexity of running serious “large scale” human experiments have radically declined. Marketing experiments that might have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in 1995 might cost a couple of hundred dollars in 2015; maybe less. Literally every individual and organization with a web presence has both the ability and opportunity to cost-effectively perform real-time experiments on people that would have been impossible in the 20th Century. Everyone online can—if they want to make the effort—become an amateur Asch, Skinner, Zimbardo, Pavlov, Ariely, Kahneman and/or Vernon Smith. Every business can —and will—treat their digital media platforms as laboratories and R&D facilities. Indeed, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the Internet is the greatest research, development and experimentation medium in the history of mankind. (And “the internet of things” has barely begun…)

More people—smart and dumb, honorable and sleazy, careful and sloppy—will be running more and more experiments for you, with you and on you; sometimes with your explicit knowledge and consent, more likely not. Most of the times people won’t mind or won’t care….but sometimes, they will. A lot.

So the ethical question and challenge organizations should openly—not secretly or quietly—confront is:  How can we honestly, openly and authentically demonstrate that our experiments are reasonable, fair and safe?

I am pleased to report that this turns out not to be a difficult question to answer or challenge to meet. In fact, it’s fairly easy and straightforward: The organization must be ready, willing and able to make employees, their friends and their families a full and equal part of the experimental protocols. In other words, an organization should not run any experiments on customers or clients that it would not run on the families, friends and colleagues of its managers, leaders and employees.

For example, if your organization wants to run an experiment seeing if certain words, images and memes can influence the social media communications of your best customers, you better make sure that relevant family members, friends and colleagues are similarly exposed and monitored. If you’re reluctant —or they’re reluctant—to participate in such a protocol, you had better fundamentally rethink what you are doing. If your organization’s experiments treat your family, your colleagues’ families and their friends with the same care and respect that they treat your customers and clients, you are unlikely to be successfully accused of hypocrisy and exploitation. To the contrary, you will be setting a standard that is clearly understood by all—whether they agree with it or not.

Let me emphatically stress that this experimental heuristic is not a variant of The Golden Rule. This has nothing to do with what experiments you or the researchers would be willing to perform on yourselves. Indeed, the rich and controversial history of medical self-experimentation confirms an important bias every organization should know: Innovators are happy to use themselves as guinea pigs and lab rats for their ideas. They’re passionate and committed to the pursuit of knowledge. They’re exactly the wrong people to be determining the perceived risks and appropriateness of experimental designs and impacts. In purely human terms, serious researchers are the worst possible judges of their own proposed experiments.

Consequently, experiments and experimental designs should become part of the everyday conversation of the firm—just like its brand value proposition and corporate mission. Human experimentation shouldn’t be the province of the researchers, innovators and lawyers—it should be a part of the larger discussion and debate of how the organization wants to collaborate and work with customers and clients. Indeed, the fact that one’s family and friends can and will be a part of those experimental protocols means that employees will take extra care in viewing how they want to experiment with, for and on their customers and clients.

Will some of those experimentation discussions and debates become heated? Will honest and honorable people disagree about what kinds of experiments are appropriate for friends and families and customers? Of course. But those are good arguments. Those are arguments that force real leaders to understand and persuade rather than command and impose. The ethics of innovative experiments are better and healthier when they’re open and shared rather than concealed and departmentalized. Just as the war is too important to be left to the generals, human experimentation is too important to be left to the researchers and lawyers. If an experiment is good enough for your best customer, it’s good enough for your best friend.

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