Recently I had this opportunity to be part of a group discussion. Its an honour, a reputed university invited me to be part of the discussion. Senior and established academicians at one side. Highly accomplished IT industry professionals at the other side. I am part of the IT industry professionals side, minus the accomplishments of course. The sides I mentioned is to say that there were two kinds of expertise that were present there. Everyone exercised enough respect for everyone around, that only created a wonderful learning experience for all.
Well, I was in the midst of all this. Me, a meagre me, a jack of all. More opinionated than informed. More emotional than logical. More stupid than anything else. It was me who was nodding most part allowing everyone else to speak the most.
The discussion flirted around many areas. How much (if any) the corporates care about and/or consider during innovation process or while marketing it. The interaction between corporates and universities dealing with innovation and what ethics influence this relationship.
Some of the following are my takes and understanding on whatever transpired in the discussion.
Does ethics mean the same to everyone, every time and everywhere?
I doubt. There is not so much difference between individuals and corporations when it comes to standing up to values.
Someone in US asked me once. “You guys drive on the left side of the road right?”. My answer was “depends on our my mood on a given day”.
It is absolutely fine if I drive on the wrong side of the road in Hyderabad. I don’t have to feel guilty about it. If a policeman ever catches me, it’s just a nuisance. He must be in need of some money or he is under the pressure from his bosses to meet the targets. In either case, all that I need to do is to quickly settle the account and move on. But you see, tomorrow is another day, I will drive in the same direction.
The same me, if I have to land in California next week, I don’t even dream of doing a similar thing there. Why? Multiple reasons. Police catching me is not going to be an easy episode. Even if they don’t catch me, its not easy to just get out of the car and walk out casually without being looked down upon. The looks are going to be hard to deal with. They force me to feel damn guilty. Besides the police and the looks, it’s going to be extremely dangerous to drive on wrong side in CA to start with. No one there would expect any traffic coming from the wrong side. The probability of a head-on collision and me dying instantly has highest probability there. This fact that “they don’t expect me” on the wrong side makes me feel either guilty, die or pay huge fine. But the origin is, what is expected in the general public.
Quite often it is attributed to the inefficiency and corrupt police for the situation in Hyderabad/India. I don’t subscribe to it. It is not because of the umpteen number of police standing in US and elsewhere that is making the situation better there. It is rather, the conduct and expectations of the general public that is making the police and me to behave the way we behave there or here.
Now, why wouldn’t I bring back the same discipline and guilt while coming back from California to here? Why can’t I just follow the rules. Yes, I may try that for a day, a week and a month. But, day after day I find myself being the last one to reach the destination. Will be a regular loser. Will be honked from behind. Will become a laughing stock. All this for not breaking the rules. Not sure how long I can hang on to this. I don’t have to win, at least, I don’t want to lose because of I happen to have this burden of value system.
And so, my value system gets base lined based on where I am individually. Will that be any different for an organization? Should that be expected? I would argue and believe that the corporations struggle with the same dilemma every day.
“Child labour is bad”. Okay, well said. But what age determines childhood? If an organization has to compete in a specific country where it is alright to employ a 15 yr old (hypothetical). Should it hold back to its parent organization’s standard of not recruiting younger than 18yrs?
There was a lot of discussion about Open Source vs captive ownerships of s/w. To confess, I don’t claim I completely understand the discussion. The name Microsoft figured multiple times as a poster-bad-boy of the discussion.
I am not sure what Microsoft are others s/w orgs are expected to do to be good boys. Are they supposed to open up all the intellectual property rights? Give out all their code of their operating systems and applications?
I found the discussion utterly silly. (Or may be I didn’t understand the context and misrepresenting here).
Well, I can comprehend this argument fully by taking an extreme leftist stand. Opposing private property. Specifically the knowledge/intelligence becoming monopoly and private is fully opposed in a socialist system. Whether you and I agree with such a system is a totally different discussion.
We all know and aware that we are in a capitalist system. We all own lands, homes, properties and so on. Once we agree to be part of this system, what is it so surprising about an enterprise holding its own creation? As long as they are complying with the laws of the land, its entirely up to them to decide.
(Well, some of us in the industry believe opening up will revolutionize the technological development. That is due to the collaborative nature of it and by exploiting the collective wisdom of many. We here are arguing that it may be a better “business decision”. Not evaluating any ethics here. And we don’t expect organizations like Microsoft would have to listen to us let alone agreeing to us)
I am sensitive to the fact that there are a few innovations that are currently proprietary but are needed for the larger causes of humanity. Imagine an expensive AIDS formula. Can the world demand the industry to make it available cheaply to all the mankind? In Africa and in third world? Question is, on what grounds such a demand be made? The world chose to be in the capitalist system. What are they cribbing about it now? That is where the govts are subsidizing those formulas and making those available to the world. That is where some of the corporations have their CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) initiatives to address few societal needs. But again, the CSRs should not be taken any more seriously than me throwing a one rupee coin at a beggar on the street corner.
Lets get it. Corporations are there for making profits. Who is surprised?. That is their purpose of existence. Their DNA. Trying to define ethics of an organization in terms of emotions, sentiments, intents and ideologies is not going to take us anywhere. Following are what I look at to see how much “ethical” an organization is.
In a capitalist system, we are entitled and have a right to expect each of these corporations to follow the laws of the land. For example, there are multinational manufacturing industries in India who are apparently not honouring the unionization of their work force. The Indian law fully permits the workers to form unions. Whether unions are good or not, that is to be decided by our own elected leaders and parliament. Once it’s a law, I expect American, EU and Japan companies to follow the law by dot.
Conducting business legally is the primary characteristic of conducting business ethically.
The recent recession has been attributed to the poor business decisions of some of the banks, financial institutions and such. Can that be called greed? May be. Is greed unethical? Not long ago the whole media, including hollywood chanted “greed is good”. It went to the extent that the entire development of human race is credited to greed. Just when the market started falling down, people started questioning that wisdom :) How do we understand this greed, again within the same context of capitalist world we are in.
If I move all my money into high risk investment option and lose everything, it is just my bad luck. And you trusted me to invest your money along with mine, bad luck to you too. in all these matters, yes I am greedy, yes you are greedy. But neither of us are unethical
However, if I have successfully lured you to invest in my fund by giving you misinformation, that’s when I become unethical.
How does this translate corporates? Basically identical.
Corporations trying to steal competitor’s plans and data, spreading wrong information to customers, making wrong promises to employees, customers and investors etc., are all unethical behaviours.
Trying to make more money doesn’t make them more ethical or less ethical.
Do corporations have Responsibility? This is exactly the same question, do citizens have responsibility?
I have the responsibility of complying with the law. But do I have the responsibility to donate Rs 1000/- to flood victims? How can you demand me to be charitable? Corporate Social Responsibility is exactly the same.
The more complicated question would be, what is the responsibility of the corporate against environment and surroundings. Even in these matters, there is no point in becoming emotional and rallying against corporations. Unless they have violated a law. Its our polity and government that allowed them to operate the way they are doing. There are allegations that few multi national beverage companies are drying out the ground water and polluting whatever is remaining. No point in here trying to classify this as ethical or not. Its the state and central government that have to set the norms. If they are not complying, take them to task.
Can we classify all the mankind into good guys and bad guys? May be possible in Hollywood, Bollywood and Tollywod. Not in the real world.
Similarly, organizations who balance their greed, who are reasonably well aware of their impact to their surroundings and finally who never would violate any law of the land are the ones respected everywhere in the world.
Apparently, most fortune 500 companies also figure in the most respected companies lists. It should not be a surprise. The ethical behaviour has been proved time and again as a long term business strategy. We will not open an account in a bank that we suspect will sell our personal details to someone else.
It would be a futile exercise to have an ideology driven, academic discussions and assessments when we are talking about corporates that lived the test of times.