Why business should embrace digital responsibility

As society increasingly expects the responsible use of digital technologies, firms with better practices will have a distinct advantage, says . Digital responsibility should not only be seen as a duty to comply with regulations but also as an activity that generates value.

In an era marked by growing mistrust, businesses are confronting significant challenges in maintaining stakeholder trust. Concerns about the misuse of customer data and questionable practices have particularly eroded trust in recent years.

In Switzerland, for example, the hacker attack on Swiss IT service provider Xplain in early June, which compromised sensitive government data1, shed a harsh light on the handling of cyberrisks and vulnerabilities. Meanwhile, the regulatory environment is tightening: on 1 September, Switzerland aligned its data protection standards more closely with EU regulations, thereby increasing obligations for companies.2

i s a doctoral candidate at the Chair of Technology and Innovation Management at ETH Zurich and an expert in digital transformation.

Research shows that people have greater trust in businesses perceived as having strong data protection and robust cyber security defences than those who are perceived to lack them.3 As societal expectations for the responsible use of digital technologies grow, firms that promote better practices will have a distinct advantage.4

In my view, strengthening digital responsibility is not only an ethical obligation, but also a driver of value creation. Brands that are regarded as responsible experience higher levels of stakeholder trust and loyalty. This, in turn, translates into increased sales and enhanced recruitment capabilities.

Yet many businesses have not fully grasped the importance of digital responsibility. Some are overwhelmed by the weight and scope of regulatory requirements, such as those outlined in the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and Switzerland’s new Federal Act on Data Protection (nFADP). Compliance has become their primary focus, leading to a myopic perspective on digital responsibility.

Furthermore, the allure of emerging digital technologies often blinds businesses to the inherent risks involved. Technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and data analytics offer the promise of smarter and faster decision-making, but the risks associated with biased data and unsuitable modelling are often overlooked, leading to poor outcomes.

Anchor digital responsibility within organisations

The solution lies in recognising the clear link between digital responsibility and value creation. Examples from businesses like Apple, Die Mobiliar and Weleda demonstrate how embracing digital responsibility can build trust and drive positive outcomes.

Apple’s prioritisation of data privacy has resonated with its customers, leading to a significant number of users opting out of data collection and an improvement in the company’s trust ratings. Die Mobiliar, a Swiss insurance company, established an interdisciplinary team to develop a data strategy that was aligned with its business goals, ultimately earning it a solid reputation and its customers’ trust. Weleda, a Swiss beauty and naturopathic medicines company, effectively implemented robotic process automation (RPA) while assuring employees that automation would not lead to job losses but rather provide opportunities for upskilling and new roles.

To prioritise digital responsibility, organisations should translate their existing values for the digital realm rather than reinvent them. For example, pharmaceutical companies have long operated ethical committees to ensure that drug development prioritises better health outcomes. In the digital age, companies like Merck have established digital ethics advisory panels to guide them in the use of AI tools and big data applications, safeguarding integrity and trust.

’The shift from risk to opportunity is crucial: businesses should identify how digital responsibility can position them as entities worthy of of stakeholders’ trust in the marketplace.’

Furthermore, even small gestures can make a significant impact. Die Mobiliar’s commitment to offering personal explanations to customers turned down for insurance during online applications demonstrates a dedication to transparency and trust. Weleda maintains an email account for employees via which they can submit questions and concerns regarding digital responsibility, fostering a culture of open communication.

Extend digital responsibility beyond compliance

The path to digital responsibility begins by identifying a business’s intrinsic beliefs and the core principles that govern its operations and goals. These values should serve as a guiding light in every conversation about digital responsibility. Organisations must also assess the specific risks they face as they embrace digitalisation, tailoring their corporate digital responsibility efforts accordingly. Finally, the shift from risk to opportunity is crucial: businesses should identify how digital responsibility can position them as entities worthy of stakeholders’ trust in the marketplace.

Digital responsibility is fast becoming an imperative for today’s organisations. Success is by no means guaranteed. By taking a proactive approach, forward-looking businesses are taking steps to go beyond compliance and are improving their behaviour in areas such as cyber security, data protection and privacy. These practices not only improve digital performance and resilience but also enhance organisational objectives.
Tomoko Yokoi