How Can MBAs Drive Social Responsibility In Tech?

From data breaches to racist glitches, tech companies are struggling to innovate responsibly. We spoke to Robert Strand, professor at the UC Berkeley Haas School of Business, to find out more

It seems that every day we press further along the frontier of tech innovation.

At events such as Apple’s World Wide Developers Conference (WWDC), which took place at the start of this month, tech companies big and small strive to make our daily lives easier, sleeker, more enjoyable.

But, alas, the course of technological progress never did run smooth.

There have been many scandals over the years as tech companies have failed to extend the privilege of cutting-edge tech to everyone who needs it.

From Facebook’s 'racist' hand dryers, which couldn’t recognize darker-pigmented skin, to similar early problems with the Apple Watch’s heart rate monitor, to Google auto-tagging photos of people of color as animals, large tech companies have run into issues time and again with inclusivity in the early stages of technological innovation—frequently with respect to race.

Most commentators agree that one of the largest contributing factors to these missteps is a lack of diversity in the tech workforce, both at the development level and higher up.

Recode recently reported that the number of black employees on the American workforces of tech giants Microsoft, Google, and Apple sat at only 4%, 2%, and 9% respectively in 2017.

As most technologies are first tested by the people who develop them, it stands to reason that if development teams were to diverge from the mostly-white, mostly-male model they have traditionally favored, flaws like the ones listed above would be flagged up sooner—far sooner than when a problematic product reached the shop floor.

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Robert Strand, executive director of the Center for Responsible Business at the University of California at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business and an associate professor at Copenhagen Business School, believes that this lack of diversity, coupled with a voracity for innovation among developers, runs tech companies into rocky terrain.

“Many innovators are driven by the thrill of discovery and the rush that comes from developing a technology and bringing to market,” Robert explains. “In and of itself, this is a wonderful motivation that drives people to create new things.

“In many cases, however, there may be a blind spot for the innovators to consider potential unintended consequences of their innovations.”

These unintended consequences are not limited to the exclusion of whole demographics from a product’s user base—one need think only of the Cambridge Analytica scandal that has rocked Facebook in the past year to see the widespread consequences that technological blind spots can have for tech users, and the companies that perpetrate them.

Facebook’s troubles stemmed from a slowness to recognize the full extent of their influence, and the ways that the platform could be—and, it turned out, had been—grossly manipulated.

This belated recognition is an example of precisely the problem that Robert suspects plagues the tech industry.

“I fear that ethical considerations and potential unintended consequences of a technological advancement are oftentimes more of an afterthought to the innovation process than they are a key element of it,” he says.

Robert recommends the establishment of physical spaces where technical experts can explore the potential consequences of their innovations, working in collaboration with experts who represent very different perspectives and experiences than their own.

This would not only mean increasing racial and gender diversity in tech companies; Robert stresses that it would also mean bringing a diversity of disciplines to the table, including thinkers from such backgrounds as sociology, ethics, anthropology, and history.

“This [diversity of expertise] can help the technical experts to critically self-reflect upon potential unintended consequences of their innovations and, ultimately, foster an innovation process that results in even better products and services, better serving real needs of real people,” Robert says.

Such an approach could perhaps have helped Facebook steer clear of scandal, and it seems that some companies at least are learning from Facebook’s short-sightedness.

Apple, for example, announced at the WWDC this month that the new iOS update will make their products less addictive, rebutting criticisms that the rise of technology necessarily precipitates a decline in our attention spans.

But how can aspiring business leaders apply this advice? What can MBAs with their sights set on Silicon Valley do to safeguard against corporate social irresponsibility in their own tech careers, and the negative business consequences that attend it?

For Robert, the key is having clear intentions from the outset. He advises that the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) put forward by the United Nations represent a helpful list for MBAs of the greatest challenges facing the world today, and the problems that we need the world’s talent working their hardest to fix.

“To innovate more responsibly, I would call for MBAs to set their sights on innovating solutions to directly address the SDGs,” Robert says.

“The world doesn’t need another business that develops apps so you can watch your cat napping while you’re at work—if you cannot directly tie your business or particular innovation effort to directly address an SDG, then I would suggest you refocus your attention.”

Clearly, social responsibility is not so far from social impact—and indeed, Berkeley-Haas is home to the largest student-led Socially Responsible Investment (SRI) fund, offering MBAs real-world experience in combining financial returns with a positive social effect.

“And guess what?” Robert adds, “The organizations that embrace a higher-order purpose are the ones to which the greatest talent is attracted.”

Indeed, since 2008, the student principals at the Haas SRI Fund have more than doubled the initial investment to over $2 million.

Evidently, the attractions of corporate social responsibility for companies are more than just moral concerns: for tech companies, they could be a matter of survival.

Responsibility and diversity are good for business—they could even be the future of tech.

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