Information Management Systems, Liverpool John Moores University, Liverpool UK. Email: [email protected] ac. uk ABSTRACT IT organizations are growing along with the international businesses they service. Driven by globalisation, the world is becoming a single workplace and marketplace. Like all professionals, IT professionals who work within these organizations regularly face problems of an ethical and moral nature. In making decisions, what cultural, social and ethical norms should apply – those of the professionals’ home culture or those of the culture in which they are working, and indeed, are these two choices necessarily different?
The answer to this question is the focus of this paper. “Each Nation has many customs and practices which are not only unknown to another nation but barbarous and a cause of wonder. ” Michael de Montaigne (De Botton 2000) 1. 0 Globalisation and IT That which we today call globalisation is merely the latest phase of a process which has been under way since Portuguese navigators of the 15th and 16th centuries first began to open up the globe through exploration.
“Religion, technology, economy and empire” have been the four “major engines” driving this process (Mazrui 2000), at greater or lesser rates since the Industrial Revolution. Current definitions of globalisation stress the economic engine driving this process, which has taken the global economy “from a collection of closed national markets [to] an integrated global market” (King 1999). Observers such as Grossholtz (1998) and Mazrui (2000) raise legitimate concerns over the adverse consequences of the current wave of globalisation and point out the parallels with the “cultural imperialism” of earlier centuries (Mazrui 2000).
One of the more obvious results of globalisation is that the influence of western culture now reaches into every corner of the globe. Some examples of this include the almost universal adoption of western business dress, the Gregorian calendar and Microsoft software, as well as the widespread acceptance of western music (particularly of “pop” music by the young) and CNN satellite news broadcasts as the authoritative source of news (Donaldson 1996; Lipinski ; Britz 1999; Pohl 1999).
The fall of the Iron Curtain has seen western culture, and that of the United States in particular, rise to the level of “de-facto universalistic power” (Pohl 1999). This is based primarily on the economic strength of the West and the U. S. Dollar (Pohl 1999). Whilst some commentators (Gittins 2000) note a growing hostility towards globalisation among the populations of democracies and believe that the process can be stopped, there appears to be little evidence that the process will not continue in some form or other.
For better or worse, the expansion of the geographical bounds of western cultural influence and the internationalisation of businesses seem destined to continue for the foreseeable future. Globalisation is carrying along with it the computer services industry and the IT professional (Downer 1997; European Commission Brussels 1997). It is now commonplace for an IT business to operate across borders and cultures – employing IT professionals from diverse cultural backgrounds and/or outsourcing work units to IT teams based in locations and cultures spread across the globe (Head 1997; Hemphill 1997; Ellis 1997).
Indeed, information technology itself is an artefact of western culture (“western imperialism” say some – Lenarcic 1999 and Mazrui 2000) as witnessed by the English language and Latin alphabet used by all of the major programming languages and the predominant binary codes in which all data was enclosed – EBCDIC and ASCII (the ‘A’ IN WHICH STANDS FOR “American” (Lenarcic 1999)) 2. 0 Ethics
Ethics are a “set of principles of right conduct” (Chao et al 1995), which are developed by, and reflect the values of, a particular culture at a particular time (Mazrui 2000). Well-defined ethical values are necessary in order to express “the principle duties, rights, obligations and responsibilities of the IT professional” (Barroso 1999). All cultures have a set of ethical values or rules concerning what is morally right and what is morally wrong.
Through globalisation, non-western cultures around the world are being exposed to the values of the west, and on a superficial level at least, appear to be adopting western culture. However, the adoption of the outward signs of western culture such as business dress codes does not necessarily mean that the culture has abandoned its own social, ethical and moral values in favour of those of the other. Indeed, the underlying values of non-western cultures appear to remain intact in the face of exposure to western culture (Hinman 1998).
In the field of information technology, while there is evidence that the processes of engineering and implementation of IT systems are being successfully exported to non-western cultures as a consequence of globalisation (Vittal 1999), the adoption of western social and ethical values by these cultures is another matter. Donaldson (1996) agrees with the philosopher Michael Walter that “there is no Esperanto of global ethics”. He concludes that the ethical values of the world’s cultures remain diverse.
The field of computing is generating many different ethical questions (Hull 2000) and the variation in the ethical and social norms across the globe merely adds to the level of complexity in finding answers to these questions. How can issues be answered if the “rules” are not fixed? How, for example, can an ethical or moral question about the content of a web site be considered when a hypertext link in that web page may not only take the user to a different part of that site, but to “a site in another part of the world” (Hull 2000) where different ethical values may prevail? 3.
0 Cultural Relativism Cultural relativism recognises that “moral values vary from one society or culture to another” (Lenarcic 1999) and that “no culture’s ethics are any better than any other’s” (Donaldson 1996). This leads to the conclusion that variations of values between cultures are all equally valid, and the variation between cultures can indeed be significant. For example, in Mainland China, abortion is recognized as an important tool for population control; in the Republic of Ireland, though, abortions are not available even when the life of the mother is at risk (Fisher 1998).
Since the Second World War, the technological and economic growth of western nations has lead to the almost universal exposure of other cultures around the globe to western culture. Indeed, the culture of the west is propounded by many in the west to be “of universal validity” (Mazrui 2000), which can result in a form or “ethical imperialism” according to Donaldson (1996). Although western organisations are beginning to understand the problems associated with trying to universally apply western cultural values, it remains a problem for subsidiaries of western companies operating in the third world (Donaldson 1996).
Arguments by non-western cultures against the view of the universal validity of western values b the local cultures have invariably been dismissed in the West (Pohl 1999), particularly when issues such as royalties for western intellectual property rights and patents are at issue. These arguments being seen as simply an attempt by developing nations to stem the flow of royalties to the West. Cultures are different and it should come as no surprise when the application of western values outside of the West have unforeseen consequences (Harris 1998).
Donaldson (1999) cites the example of a manager of the Chinese subsidiary of a U. S. firm who, following the policies of the parent company, turned over an employee caught stealing to the local authorities – who then executed him. The manager was following policy “imported” from the western parent company and based on western ethical and social values. It is unlikely that the U. S. parent firm would sanction the execution of an employee for petty theft. The company policy was therefore not appropriate for the culture in which it was applied. Relativism can, however, be taken to extremes.
A purely philosophical case for relativism could successfully argue that there are no absolute values – “anything goes”. Lenarcic (1999) proposes that morals and ethics are purely “learned” concepts, another contribution to the “Nature versus Nurture” debate. This centres around the question of whether genetic factors (“Nature”) or environmental factors (“Nurture”) are fundamental in shaping the physical and psychological make-up of an individual. If the environment significantly shapes cultural values and ethics, then there is little chance of convergence of ethical values because of the diversity of social environments around the globe.
Consequently; it is unlikely that there can be a single code of ethics for the IT professional that will be universally valid across the world today – unless that code is conceptual in nature. However, Donaldson (1996), on the other hand, argues that there are some “fundamental values that cross cultures” and that “some activities are wrong no matter where they take place”. It may therefore be possible to define a set of ethical values that can be applied universally, so long as the definitions are sufficiently broad, so as to allow for cultural variation. This is the focus of the remainder of this paper.