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How to lead a digital transformation — ethically

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The fact that COVID-19 accelerated the need for digital transformation across virtually all sectors is old news. What companies are doing to propel success under the circumstances has been under the spotlight. However, how they do it has managed to find a place in the shadows.

Simply put, the explosive increase in innovation and adoption of digital solutions shouldn’t be allowed to take place at the expense of ethical considerations.

This is about morals — but it’s also about the bottom line. Stakeholders, both internal and external, are increasingly intolerant of companies that blur (or ignore) ethical lines. These realities add up to a need for leaders to embrace an all-new learning curve: How to engage in digital transformation that includes ethics by design.

Simply put, the explosive increase in innovation and adoption of digital solutions shouldn’t be allowed to take place at the expense of ethical considerations.

Ethics as an afterthought is asking for problems

It’s easy to rail against the evils of the executive lifestyle or golden parachuting, but more often than not, a pattern of ethics violations arises from companywide culture, not leadership alone. Ideally, employees act ethically because it aligns with their personal values. However, at a minimum, they should understand the risk that an ethical breach represents to the organization.

In my experience, those conversations are not being held. Call it poor communication or lack of vision, but most companies rarely model potential ethical risks — at least not openly. If those discussions take place, they’re typically between members of upper management, behind closed doors.

Why don’t ethical concerns get more of a “town hall” treatment? The answer may come down to an unwillingness to let go of traditional thinking about business hierarchies. It could also be related to the strong (and ironically, toxic) cultural message that positivity rules. Case in point: I’ve listened to leaders say they want to create a culture of disruptive thinking — only to promptly tell an employee who speaks up that they “lack a growth mindset.”

What’s the answer, then? There are three solutions I’ve found to be effective:

  1. Making ethics a core value of the organization.
  2. Embracing transparency.
  3. Proactively developing strategies to contend with ethical challenges and violations.

These simple solutions are a great starting point to solve ethics issues regarding digital transformation and beyond. They cause leaders to look into the heart of the company and make decisions that will impact the organization for years to come.

Interpersonal dynamics are a concern in the digital transformation arena

Making digital shifts is, by nature, a technical operation. It requires personnel with advanced and varied expertise in areas such as AI and data operations. Leaders in the digital transformation space are expected to possess enough cross-domain competency to tackle tough problems.

That’s a big ask — bringing a host of technically minded people together can easily lead to a culture of expertise arrogance that leaves people who don’t know the lingo intimidated and reluctant to ask questions.

Digital transformation isn’t simply about infrastructure or tools. It is, at its heart, about change management, and a multifunctional approach is needed to ensure a healthy transition. The biggest mistake companies can make is assuming that only technical experts should be at the table. The silos that are built as a result inevitably turn into echo chambers — the last place you want to hold a conversation about ethics.

In the rush to go digital, regardless of how technical the problem, the solution will still be a fundamentally human-centric one.

Ethical digital transformation needs a starting point

Not all ethical imperatives related to digital transformation are as debatable as the suggestion that it should be people-first; some are much more black and white, like the fact that you have to start somewhere to get anywhere.

Luckily, “somewhere” doesn’t have to be from scratch. Government, risk and compliance (GRC) standards can be used to create a highly structured framework that’s mostly closed to interpretation and provides a solid foundation for building out and adopting digital solutions.

The utility of GRC models applies equally to startup multinationals and offers more than just a playbook; thoughtful application of GRC standards can also help with leadership evaluation, progress reports and risk analysis. Think of it like using bowling bumpers — they won’t guarantee you roll a strike, but they’ll definitely keep the ball out of the gutter.

Of course, a given company might not know how to create a GRC-based framework (just like most of us would be at a loss if tasked with building a set of bowling bumpers). This is why many turn to providers like IBM OpenPages, COBIT and ITIL for prefab foundations. These “starter kits” all share a single goal: Identify policies and controls that are relevant to your industry or organization and draw lines from those to pivotal compliance points.

Although getting started with the GRC process is typically cloud-based and at least partially automated, it requires organizationwide input and transparency. It can’t be effectively run by specific departments, or in a strictly top-down fashion. In fact, the single most important thing to understand about implementing GRC standards is that it will almost certainly fail unless both an organization’s leadership and broader culture fully support the direction in which it points.

An ethics-first mindset protects employees and the bottom line

Today’s leaders — executives, entrepreneurs, influencers and more — can’t be solely concerned with “winning” the digital race. Arguably, transformation is more of a marathon than a sprint, but either way, technique matters. In pursuing the end goal of competitive advantage, the how and why matter just as much as the what.

This is true for all arms of an organization. Internal stakeholders such as owners and employees risk their careers and reputations by tolerating a peripheral approach to ethics. External stakeholders like customers, investors and suppliers have just as much to lose. Their mutual understanding of this fact is what’s behind the collective, cross-industry push for transparency.

We’ve all seen the massive blowback against individuals and brands in the public eye who allow ethical lapses on their watch. It’s impossible to fully eliminate the risk of experiencing something similar, but it is a risk that can be managed. The danger is in letting the “tech blinders” of digital transformation interfere with your view of the big picture.

Companies that want to mitigate that risk and rise to the challenges of the digital era in a truly ethical way need to start by simply having conversations about what ethics, transparency and inclusivity mean — both in and around the organization. They need to follow up those conversations with action where necessary, and with open-mindedness across the board.

It’s smart to be worried about innovation lag in a time when enterprise is moving and shifting faster than ever, but there is time to make all the proper ethical considerations. Failing to do so will only derail you down the line.

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If you don’t want robotic dogs patrolling the streets, consider CCOPS legislation

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Boston Dynamics’ robot “dogs,” or similar versions thereof, are already being employed by police departments in Hawaii, Massachusetts and New York. Partly through the veil of experimentation, few answers are being given by these police forces about the benefits and costs of using these powerful surveillance devices.

The American Civil Liberties Union, in a position paper on CCOPS (community control over police surveillance), proposes an act to promote transparency and protect civil rights and liberties with respect to surveillance technology. To date, 19 U.S. cities in have passed CCOPS laws, which means, in practical terms, that virtually all other communities don’t have a requirement that police are transparent about their use of surveillance technologies.

For many, this ability to use new, unproven technologies in a broad range of ways presents a real danger. Stuart Watt, a world-renowned expert in artificial intelligence and the CTO of Turalt, is not amused.

Even seemingly fun and harmless “toys” have all the necessary functions and features to be weaponized.

“I am appalled both by the principle and the dogbots and of them in practice. It’s a big waste of money and a distraction from actual police work,” he said. “Definitely communities need to be engaged with. I am honestly not even sure what the police forces think the whole point is. Is it to discourage through a physical surveillance system, or is it to actually prepare people for some kind of enforcement down the line?

“Chunks of law enforcement have forgotten the whole ‘protect and serve’ thing, and do neither,” Watts added. “If they could use artificial intelligence to actually protect and actually serve vulnerable people, the homeless, folks addicted to drugs, sex workers, those in poverty and maligned minorities, it’d be tons better. If they have to spend the money on AI, spend it to help people.”

The ACLU is advocating exactly what Watt suggests. In proposed language to city councils across the nation, the ACLU makes it clear that:

The City Council shall only approve a request to fund, acquire, or use a surveillance technology if it determines the benefits of the surveillance technology outweigh its costs, that the proposal will safeguard civil liberties and civil rights, and that the uses and deployment of the surveillance technology will not be based upon discriminatory or viewpoint-based factors or have a disparate impact on any community or group.

From a legal perspective, Anthony Gualano, a lawyer and special counsel at Team Law, believes that CCOPS legislation makes sense on many levels.

“As police increase their use of surveillance technologies in communities around the nation, and the technologies they use become more powerful and effective to protect people, legislation requiring transparency becomes necessary to check what technologies are being used and how they are being used.”

For those not only worried about this Boston Dynamics dog, but all future incarnations of this supertech canine, the current legal climate is problematic because it essentially allows our communities to be testing grounds for Big Tech and Big Government to find new ways to engage.

Just last month, public pressure forced the New York Police Department to suspend use of a robotic dog, quite unassumingly named Digidog. After the tech hound was placed on temporary leave due to public pushback, the NYPD used it at a public housing building in March. This went over about as well as you could expect, leading to discussions as to the immediate fate of this technology in New York.

The New York Times phrased it perfectly, observing that “the NYPD will return the device earlier than planned after critics seized on it as a dystopian example of overly aggressive policing.”

While these bionic dogs are powerful enough to take a bite out of crime, the police forces seeking to use them have a lot of public relations work to do first. A great place to begin would be for the police to actively and positively participate in CCOPS discussions, explaining what the technology involves, and how it (and these robots) will be used tomorrow, next month and potentially years from now.

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Bird Rides to go public via SPAC, at an implied value of $2.3B

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Bird Rides, the shared electric scooter startup that operates in more than 100 cities across 3 continents, said Wednesday it is going public by merging with special purpose acquisition company Switchback II with an implied valuation of $2.3 billion. The announcement confirms earlier reports, including one this week from dot.la, that Bird intended to go public via a SPAC.

Bird said it was able to raise $106 million in private investment in public equity, or PIPE, by institutional investor Fidelity Management & Research Company LLC, and others. Apollo Investment Corp. and MidCap Financial Trust provided an additional $40 million asset financing.

The transaction will enable the combined entity to retain net proceeds of up to $428 million of cash, according to Switchback, which brings $316 million cash-in-trust to the table. The announcement also provided new information about a previously undisclosed $208 million, which Bird raised privately as part of an April 2021 Senior Preferred Convertible equity offering led by Bracket Capital, Sequoia Capital and Valor Equity Partners.

When and how Bird would go public has been an item of speculation after Bloomberg reported last November that the company received “inbound interest” from SPACs.

Bird’s ride has been bumpy at times. In 2020, revenue dropped to $95 million, or 37% from the previous year. That year the company also laid off around 30% of its workforce – 406 people – for cost-saving reasons. The company may use this new access to cash to expand its European operations and pay off debt.

Most importantly, the new injection of cash may help the company finally achieve profitability. It’s a rarity amongst scooter startups, who face notoriously high overhead.

Special purpose acquisition companies, or SPACs, have become a popular route for going public amongst transportation startups. Already this year, scooter company Helbiz, which is based in Europe and the U.S., went public via SPAC in a merger with GreenVision Acquisition Corp. SPAC shell corporations allow companies to list on the NASDAQ without doing a traditional initial public offering.

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Only three days left to buy $99 passes to TC Disrupt 2021

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The countdown clock keeps on ticking, and you have just three days to secure your $99 pass to TechCrunch Disrupt 2021. You read that right — $99 is all that you’ll pay, $99 is all (everybody sing)!

Silly Minions aside, you’ll snag serious savings if you buy your Disrupt 2021 pass before the deadline expires on May 14 at 11:59 pm (PT).

TechCrunch Disrupt is a massive gathering of the tech startup world’s top leaders, innovators, makers, investors, founders and ground breakers. The all-virtual platform means more global participation and exposure. It’s all designed to help early-stage founders — and the people who invest in them — build a thriving business.

The Disrupt stage features in-depth interviews and panel discussions with a who’s-who of tech talent. The Extra Crunch stage is where you’ll find a deep bench of subject-matter experts sharing practical how-to content. You’ll take away actionable insights you can put into practice now — when you need it most. Check out our roster of speakers — we’re adding more every week.

Granted, we might be a tad biased about Disrupt — of course we think it’s awesome. But your contemporaries recognize its value, too. Here’s what a few of them told us about their experience at Disrupt 2020.

There was always something interesting going on in one of the breakout rooms, and I was impressed by the quality of the people participating. Partners in well-known VC firms spoke, they were accessible, and they shared smart, insightful nuggets. You will not find this level of people accessible and in one place anywhere else. — Michael McCarthy, CEO, Repositax.

I loved the variety of topics and learning about recent technology trends as they’re happening. Disrupt gave me a whole new perspective on the ways innovation happens in big companies. — Anirudh Murali, co-founder and CEO, Economize.

Watching the Startup Battlefield was fantastic. You could see the ingenuity and innovation happening in different technology spaces. Just looking at the sheer number of other pitch decks and hearing the judges tear them down and give feedback was very helpful. — Jessica McLean, Director of Marketing and Communications, Infinite-Compute.

If watching Startup Battlefield is thrilling (and it is), imagine what it would feel like to compete — or to win. We’re still accepting applications but not for long. Want to take a shot at winning $100,000? Apply to compete in Startup Battlefield before May 13 at 11:59 pm (PT).

There’s so much more opportunity waiting for you at Disrupt 2021. Explore Startup Alley, our expo area. Better yet, exhibit there yourself and, in addition to a bunch of other perks, you might be one of only 50 exhibiting startups chosen to participate in the Startup Alley+ VIP experience. Read more about Startup Alley+ here. TechCrunch will notify selected startups at the end of June.

Time is running out, and $99 is all that you’ll pay — if you buy your Disrupt 2021 pass before Friday, May 14 at 11:59 pm (PT).

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at Disrupt 2021? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.


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