Dear Ethix – Issue 29

Ethics is More Than Compliance

Thanks for David Gill’s column in the March/April issue, “Ethics is More Than Compliance.” The theme resonated with me. It took me back more years than I can remember to when I was a midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy. I was always proud of the “honor concept” at that institution which contrasted with the “honor code” at the U.S. Military Academy. The latter, as I recall, was a very detailed recitation of do’s and don’ts, while the former was a statement of principle. I draw no conclusions about that which was more effective with young men (no women in those days). I know I felt the positive statement of principle was a better approach to impact behavior in the long run.

Years of experience with environmental law compliance taught me the difficulty with instilling an environmental ethic through command and control regulation. Your mention of the sentencing guidelines is a classic example of a measure which, taken part way, only prevents the most obvious bad behavior. It does little and, in fact, may hamper efforts to get people to do the “right” thing consistently.

But, as you note, codes, regulations, rules and resulting compliance have a role. We just should not give them too much credit. Some people need to begin with a compliance framework. If they have no underlying value to guide behavior, an ethical principle will probably be of little use and rules become the best interim regulator. In the environmental arena, sophisticated businesses have tended to move from compliance to values and gone beyond compliance because doing so is consistent with their values, be that economic interest or a concept of social responsibility.

Thanks again for this valuable insight.
J. Daniel Ballbach
Q Conflict Resolution, LLC, Seattle, WA

A Global View of Business Ethics

I receive Infoworld magazine from the U.S. and, from that magazine, came to know about I strongly believe in your vision and your objectives. With globalization, and perhaps a steady expansion of U.S. businesses to Asia (especially China), the need of ethics has never been stronger. After all, the notion of unethical acts throughout Asia is very real, although often vehemently denied either by some authorities, or the very businesses themselves.
Dr Seamus Phan
KnowledgeLabs News Center, Singapore

Visa Fights Pornography

Have you seen the articles on what Visa has done to battle pornography purveyors (March 3, Information Week)? I thought it was a wonderful statement on business, technology and ethics!
Bob Breilh
Strategic Solutions, Bellevue, WA

Information Week author Bob Evans writes:
I would like to salute Visa International, the payment-services and credit-card company, for helping law-enforcement officials shut down Web sites trafficking in child pornography, terminating the Visa privileges of possibly hundreds of other sites, and threatening to sever ties with any of its member banks and other financial institutions that fail to register the names and addresses of merchants that use Visa and also process illegal pornography.

Visa has shown that a private enterprise can act in both its own big, fat, non-blurry line between right and wrong and saying, “Enough.” Imagine what might happen if every company that could do something to combat child pornography — particularly via IT, which has dramatically expanded its reach and scope — decided that, like Visa, it would do something.

The complete article can be found at

More on Large-Scale Systems Failure

The Standish Group Data on IS project performance (cited in Al Erisman’s Jan-Feb 2003 “Technology Watch” column) are alarming: three out of four IS projects failed to deliver as promised. I suspect that many projects were doomed to fail before the initial project kickoff. Why? Because the scoping and planning activities that generated the business case, benefits realization schedules, implementation plans, project budgets and resource requirements were unsubstantiated and unrealistic from the very beginning.

I think there are three root causes for this poor planning, and they do place pressure on IS project leaders to act in unethical ways.

First, many companies are addicted to overselling the benefits of IS projects, which are routinely over-hyped to generate the executive buy-in and sponsorship necessary to secure project funding. The concept of conservatively and realistically forecasting project benefits is often unacceptable to corporate decision makers.

Second, implementation timelines are unrealistic from project inception. Project leadership (and therefore project vendors and technology consultants) are under tremendous pressure to show that a given technology solution will deliver significant benefits (cost and operational) in the near-term. This places significant pressure on IS project planners to develop implementation schedules ensuring that benefits are realized within an acceptable timeline — even when they know that their plans may be overly optimistic.

Third, technology vendors (and consultants) oversell their products’ ability to deliver benefits. Vendors also have a strong disincentive to highlight the potential shortcomings and modifications inherent in implementing their technology within a specific organization. While it is doubtful that vendors routinely lie to customers, it is highly likely that they carefully craft initial proposals and planning estimates to highlight the positives and discount the risks and complications inherent in large systems implementation projects.
Thomas Osborn
Seattle, WA