Data as a Force for Good

We live in a world surrounded by data. Or, to put it more accurately, the data-driven world shapes our lives. Ever expanding, this universe of its own seems to have endless possibilities. Data is closely connected to opportunities, which in turn are linked to threats. While privacy and (cyber)security are key issues and need to be addressed properly, the focus here will be on ethics of data and datamanagement. Incorporating ethics in decision making every time data is involved, could be an opportunity for positive change, for doing good. It suggests another perspective: what can we do with data to impact in a meaningful way, so as to enhance well-being?

It is crystal clear that data, algorithms, artificial intelligence (AI) and other digital technologies have (and will have) a significant impact on society. Consequences to be considered as mostly negatively are, for example, how the bias in data and algorithms influences decision systems, how the human-machine interaction impacts employee involvement, how algorithms can open or close doors for specific groups in society, and AI’s influence on successfully (or not) entering the job market. In different ways, accessibility and therefore inclusion in society could be stimulated, or hampered by a combination of data, algorithms, and AI.

At this moment data gathering, data organizing and algorithms are mainly used in the areas of sales, risk evaluation and management, and controlling and anti-fraud. What about other ambitions? Could data be used as a force for good? And if so, how? We argue this is not only possible, but desirable as well. As there is substantial awareness of the problems our societies are up against (climate change, social inequality, discrimination, accessibility to food, water and other resources) there is an increasing urge to act. Organizations redefine their purpose, adapt their strategy, address the subject of real impact, and not only by rewriting mission statements. We are in the midst of a mentality shift – the Going Green and the Sustainable Economics move – and many organizations already do contribute to this process.

Of course, with considerable economic and financial power and setting ambitious goals, comes responsibility and accountability, set equally high. When companies want to address the ecological and social agenda, this aim should be part of their strategy on value creation, which can be obtained by including it in the process of decision making and reporting. This implies the use, gathering, storage, and assessment of non-financial and non-economic data as well. Together, financial and non-financial data could contribute to social change and help to increase opportunities. What can organizations do?

First, organizations should start to look into how to manage the ethical and social implications of data and algorithms. A questionnaire among CSR professionals shows that only 43 percent of the organizations is aware that data gathering and data analytics needs a skillful and thorough approach of the ethical element that is part of the process. As it seems, according to the outcome of this research, only 19% of the respondents are involved in decision making that concerns data gathering and analytics. Moreover, it might be a subject that’s still in the cradle, as CSR professionals do not get much support or stimulus from their colleagues, whether they are in the boardroom, or in the finance and control department. So, for a start, simply more awareness is needed.

Besides the fact that there isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ solution, it will take time as well to learn, to do research, and to get more acquainted with the subject. There will be quite a lot of trial and error involved. Nevertheless, it all starts with putting the questions on the table, leaning in to them, accepting that there will be some ‘stumbling our way through progress’. Assess threats and opportunities. Systems can fail, and so do humans. In such an event, don’t shut the windows down but open up, communicate, deal with it, and treat the unfortunate or bad situation as an open access learning platform.

Generally speaking, the road to use data as a force for good, starts by taking the obvious first steps. Let’s take a closer look.

  • Managing ethics is not something that should be done afterwards. It all begins with designing a system and collecting data.
  • Do: involve multiple stakeholders. A variety of experiences, backgrounds and skills thus may facilitate creating a healthy platform for discussion, learning, and decision making.
  • Do: invest in education about the topic. AI, algorithms and ethical data management don’t yet belong to the common knowledge realm. Professionals need to enhance skills and especially knowledge as to get more comfortable with the subject, the possibilities, threats, and the ethical agenda.
  • Do: before implementation, check both output and outcome of algorithms. Be aware of black box thinking. Nobody wants to go wrong, and the more complex systems get, failure is around the corner. Success and failure are interrelated though: confront mistakes, learn from what went wrong and try to get out of that black or grey box. The human factor is the best control mechanism, if properly used and applied.

Going beyond these first steps, organizations can take it from there by actively gather information to contribute to social change. If you have true impact ambitions, ‘comply or explain’, e.g., ‘doing no harm’ is merely not good enough. Assuming that ‘doing good’ is your goal, data and algorithms can be powerful instruments. Map a road that takes you along questions like:

  • How do my impact ambitions translate to the use of data and algorithms? What principles play a role?
  • Does the company purpose align with how data gathering and analytics is being implemented and executed? By applying the ‘principle-based approach’, internal stakeholder consultation and dialogue can be facilitated. This can be done by breaking issues down to useful indicators, applicable to various organizational layers. The same approach can be adopted for the supply chain and other external parties.
  • In general, provide ample opportunity for employees to come forward with ideas on how the use of data and algorithms might foster, for instance, well-being, safety, and inclusion (SDG’s). Bottom line is how we, together, can make a difference.

Conscious business is, after all, putting purpose, principles and actions into the right and just lane. While ethics are relevant in every domain of human life, it comes with no surprise it is a hot topic in the realm of data too. Using data as a force for doing good, dedicated to contribute to positive change, is a challenge. Our commitment is to find those ways and putting our research to work for society. Impact ambitions are great on paper, but it is best when we can say: We really do make a difference.


Jacqueline Scheidsbach MBA (Director Impact Centre Erasmus)

Tamara Thuis MSc (PhD candidate at Erasmus Research Institute of Management)


More in our Executive Education programs (information in Dutch):

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Executive Program Corporate Social Responsibility

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