Business Technology

Tuesday 17 September 2019

Daragh O Brien: 'Innovators, embrace your critics'

Facebook and other social media sites could benefit from welcoming criticism. Photo: Bloomberg
Facebook and other social media sites could benefit from welcoming criticism. Photo: Bloomberg

Daragh O Brien

We live in interesting times. The pace of innovation and development in various fields of information management and information technology continues to accelerate, with functionality and features common today that would not have appeared out of place in science-fiction movies even a few years ago.

The challenge we face is whether our love affair with tech and innovation may have left us ill-prepared for the various ethical and moral issues that the uses of technology can give rise to.

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This problem is shared by both public and private sectors. It affects both startups and large enterprises. Whether it is the desire of a business to 'disrupt' an industry through some new technology or innovation, or the desire of government administrations to modernise and improve the delivery of services, increasingly, innovation in this context is either processing data about or related to people - or is enabling decisions and actions which affect people.

This landscape for innovators was well-described by the late Giovanni Butarelli, former European Data Protection Supervisor, in his 2015 Opinion Towards a New Digital Ethics, in which he described the need for organisations to apply innovative privacy engineering to ensure that they could be accountable for the outcomes they delivered to increasingly aware and empowered individuals. All of this needed to be addressed in the context of increasingly future-oriented rules, which required innovators to pay attention to the concerns of a wider group of stakeholders.

Therefore, it is important we pay close attention to the outcomes we desire and the outcomes which might arise if the rush to do things is not constrained by careful consideration of regulatory and ethical issues, and the potential negative outcomes that could impact on people and society. Many of the scandals we see, from how Facebook was weaponised to affect democratic processes, to the crisis currently besetting the Irish Government regarding the Public Services Card, have their origins in the failure to consider the wider social impacts of change, and associated legal and regulatory issues which might need to be considered.

The 'innovators' dilemma' today is a question of how organisations can innovate, and apply new or improved information management practices or technologies, to implement a solution to a problem which will bring about a net benefit to society, while at the same time ensuring that it is implemented in a way that meets minimum legal requirements and avoids creating social harm or discrimination. This requires a willingness to accept viewpoints and input that might be counter to what the innovator wants to hear.

All too often though, organisations persist with initiatives in the face of rising concerns or criticism. In many cases, this is a result of 'group-think' in the organisation, that prevents contrary views being heard which might improve the innovation, contribute to better-value delivery, or mitigate risks inherent in or arising from the initiative. This dominance of thought and perspective can be a positive if it helps drive focus on the potential for value delivery, but once it starts to drown out concerns or counterpoints, it can quickly become toxic.

Group-think manifests itself in several ways. People develop a sense of invulnerability, which leads to extreme risk-taking and excessive optimism.

They collectively dismiss warnings or information that is contrary to group thinking, rationalising it away or expressing a belief in their inherent morality. They develop negative stereotypes of 'outsiders' and put pressure on internal dissenters to conform. This pressure leads to self-censorship and an illusion of unanimity. Finally, 'thought police' are appointed to protect the group.

Group-think is almost certainly a factor in the ongoing saga of Facebook and other social media giants.

They developed a business model for their platforms which required the gathering, aggregation and monetisation of massive amounts of personal data.

They attracted investors, who in turn demanded further monetisation. Metrics such as user clicks, reach and engagement became part of the online marketing lexicon. Therefore, anything that punctured the narrative was to be challenged. Such as concerns about data privacy, and potential abuse of the platforms to incite hatred, influence elections, or enable human rights abuses.

It is also almost certainly a factor in the ongoing Public Services Card debacle. The acceptance by the Data Protection Commissioner that she had perhaps tried for too long to persuade the DEASP of the potential issues speaks to a group that was dismissive of warnings. The internal sharing of links and transcripts of media appearances by critics of the card, and the comments on them, demonstrate a group that had developed negative stereotypes of outsiders. It has taken the clear action of an independent regulator to call a halt.

So what can be done? The key lesson from the Public Services Card innovation is that it is important for all organisations to engage appropriate independent advice to act as a 'critical friend', and help ensure dissenting views are considered, and any legal or ethical issues addressed.

Sometimes, the answers you need are not always the answers that you want to hear. The lesson from Facebook and social media is that we need to be less dismissive of those who innovators might consider luddites. Many, if not all, of these issues were avoidable, if the innovators had embraced criticism as an antidote to group-think.

Daragh O Brien is the founder and managing director of Castlebridge (, which works to help organisations do excellent things with data

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