Ethical Implications of Technological Advances on Business Communication

By Herschel, Richard T.; Andrews, Patricia Hayes | The Journal of Business Communication, April 1997 | Go to article overview

Ethical Implications of Technological Advances on Business Communication


Herschel, Richard T., Andrews, Patricia Hayes, The Journal of Business Communication


Computers and computer networks have helped organizations realize substantial gains in efficiency and effectiveness resulting in recent trends such as downsizing, empowerment, outsourcing, and constituency work forces. In fact, the root causes of these changes, business process redesign and reengineering, are grounded in the notion that technology enables fundamental changes in the ways that organizations can operate. However, the use of technology has also raised cause for concern. Issues of freedom of expression, copyright, and democracy are being revisited and receiving heightened attention because technology offers new channels of communication which allow organizations and individuals to disseminate information in a manner that was impossible ten years ago.

Ethics involves the study of the general nature of morals and of the specific moral choices individuals make in their relationships with others. Technology, as discussed in this paper, refers to the application of computer hardware, software, and networks to the creation, collection, storage, retrieval, analysis, editing, distribution, and destruction of information. It may be found in the form of text, data, video, sound, and images. The purpose of this paper is to examine the ethical implications of technological advances on business communication. First, we explore the nature of technology and its contribution to organizational-business communication. Then, we discuss how technology can be misused and the mechanisms available to combat computer-based behavior that is deemed by some to be ethically unsound or even immoral. In this essay we argue that there are no ethical issues that are inherent in technology. We contend, rather, that technologies gain meaning only as they are used in interactions. Organizations, groups, and individuals adapt technology features to their purposes to achieve specific outcomes. As a result, people may use technology in a manner, or spirit, that the designers of the technology never intended. Thus, the features or attributes of technology ought not be conceptualized as determining behavior. Instead, the impact of technology results from how people use and adapt it toward their own ends, so that using technology may lead to both intended and unintended consequences.

The Impact of Technology

Most technologies existing today were designed to expedite the way we manage, store, handle, analyze, and communicate information. Computers are used routinely to capture transaction data. Devices such as credit card readers, optical scanners, telephone keypads, and computer terminals, collect vast amounts of data daily. Most data are electronically stored in transaction files until they are processed by local or remote computer systems that update organization master transaction files and electronic databases. These systems are then used to create reports that help firms analyze and gauge their performance. This activity in turn provides information for forecasting and strategically planning activities to be communicated to the rest of the organization through diverse communication media, including e-mail, video broadcasts, and other multimedia techniques that combine text, audio, and video information in the same presentation.

Computers and network software help to manage and protect the security and integrity of company data and to monitor and control organizational equipment and processes. Many organizations have used technology to fundamentally change the way work is done, using technology in ways that break traditional rules of doing business. For example, as Hammer and Champy (1993) note, Ford uses database and electronic data interchange technology in efficient and effective ways that eliminate overhead (especially excess inventories) for both Ford and its suppliers - breaking the rule that says that vendors should be treated as adversaries. Wal-Mart and Kmart are using teleconferencing to allow headquarters-based merchandisers to provide store managers in the field with guidance and advice - enabling them to combine local initiatives with corporate advice. …

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