E-commerce versus the human element

The Association of Management Education and Development, the network for developers, held a groundbreaking Frontiers conference last month on the e-challenge – keeping people at the heart of e-business.

Professor Gordon Graham, of Aberdeen University, covered some controversial topics in a section on e-ethics. His radical argument is that although commerce depends on trust – that trust is underpinned by potential recourse to law and insurance against risk – in the e-commerce environment this is ill-defined due to the blurring of international boundaries. Therefore the risks of trading on the Internet are greater, as in accidental or hacked access to bank account details and lack of security on credit card data. We must find other ways of building trust and relationships that give enough confidence to conduct commercial transactions.

Graham argues, “Honesty is the best policy.” Is this naïvety? Or will the situation be a mixture of optimism and insurance, where risks can be quantified?

This dilemma has parallels in corporate governance. Professor Bob Garratt, of The Fish Rots from the Head fame, ended the conference by saying the e-challenge could be met by keeping people at the centre of events. “Only they can use their learning as a movement for the democratisation of organisations to ensure those in power are held to account on the three basic values of good governance – accountability, probity and transparency.”

To me this is reinforcement that, internally and externally, openness will build relationships and make the most of the e-technology – you run the risk of being taken for a ride, but we know the technology will not run without the trust that enables transactions to take place and for costs to be reduced.

This logic applies within organisations too. E-mail is here to stay. It has a level of intimacy that can help or hinder. It is potentially democratic, capable of blurring the boundaries and hierarchies, making “voice” possible for thousands. Like all systems it is open to abuse. If recipients don’t listen, the technology and the users are frustrated. If users employ blunt or abusive language via the e-mail, they and the system fall into disrepute, hence the current lack of e-etiquette defining expectations.

The greatest gain has to be knowledge sharing. We have struggled for years to shift people’s perceptions from “knowledge is power” to “knowledge is to be shared”. Cultural behaviours have blocked this – now we can share knowledge like never before.

Somehow we need to break through the trust and relationship barrier to make this possible. Anybody out there in cyberspace willing to make the first move? Or do we accept that e-commerce is de-humanising?

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