Individual learning and organizational change for ethical competence in the use of information technology tools


Iordanis Kavathatzopoulos, Jenny Persson and Carl Åborg (Sweden)


Any successful construction, implementation and use of information technology systems require many different things. Satisfaction of economical and technological aspects used to (and still are) in focus, but today other aspects such as organizational structure and dynamics, work environment, work task, user competence, even ethical issues, take a bigger part in the way a system functions. In this paper we focus on ethical competence and discuss how this can be achieved and maintained in a highly changing work environment dominated by the use of IT-tools. Ethical competence is an important emerging factor determining the optimal use of information technology systems.

In order to be able to use a system satisfactorily a certain kind and amount of knowledge is necessary. Knowledge is always connected to the solution of a concrete problem. It guides action, and effective action is adaptive knowledge. In this sense knowledge that does not fit in to a concrete situation is in fact not any knowledge for this situation. A user or a group of users lacking necessary knowledge are in a state of cognitive disequilibrium.

Organizations exist in order to coordinate knowledge and competence. A successful orchestration of knowledge means effective action. If a knowledge gap is observed, organizations try to fill it. One way to accomplish this is to inform, educate and train people. However, it is necessary for this process to succeed, to be able to anticipate future problems in real situations, which demand concrete knowledge. Any demand for future knowledge has then to be compared to the existing knowledge and expertise in the organization. In principle this is what is needed for the construction of introductory courses and other means of assistance for users such as ethical codes.

However, given the high pace of technological change as well as the number and interdependence of factors influencing the optimal use of a system, it is very difficult to anticipate future problems and to identify the corresponding knowledge necessary to solve them. This is certainly true regarding ethical knowledge. It is extremely difficult to know in advance what is right and what is wrong, and therefore it is difficult to supply adaptive and functional answers. Every knowledge transmission and cognitive support method, such as ethical codes, which are constructed in advance and before the problem they target has emerged, may not be sufficient. Such methods include knowledge for handling already known problems, or when there is a clear and concrete picture of a future moral problem.

Then how is adaptive ethical knowledge achieved? The person or the organization, which needs this knowledge, has of course to find the right method to create the ethical knowledge needed. The person needs a psychological skill and the organization needs suitable routines and processes, that is, ethical competence. Individual skills are by definition applicable to an infinite number of problems of the same kind, in this case moral problems. Organizations use to find the knowledge needed in certain problem situations by reorganizing themselves spontaneously. The great advantage with informal cognitive support, above and beyond its applicability, is that knowledge transmitted in this way aims the target easily, and therefore it is accepted and applied successfully.

Ethical competence is defined here as a psychological and organizational process which means (a) high ethical awareness, the ability to anticipate moral problems in real life and to perceive them in time, (b) the skill to analyse and solve them in an optimal way, (c) the individual capability and the organizational readiness to discuss and handle moral problems at group and organization level, and together with significant others formulate ethical guidelines, (d) the power to argue convincingly for preferred actions or decisions made, and (e) the confidence on own ability to cope with moral problems and the emotional strength to implement controversial decisions.

In the present paper we will present an investigation of measures taken before and during the implementation process of a new information technology system at a large government organization. The organization’s size and the diversity of measures taken or simply not be taken allow us to compare some very important factors. The focus of the study is mainly on the effect of individual skill training and learning on the acquisition of ethical competence. Furthermore the focus is on organizational change promoting informal processes in handling ethical issues. Some other important parameters that are studied are the correlations of ethical competence to work environment and to the efficiency and effectiveness of the information technology system.