Opening Ethical Vistas to IT Professionals

Ian Stoodley and Christine Bruce


This paper seeks to represent the conceptual world of IT professionals with respect to ethics and asserts that the most effective means of influencing their ethical behaviour rests in influencing professionals’ conceptions of their discipline and practice. Such influence is possible, through facilitating their encounter with alterative points of view. In this way, IT professionals’ understanding of their practice may be influenced to increasingly benefit others.

A change of professionals’ conception of the scope of IT and the possible ways of experiencing IT professional practice will engender a change in their ways of inhabiting their professional world. This will result in professionals living out an internally re-configured view of their practice – a change of behaviour which flows from a change of conception.

The traditional techno-centric conception of IT leaves user needs and social factors largely unexplored (Alter, 2003; Finkelstein & Hafner, 2002; Orlikowski & Iacono, 2001). This shapes IT experts’ and practitioners’ expectations of professional ethical practice. In contrast, proposed here is an expanded conceptualisation of IT, which brings others into focus. A Model of Ethical IT Professional Practice represents these views of IT in a conceptual map, along three continuums of:

  1. Artefact Developer to Artefact User;
  2. Technology to Information; and
  3. Citizenship of My World to Citizenship of the Wider World.

Such a map may be used on an individual, group, organisational, professional or discipline level to reconceptualise the IT professional space, to guide future planning, to underpin ethical training and support, and to inspire ethical conduct.

The model builds on trends previously identified through empirical research, which found some IT researchers privileging end users over artefact developers and emphasising the information accessed rather than the enabling technology (Bruce, Pham, & Stoodley, 2004; Pham, Bruce, & Stoodley, 2005; Stoodley, 2007). From an ethical point of view, we suggest that a trend towards the consideration of end users and their information needs is a step in the right direction, however it needs to be underpinned and extended. This extension is indicated in further empirical research which shows some professionals reaching out beyond the technology and the client, to humanity (Stoodley, 2008).

The ethical responsibilities of IT professionals are represented in the model presented here, along a continuum from a self-focussed to a humanity-focussed view. IT professionals thus see themselves as citizens of distinct, though related, worlds. (‘Citizenship’ here represents professionals’ choice to make their home in the ethical terrain, where they enjoy certain rights and accept certain responsibilities.) Five citizenships serve to symbolize these worlds:

  • citizenship of my world;
  • citizenship of the corporate world;
  • citizenship of a shared world;
  • citizenship of the client’s world; and
  • citizenship of the wider world.

The respective rights and responsibilities associated with these citizenships progressively focus away from the individual professional and towards third parties. The more ethically mature a professional is, the more of these citizenships will be represented in their portfolio.

A professional development course is suggested using this model. Such a course introduces participants to expanding horizons of responsibility, from their own world to the wider world. Supporting this approach is the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas, who focussed on relationships of responsibility to others as the essence of ethics (Levinas, 1998), and the philosophy of Darryl Koehn, who argued that a relationship based on promise-making and trust is the only defensible ground of professional ethics (Koehn, 1994). Thus, ethics is seen as an increasingly other-centred attitude.

Following the educational Variation Theory (Marton & Booth, 1997), ethical formation for IT professionals would seek to introduce them to the full range of citizenships. This would serve to open their understanding of what it means to be an ethical IT professional to new vistas, influencing their conception of their professional practice. Activities which would engender such illumination include:

  • self-assessment of their practice against the citizenships;
  • examination of case studies of IT professionals representing the range of citizenships;
  • involvement in practical projects which expose them to the range of citizenships;
  • group discussion of the citizenships; and
  • journaling of personal engagement with the citizenships.