Ethics and trust in a digital age

This report draws on the views of 10,000 members, students and business leaders globally to examine the challenges raised by new technologies. Through a range of case studies, and drawing on the principles of the International Ethical Standards Board for Accountants (IESBA), the report offers insight and guidance to professional accountants and auditors on issues from cyber-security to crypto-currencies.

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Early in 2017, ACCA carried out global surveys of attitudes to ethics among 10,000 professional and trainee accountants, and of those of over 500 senior (‘C-suite’) managers. More than 8 in 10 of these accountants around the world were of the view that strong ethical principles and behaviour will become even more important in the evolving digital age. This view was echoed by a similar proportion of C-suite1 executives, referring to the accountants in their organisations.

Furthermore, 9 in 10 professional accountants agree that ethical behaviour helps to build trust in the digital age. And almost all (95%) C-suite executives think that the accountant’s ethical behaviour helps the organisation build trust with internal and external stakeholders.

In order to lend specificity to the analysis of ethics in a digital environment, ethical aspects were identified across six digital themes. These themes were cybersecurity; platform-based business models; big data and analytics; cryptocurrencies and distributed ledgers; automation, artificial intelligence and machine learning; and procurement of technology. The observations are informed by discussions with senior finance professionals, typically at the level of CFO, partner or equivalent.

In the context of these digital themes, the IESBA fundamental principle which emerged most frequently as being at risk of compromise was professional competence and due care. This may be a reflection of the extent to which work situations in a digital age can present new information with ethical aspects that have not been seen before.

Looking ahead, it seems likely that risks of ethical compromises go way beyond issues of honest and straightforward professional and business relationships (integrity). For instance, it is difficult to apply ethical judgement to the use of distributed ledgers without a sufficient understanding of what they are.

The professional accountant of the future will need, in addition to technical capability, a rounded skill set that demonstrates key quotients for success in areas such as experience, intelligence, creativity, digital skills, emotional intelligence and vision. And at the heart of these lies the ethical quotient.