Companies Need to Prove They Can Be Trusted With Technology

Companies Need to Prove They Can Be Trusted With Technology

Written by: Daniel Dobrygowski | Published by: c.2023 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp.


The idea that technology developers can be trusted to innovate or code their way out of problems and into prosperity is on its way out. Individuals’ trust in tech and the companies that develop it has been eroded by innumerable failures. For businesses, it’s no longer acceptable to use technology without taking steps to ensure it’s trustworthy.

More tech isn’t going to solve this problem. Customers are looking at the choices that company leaders make and assessing whether those choices match individual consumers’ and citizens’ values — and whether they put people first. And because every company uses some form of digital technology in its operations and relationships with customers and partners, every company needs to worry about digital trust.

CEOs and boards need to take a hard look at what exactly trustworthy technology looks like in the 21st century, how companies earn digital trust and what changes and investments they need to make in order to do that.


What Makes Technology Trustworthy?

No technology is inherently trustworthy or untrustworthy. After all, technologies have no agency in themselves; instead, as a character in the Afrofuturist film “Neptune Frost” puts it, “technology is only a reflection of us.” Trust in technology is a reflection of the decisions people make when they develop the tech, use it and implement it. When the World Economic Forum convened business, government and civil society leaders in the field of trustworthy tech, the assembled group reached this consensus: “Digital trust is individuals’ expectation that digital technologies and services — and the organizations providing them — will protect all stakeholders’ interests and uphold societal expectations and values.”

In this work, the Forum’s Digital Trust Community realized that the most important question to ask with regard to technology is: “What do we need to do — as technology developers, owners and users — to respect people’s values and expectations?” With the right mindset and the right goals, it’s possible to develop an effective and trustworthy strategy for the use of digital technology. At its heart, such a trustworthy tech strategy comes from consideration for the individuals subjected to new technologies.

The World Economic Forum’s digital trust community offered three broad sets of goals:

  • Security and reliability
  • Accountability and oversight
  • Inclusive, ethical, and responsible use


How Do You Invest In Digital Trust?

Earning digital trust isn’t simple, and it can’t be automated. Rather it requires a series of judgment calls, investments and organizational changes that reflect the totality of a technology’s likely impact on individuals. These shifts, encompassing the whole business, can only be orchestrated by company leaders.

Becoming prepared to start earning back trust requires CEOs and boards of directors to do at least three things:

  • Define a vision for digital trust.
  • Plan to act in more trustworthy ways.
  • Recruit people who will help earn trust.


The first investment leaders need to make is to take the time and energy to truly understand the impact of the technologies they create or deploy. Developing a realistic and comprehensive vision for how an organization uses technology in service of its goals and those of the people who rely on it determines how an organization will invest in digital trust.

Leaders should approach decisions involving technology with a clear sense of how those technologies reflect and impact core organizational values and the values of the society in which the business operates. Their vision for creating or adopting new technologies must consider both the benefits to the business and society alongside a clear and responsible assessment of the potential harms new technologies might impose on potential customers or other stakeholders.

For example, a business adopting generative AI must assess how the technology might increase efficiencies (a benefit to the business), unlock new solutions to pressing challenges (a benefit to society) while also developing a plan to prevent expected harms, for example, to democratic processes from AI “hallucinations” or misinformation and to workers displaced by these advanced technologies. Only a vision that responsibly considers both the benefits and the risk of new technology can truly be considered trustworthy.


After deciding on a vision that includes trustworthy goals, organizations need a plan to act for digital trust. This plan requires leaders to invest in the internal structures and teams that best support digital trust. For all applications of digital technology, the Forum’s work identified eight dimensions where positive action can help achieve an organization’s goals — both trust goals and overall financial or strategic goals. Those dimensions are cybersecurity, safety, transparency, interoperability, auditability, redressability, fairness and privacy.

In most organizations, these areas likely fall to different departments and leaders, which means optimizing them requires an interdisciplinary approach — and possibly some structural change — in order to support the careful decision-making required to earn trust from users and other stakeholders. However, the realities of a given industry or company may mean it’s not possible to maximize every one of the dimensions described.


The third big initial investment is in the people who can help the business earn digital trust. Making technology trustworthy is a multifaceted effort conducted on an organizational scale — which means that ultimate responsibility for trustworthiness falls to the CEO. This general duty of trustworthy technology decision-making doesn’t mean, however, that the business shouldn’t invest in recruiting experts who can help establish the right strategy, and the right structures, to support digital trust.

This leader, possibly a chief trust officer, must be both an expert in stakeholder management and a trusted counselor to the CEO and the board. Stakeholder management comes into play where companies already have cybersecurity, privacy, compliance and even ethics functions. The leads for each of those roles has a stake in the overall trustworthiness of the digital strategy of a company — in both building it and benefiting from it. In order to be a counselor on digital trust, this individual must also be able to think systemically — bridging between these disciplines in order to help leaders make the best judgment call on how, where and toward what ends new technologies should be applied.


CEOs must understand that trust in the technology that underlies and enables virtually every business can’t be bought, but by investing in the time it takes to make the right decisions, establishing a trustworthy vision and recruiting effective supporters, it can be earned.

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