Fall 2006: Technology

Ethics of Invention

by Franci Rogers

When Alfred Nobel invented dynamite in 1866, his intention was that the explosive could be used in construction. As a result of an accident in his lab, he discovered a way to make nitroglycerin safer and less volatile to handle and it could be easily detonated. He envisioned canals being built faster. He knew that blasting rock, drilling tunnels, building railroads and many other forms of heavy labor would become easier. He patented dynamite, as well as 354 other inventions, and became a very wealthy man.

But Nobel was also a pacifist. His views on peace and social justice were considered radical in his era. When his dynamite began to be used in warfare, Nobel was overcome with guilt. The idea of his invention being used to kill drove him to start a trust fund to promote the peaceful use of science. Upon his death, the bulk of his fortune created the Nobel Prize.

The same type questions that plagued Alfred Nobel in the 1800s are still being pondered by inventors today. iCyt Visionary Bioscience Inc., an Illinois company that specializes in innovative cell measurement and handling technologies, was met with an ethical dilemma earlier this year. The company developed a new technology that sorts cells on a very small level. The invention, a flow cytometer, was intended for agricultural purposes, allowing dairy farmers to select the gender of their calves. However, iCyt realized that their invention had broader applications in human in-vitro fertilization and embryonic stem cell research. Tim Hoerr, CEO of iCyt, contacted his friend Greg Leman, the director of University Entrpreneurialship Initiatives and the Curtis Hankamer Chair in Entrepreneurship at Baylor University.

“The project came about because Tim and I have known each other for almost 20 years, have collaborated on some business consulting and maintained a personal relationship,” Leman said. “After telling him about what we are doing with Technology Entrepreneurship and learning about his progress with new technology, we realized it made sense to assist him with a feasibility study.”

The study became two Focus Firm MBA team projects. The first team researched bioethical issues for the company. Rhett Herron, who graduated from Baylor’s MBA program in May, was the focus firm team leader.

“The biggest road block in our endeavor was the vast abundance of related information,” said Herron. Their first step, he said, was to study the past. They examined the debate surrounding in-vitro fertilization and embryonic stem cell research from four perspectives: medical, religious, legal and political. “The most important aspect of research was the incorporation of as many perspectives as possible,” Herron said. Faced with so much available information, and with such passionate debate surrounding the issues at hand, Herron said it was surprisingly easy for team members to keep their feelings from interfering with their task. “In our initial meeting, it became evident how little each of us really knew about the specific details surrounding stem cell research,” he said. “From my viewpoint it was easy for the team to separate this project from our personal beliefs. Each member understood the outcome needed to be based on facts and made a concerted effort to remove any personal biases.”

At its conclusion, the focus firm team presented iCyt with a 23-page document, outlining as many sides of the issues as they could. “In doing the research, it became obvious that there is no perfect solution,” said Herron. “In the end, this particular situation boils down to a personal decision by the executives at iCyt. We simply supplied the information to fuel the discussion.”

The second Focus Firm team looked at intellectual property and potential markets for iCyt technologies. Shama Blaney, a second-year student, was a member of that team.

“We also looked at alternatives for using the technology in the forms of nanotechnology, pharmaceuticals and rapid prototyping,” she said. After considering all of the information presented by the Baylor teams, iCyt introduced Reflection in May. They call their invention the most sophisticated droplet cell sorting instrument ever created.

“We are extremely pleased with the partnership we’re enjoying with the institutions and esteemed scientists that represent the pre-commercial release Reflection units,” said Fredrick Molnar, chief Sales, Marketing and Service officer of iCyt. “Full commercial release of the instrument system will take place in late 2006.”

While the invention of new technology can bring about a range of ethical debates, heated debates – and even lawsuits – can occur at the very inception of an idea. Individuals and companies who patent the idea of an invention have come under close scrutiny in recent years. They are no-so-lovingly referred to as patent trolls. These usually small companies obtain intellectual patents on ideas, with no intention of bringing them to fruition on their own. They neither research the technology nor manufacture products. When a larger company does make this technology a reality, the patent troll threatens litigation seeking royalties or other compensation. While many see patent trolls as unethical, what they do is perfectly legal. Patent protection gives an inventor the right to exclude others from making, using and selling the patented invention for the term of the patent. Patent owners are legally entitled to charge any amount they wish as a royalty to anyone that wants to make, use or sell the patented invention. Patent owners are also free not to license or make use of the patent at all. And patents are transferable, so the holder of the patent does not need to be the actual inventor.

Although some see intellectual patent holders as the pejoratively-termed patent trolls, others have a slightly different take on the situation. Many are coming to see these companies as the underdogs: little guys taking on big corporations, and winning. Perhaps the most famous of the recent patent troll tales is that of NTP, nc., the small Virginia company that threatened to shut down e-mail for millions of people when it brought suit against Research In Motion Ltd. (RIMM), the maker of BlackBerry. NTP, which has no holdings except for patents, held the patent for the intellectual concept of a wireless e-mail system, a system that RIMM created. Tim Wu, a professor at Columbia Law School, told Slate, “It’s almost like waking up one day to find out that the guy selling hot dogs on Fifth Avenue actually owns the Empire State Building.”

Wu maintains that, although patent trolls are wreaking havoc with the system, they may actually be doing everyone a favor.

“About the best that might be said of trolls like NTP is that they’ve inspired a serious patent-reform debate,” Wu said. And reform, it seems, is needed. Patent examiners are said to be overworked and pressured to move quickly. Perhaps that’s how some inventions come to receive a patent, even though it may be difficult to see how they meet the legal standard of a “non obvious improvement over the prior art.”

Take for example the U.S. patent issued to Martin H. Abbott and Kevin T. Amiss

in 1995. Their invention? A method of inducing aerobic exercise in an unrestrained cat. That’s right: cat exercise. Their abstract reads, “A method for inducing cats to exercise consists of directing a beam of invisible light produced by a hand-held laser apparatus onto the floor or wall or other opaque surface in the vicinity of the cat, then moving the laser so as to cause the bright pattern of light to move in an irregular way fascinating to cats, and to any other animal with a chase instinct.”

So, before Americans weigh in on the ethics of invention, they’ll have to ask themselves if they want to pay a royalty every time Fluffy chases their laser pointer.

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Baylor Business Review, Fall 2006

Research in Action

by Kristin Todd

Website Rhetoric

In some cases, appearance is everything. Randall Waller, Baylor Information Systems senior lecturer, definitely agrees.

Waller, who teaches business communication classes, is currently researching how leading global corporations use their Web sites to project an image of solid corporate responsibility. Through incorporating rhetorical and sociological analysis, he reveals what Web sites are really saying to consumers, government regulators and the investment community.

“I started out dealing with crisis communication, but that interest soon evolved into a broader interest in issues management,” he said. “In the last four years or so, Web sites have become the ‘PR voice’ of nearly every major corporation. Each organization has a unique image with a personality that comes through on its Web site.” Waller said he first became interested in Web site analysis after Nike and Coca-Cola came under fire in the late ‘90s. Both companies conducted sophisticated,in-depth campaigns for reputation damage control.Nike enforced crisis management in 1998, after being targeted for its heavy reliance on Asian factories, many of which were portrayed as sweatshops. Unfortunately, the sweatshop scandal case exploded into an international dilemma.

“More and more research shows that today’s public puts a big emphasis on how companies treat employees and the environment,” he said. Waller said companies keep a close eye on their own reputation for corporate social responsibility, or CSR. In his Nike presentation for the 2005 Association of Business Communication Conference (ABC), Waller cited four contributing factors to CSR. Sustainability movement includes environmental issues and protecting it through conservation. The second factor is economic globalization of corporations through management, marketing and design functions. Corporate campaigns and information technology are the final actors.

The discrimination case filed against Coca-Cola in 1999 by a high-profile activist lawyer also captured Waller’s curiosity for how the company would respond, mainly through its Web site. He discussed the company’s communication techniques used in the case in a paper he co-wrote entitled, “The Corporate Website as an Image Restoration Tool,” which was presented at the 2004 ABC International Conference. “The accusations involved racial discrimination and women’s rights,” he said. “Coke had to respond carefully, or they could’ve inflicted permanent damage on the brand. They had to focus really hard on image restoration, and they made superb use of their website.” Corporations use Web sites as portals to reduce the transmission of mixed messages through properly addressing issues at stake and generally presenting the company on the positive side of an issue. Big companies mean big bucks, which takes industry leaders more susceptible to public scrutiny.

“I read the Wall Street Journal and come across articles on continuing controversies affecting corporations in my area of interest almost weekly,” Waller said. “High-profile companies are easy targets and surprisingly vulnerable.” Although the art of rhetoric originated with the Greeks, Waller deems this practice of persuasion applicable to today’s high-tech world. He uses several strategies of translating corporate Web site content into perceivable public ideas.

“I analyze the sites from a number of angles, which brings about different perspectives and valuable insights,” he said. “For instance, impression management focuses on image building, while a technique from sociology called ‘framing’ looks at how a message is specifically positioned for its audience.” As Waller dissects Web sites, he accumulates similarities among them such as establishing a connection with the audience. “These company Web sites are social constructs,” he said. “The messages created for them are always tailored to fit our basic values and public oerceptions.”

Waller points to the role of media in the dissemination of news that holds the ability to sway public opinion, which in turn affects the companies. Through this snowball effect, companies can collect dissenters who create “anti-Web sites” exposing the negative side of companies’ involvement in controversial issues and making sensational allegations against them.

“These Web sites rely, for the most part, on old media sources such as articles from the Washington Post or the New York Times to support their case against a corporation,” he said. “They’re nearly always backed by labor unions or activist groups.” Waller said company and counter Web sites are more influential than we may realize. “You can see the impact of these Web sites if you read closely enough because both sides are tapping into grassroots sentiments,” he said. “People who are opinion leaders and are computer literate have the power to shift the politics of these debates. These people are courted by both sides.” Issues management by company Web sites proves to be an ongoing process that demands constant regulation to support public policy debates.

“The people running these sites are technically and rhetorically savvy,” Waller said. “These sites give us political theater. Each one uses some form of storytelling to make its message vivid and compelling.” The analytical process for the Web sites is anything but simple, demanding a wide array of skills. “I think this is one of the most multidisciplinary things a researcher in my field can do,” he said. “It requires knowledge of the business world, communication theory, ancient and modern rhetoric, sociology, political science and computer technology. But, I think we’re dealing with something in its infancy. Web site communication has the potential to be bigger than TV someday when it comes to public policy debates.”

The man has a point. Internet access is available internationally around the clock. Web sites are flexible as they can be quickly updated to address morphing issues. They are also more cost-effective than printed brochures, which can quickly become outdated.

“Web sites have the technology to reflect the two faces of a corporation: internal and external,” he said. “When you look at a corporation, it’s either legitimate or illegitimate. Without a legitimate reputation, you’re in trouble.” Waller has also co-authored a paper on ExxonMobil and BP Web sites, which he presented in Oslo, Norway. As for the future, he has Wal-Mart on his analytical radar and intentions of studying food processing and pharmaceutical corporations.

“It seems likely now that obesity/diabetes issues and prescription drugs with dangerous side effects will be targeted just like tobacco in the 1990s,” he said. So why should society care about what company Web sites have to say? “These company Web sites are dealing with issues that touch nearly every one of us as consumers,” he said. “The messages communicated on the Web sites often indicate the direction of important policy debates on everything from health to pollution concerns.” Waller plans to continue his research and eventually compile analyzed Web site cases into a book.

“The Web puts everyone into the loop of dialogue on business decisionmaking and public policy debates,” he said. “Each site has a story to tell, and they’re sticking to it.”

Culture & Information Technology

Dorothy Leidner and Timothy Kayworth are immersing themselves in culture – information technology culture, that is. Leidner is the Randall W. and Sandra erguson Professor of Information Systems and the director of the Center for Knowledge Management at Baylor. Kayworth is an associate professor of MIS and recently collaborated with Leidner on a paper, which was published in the June 2006 issue of MIS Quarterly.

The paper, “A Review of Culture on Information Systems,” also includes research toward a theory of information technology (IT) culture conflict. The paper discusses the relationships of IT and culture and offers six themes of IT-culture research, theories of cultural conflict and research challenges. They examine and clarify previous IT-culture research to provide direction and guidance for future research. Based on their analysis, Leidner and Kayworth propose their own theory.

“The theory, which we label the ‘Theory of IT-Culture Conflict,’ provides a new perspective of culture and IT by focusing on the potential conflicts that may emerge in the context of IT development, adoption, use and management,” they wrote.

In order to propose their theory of IT and culture, Leidner and Kayworth first had to start at the root of the cause: defining culture. According to Leidner and Kayworth, past research identified 164 definitions of culture. These definitions included foundations of everything from norms and practices to ideologies, core values, and basic assumptions representing cognitive structures. Leidner and Kayworth decided to use a values-based approach of culture for their research. All of the professors’ research stemmed from an extensive literature review of journals related to their field. From these journals, Leidner and Kayworth developed the six themes linking IT and culture together.

The first theme is Culture and Information Systems Development, which deals with the question of culture influencing the design of information systems including national and organizational cultures.

The second theme is Culture and IT Adoption and Diffusion. This theme reveals the usage of uncertainty avoidance, power distance, individualism-collectivism, and masculinity/femininity to describe the relationship between IT and culture. These factors are cultural values proposed by Geert Hofstede, an Emeritus Professor of Organizational Anthropology and International Management of Maastricht University.

The third theme is Culture, IT Use and Outcomes, where their research showed different views of culture from organizational and national levels. For example, Leidner and Kayworth used supporting evidence from a past study that showed the variance of Internet usage in the United States versus that of Hong Kong. The study showed Hong Kong used the Internet mostly for social communication, where the U.S. focused on information search. The findings bolster the theory that cultural values shape how people use technology.

The fourth theme entitled, Culture, IT Management and Strategy, shows the impact of culture on IT management and strategy.

The fifth and sixth themes look at the impact of IT culture, and IT as a culture itself. Leidner and Kayworth found the last two themes to be the least discussed in past literature they analyzed.

“What has received the least amount of attention in the literature on IT and culture is the very notion of IT culture; by IT culture we mean the values attributed to IT by a group,” they wrote. Leidner and Kayworth draw two inferences from developing the fifth and sixth themes. “IT has the potential for use in organizational culture reengineering efforts,” they wrote. “Second, different types of technology artifacts may influence certain types of values.”The professors also address the causes of cultural conflicts and possible resolutions.

Leidner and Kayworth hope to expose the importance of IT and culture on society today. “To date, the idea of IT values has been largely ignored in the empirical literature,” they wrote. “We provide a framework that explains the inherent conflicts among values that may accompany the introduction of IT. We argue that through the reconciliation of these conflicts, IT subtly exerts pressures on the values inherent in the conflict resulting in a reorientation of values. It is via this reorientation of values that IT, over time, influences culture.”

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Baylor Business Review, Fall 2006