As privacy and security breaches continue to grab headlines around the world, consumers are increasingly asking questions about how much we can trust the technologies underpinning the Fourth Industrial Revolution, our current era of accelerated technological change that is radically transforming the way we live and work. They are also asking questions about technology companies and the extent to which these businesses act with integrity over data sharing. What can companies do to help ensure the public that they will always place customers’ interests ahead of profit?

Our Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Marc Benioff, joined experts at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos last January to discuss how leading with values and putting trust at the center of business can help technology leaders become more effective company stewards. Below are some of the insights that were discussed. 

A Crisis of Trust

At Salesforce, we believe that the new capabilities brought about by artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and other intelligent technologies have the potential to reshape the global economy, unleash new levels of productivity and efficiency, and improve our world in countless ways.

Swift progress is being made in AI, driven by exponential increases in computing power and the availability of vast amounts of data. Increasingly, companies can make use of tools and systems that automate a range of highly sophisticated tasks, such as deploying algorithms able to predict specialized consumer interests and needs.

But as AI-enhanced systems reach further into everyday life, people are wary of the impact these may have. With automated decisions already informing everything from music playlist recommendations to credit scores to parole outcomes, people are asking questions about whether these systems are transparent and bias-free.

And while people are happy to provide personal data in exchange for more personalized experiences, there are concerns about the implications for data security and how data is used. With machine learning poised to become an essential element of customer-focused marketing campaigns, customers also want reassurance that the hyper-personalized products and services delivered to them retain a human touch.

As Benioff put it, all this is adding up to “a crisis of trust.”

The “Growth at Any Cost” Culture Must Be Challenged

In this environment, are leading technology companies doing enough to demonstrate to consumers that their values and intentions are trustworthy, and that they will act in a way that makes a positive impact on society?

For Rachel Botsman, Visiting Academic and Lecturer at the University of Oxford's Saïd Business School, trust is an asset that companies must earn every day. Commenting upon the Kalamazoo shootings in February 2016, when Uber driver Jason Dalton killed six people, she questioned whether a “growth at any cost” culture exists in some technology companies.

Subsequent investigations revealed systemic failures in the systems Uber had in place to screen drivers and protect passenger data. The crisis of trust that subsequently engulfed the company triggered serious reform, as Dara Khosrowshahi, Chief Executive Officer at Uber, made clear. “The leaks and exposures started huge cultural change and a break from the past.”

Today, Uber is making exceptional efforts to use data to create safer experiences. In Mexico City, for example, the company is blocking ride requests from areas where carjacking is a risk.

Automation Is Fueling Mistrust and Fear About Jobs

The panel "In Technology We Trust" explored the political angle to the arguments about how technology can erode trust. Automation increases productivity and growth, but the spread of driverless cars and stores with no workers or checkout clerks is making ordinary people nervous. Such voters are less concerned about trust than about whether their jobs are safe. The rise in populist beliefs ranging from nationalism to protectionism can be seen to stem partly from fears about the societal challenges posed by the impact of technology.

Benioff pointed out that AI and increased automation are already having a significant impact on employment, and could lead to a crisis of workforce development that contributes to a growing global inequality gap. In his view, this means chief executives and governments need to take on the task of skills training with far greater urgency.

“As a society, we need to follow up with strategies for apprenticeship programs geared for tomorrow’s workers,” Benioff said. “We need to give them the skills they need to succeed and adapt to ongoing technological change. And in building this workforce of tomorrow, we need to ensure that we achieve gender equality, that women are paid the same as men — equal pay for equal work.”

More Regulation May Be Inevitable

With the technology sector increasingly dominated by a handful of huge players — including Apple, Facebook, and Google — the regulation of data sharing, privacy, and responsibility for platform content is another increasingly urgent issue.

Benioff believes the signs are pointing toward more regulation. “When CEOs don’t take responsibility, then governments have no choice but to step in,” he said, warning that otherwise there may be toxic consequences like those that occurred when the credit bubble burst in 2008.

“A decade ago, you had the banks talking about collateralized debt obligations and credit default swaps, saying they were great for the economy, but the regulators weren’t paying attention,” he said.

Today, regulators need to adapt and respond much faster to disruptive technological change. “The government needs to come in and point ‘true north,’” said Benioff.

Business Leaders Must Lead With Values

The panel in Davos agreed that in this new world of connected products and services, there can be no trust without transparency. Companies must be clear with customers about how their personal data will be used and ensure that customer information is kept secure. At the same time, chief executives will be held to higher standards if something goes wrong.

Ruth Porat, Senior Vice President and Chief Financial Officer of Alphabet and Google, is acutely aware of this issue, and said Google’s core value is respect — for the user, for the community, and for one another. She described how Alphabet and Google employ a company voting board that allows them to better understand what it must do to create a culture that fosters respect and trust.

“There’s one thing we do that I would encourage every company in every industry to do, and it’s our all-company meeting, where everyone is encouraged to ask any question — and they do,” she said. “Whatever is at the top of that leaderboard, we must answer. Relative to what I have seen in other places, it drives a level of transparency and openness in the company. It surfaces the types of problems which you don’t want to get in a memo later published that may have festered for too long.”

Other ways that companies can help to mend the trust divide include demonstrating transparent and ethical business functions, taking responsibility to address challenges, and actively engaging in societal issues.

If companies are not able to bridge the trust gap, the impact on business may be severe. Benioff put it this way: “Trust has to be the highest value in our company. If anything trumps trust, we’re in trouble.”