To earn the professional designation of Information Systems Professional, or I.S.P., CIPS now requires applicants to pass an ethics exam.  I was on the committee that helped create that exam and I think we can learn almost as much from the questions we did not include as from those questions that were approved.

Information technology has not spent much time looking at ethics questions or setting precedents about how I.T. folk should behave.  There are some cases that have gone through the courts and have been documented in such books as “Case Studies in Information Technology Ethics” by Richard A. Spinello.  But the law is slow and these cases are complex.  What kinds of things should a “normal” professional know how to deal with?

I will not describe any of the cases on the exam, but you can surmise that we describe behavior of various companies and individuals that are not unusual, but raise ethical questions.  After reading one such case, I proposed a question for the exam that read something like:

What should happen to this company?

a)      The public users should sue it and win at least the amount of the penalties.

b)      The government should sue it and expunge all the negative tax records from the users.

c)       CIPS should flame it on the Internet and notify Better Business Bureaus so the integrity of the IT business is protected.

d)      All of the above

e)      None of the above

The only problem was, we could not point at any resource or documentation that could be used to justify which answer people should give.  So the exam, as it exists, just tests you on what the CIPS Ethics statements say, and how they apply to the cases studies described.  There are two documents describing the implications of the CIPS statements and those documents are how we determine the correct answers.

Then we found some volunteers to take the test and looked at the results.  We were very glad we did.  There was one question that described a situation for “Max” and then asked:

The CIPS code of ethics states the requirement for privacy of information such as Max was granted applies “without any express request or stipulation on the client’s part”.

  • True
  • False

Imagine our surprise when only 38 per cent of the volunteers got the answer correct! With true and false you expect at least half to be correct even if they are all just guessing.  Obviously, the wording of the case and question were not clear, or this answer was so counter-intuitive that even when they had read the wording in the CIPS documents (it is an open book exam) they could not agree with it.  We decided not to include this question in the final exam database (random questions are selected for each participant).

So now we know ethics questions are not always intuitive and that IT case studies need to be discussed so we gain some consensus on how ethical issues should be resolved.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada