Issues pertaining to the professional conduct of IT professionals

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The IT sector has seen more development and change than any other industry to date. The advances in technology have been tremendous and people have become ever increasingly reliant on more and more technology, be it at work or at home. For example, a survey done in 1996 showed that the affect of IT and IT personnel influence major-large scale business performance more than any thing else1.

The pattern of advancement has not followed suit as far as IT professionals are concerned, or so it is argued. It has been suggested that whereas people that work in other technology areas such as scientists or medical professionals are expected to follow a somewhat professional code of conduct, the IT professionals don’t have anything as definitive to follow. Various arguments have been put forward to tackle why this may seem to be the case. The most prominent opinion seems to be that the IT field is simply too broad for its professionals to be stipulated under one charter. On the other hand some take a more optimistic opinion in that the IT field is still in adolescence when compared to other major fields of work, such as the financial sector or manufacturing. In which case perhaps the IT field will gain more credit and respect once it has matured, just like the other sectors have.

Nevertheless, various IT societies such as Association for Computing Machinery (hereafter referred to as ACM), the British Computer Society (hereafter referred to as BCS) and Electrical and Electronics Engineering (hereafter referred to as IEEE) have taken measures to tackle the issues of professionalism in IT.

BCS organisation was established in 1957 to represent the interests of engineers who were primarily working in hardware development. Since than it has developed into a major institution, which represents over 38,000 members working in extremely different professions, be it a fresh IS graduate from university, a Project manager or a UML expert. Over the last 20 years, BCS has gained considerable influence over the government and the academics institutions of UK. This is evidently due to the phenomenal rise of the ‘Information System’ era that has benefited BCS immensely as it saw an increase in memberships, which lead to an increase in BCS’s power of influence. BCS has also gained global respect and is steadily growing outside of the UK as well as outside of Europe.

BCS first made its key impact in the legislative system in 1990 ‘The Computer Misuse Act2’ where the act was co sponsored by BCS. Since than, BCS has gained respect across the board as a place of ‘specialised knowledge’. BCS organises numerous events aimed at increasing awareness and knowledge in the IT field, it is one of the key ways that allows BCS to keep up to date with current trends in the IT market. In addition BCS is actively gaining influence on the academic front, it is adamantly increasing links with higher education institutes. This has been praised as a step in the right direction as one of BCS’s overall aims is to gain some uniformity with respects to its member’s education, and that could be achieved if BCS help create similar syllabuses.

In comparison the ACM was established before the BCS. It boasts more than double the membership size of the BCS. It shares more or less the same objectives as BCS, however, it has a much more global membership, which has affected its influence in terms of policy in two ways. Having a global membership has meant that ACM has a great deal of GLOBAL influence, therefore at world summits etc, ACM is a force to be reckoned with, however in terms of national influence in a particular country, ACM has SLIGHTLY lost out as SOME governments don’t care much for an organisation that boasts little representation by way of members in there country.

Nevertheless ACM is very active particularly in USA where it is consistently involved in all sorts of policy matters, regional and national pertaining to IT issues. ACM also actively supports its members if they wish to challenge the legislative system on a particular IS based issue3. This is something BCS lacks because, although it vows to support its members, it doesn’t share the enthusiasm that ACM has for a legal debate.

The IEEE is a more specific society in relation to its members as most if not all of its members have a technical background such as engineering. This organisation has ten times as many members as BCS and about five times as many members as ACM. Its members are spread around 150 countries. IEEE does all that ACM and BCS do such as advising governments on issues relating to IT. IEEE takes an interest in higher education institutes through out the world.

It organises about 300 conferences yearly on IT based issues4. Interestingly enough, 30% of the literature in the world relating to technology and electrical engineering is published through the IEEE. Much like BCS, the IEEE and ACM enjoy close inks with businesses. The IEEE has an initiative called ‘standards’ where the IEEE works with businesses and various government departments to come up with general standards, which than go on to become the industry standards. In this case, the IEEE enjoys a much more in depth involvement with the IT industry and the government as compared to BCS and ACM.

The three organisations mentioned above seem to enjoy very similar attributes. All of them have a common passion for IT, which has enabled them to catch the Government’s ear on matters of IT legislations. The three societies have cleverly created links with educational institutes, which will ensure them ample memberships in the future, and increase their influence on the curricula, this will also help these IT societies keep up to date in the IT field. The IT societies seem to share a passion for organising conferences, this is a good thing, as, if nothing else, it helps the society keep on top of ‘what’s new’ in the IT market. The conferences also benefit the members, as they can increase their knowledge on the ‘hot issues’ at that moment. BCS is a fairly small organisation compared to ACM and IEEE. It doesn’t organise as many conferences as the other two societies, but perhaps that’s because of its smaller membership base.

There are various ways in which IT societies try to increase the level of ‘professionalism’ in their members nowadays. As earlier mentioned, a common approach demonstrated by all societies is the idea of organising conferences. These are usually on specific topics and help members increase their knowledge.

IT organisations are actively trying to create a sound academic base for the IT / IS profession, this will undoubtedly help this field in a major way as, Gotterbarn5 argued, whereas to be a doctor you need a PHD in some medicinal field, yet one can be a software engineer without needing anything! BCS, ACM and IEEE have embarked upon the idea of crediting their members, this is an initiative to distinguish and label members according to their skills. This idea is designed to help firms and businesses that are ill equipped on IT knowledge and IT skills so they can judge the skills of a particular employee so they can better judge their capabilities. This scheme has received critical acclaim globally as there have been too many ‘cowboy programmers’6 who have severely damaged the reputation of IT / IS professionals.

In addition, IT societies also organise awards and dinners where members can liase and network with each other, this helps solidarity, which is highly sought after in a discipline as broad as IS / IT. The societies have also created links with the main employers be it at a regional, national or global level. This has worked out well at both ends as the societies can associate themselves with major firms, while the major firms can rest assured that their prospective employees will be under the adjudication of the relevant IT society. The key way in which the above-mentioned societies have tried to deal with professionalism is the idea of a code of conduct

The Code of Conduct stipulated by ACM, IEEE and BCS bear many resemblances with SLIGHT differences, as they all aim to achieve very similar objectives. When devising the Codes of Conduct the societies had to come up with the overall aim of why they were doing this. The First and foremost aim must be to define acceptable behaviour of a member by which they could be held accountable. The societies would want their members to act in an exemplary fashion so as to promote high standards of practice, which in turn will associate a certain level of trust with members of that particular IT society. The IT societies would want their members to be able to use the Code of Conduct as a self test, where the member could see if they measure up or not, in this respect, the Code of Conduct should be as clear and precise as possible. The IT societies would also want their Code of Conduct to become a useful tool in regulating the profession, while also becoming a “mark of professional maturity”7 i.e. the IT societies would want their Code of Conduct to help the IT profession delve into ‘maturity’ as currently it is young compared to other disciplines.

THE BCS Code of Conduct & Big Business

The BCS ‘code of conduct’ are a set of rules that members are EXPECTED to abide by. These rules were created to tackle the issue of professionalism in the IT field. The overall aim is to ensure that the BCS member acts professionally and thoughtfully.

The BCS code of conduct is split into four parts; the Public interest, Duty to relevant authority, Duty to the profession and Professional competence and integrity. These rules are all intertwined and if observed, will benefit any employer greatly.

Member must regard public health and safety at all times. Member must be aware of all legislations concerning the project being worked on, and these legislations must be upheld. Members are also asked not to accept any form of bribery. These rules benefit any business in self-explanatory ways and are not just relevant to the IT professionals, rather, they are generalist and moralistic, hence all workers should keep them in mind.

Duty to relevant authority is the concept concerned with respecting authority. The Code stipulates that the member should avoid situations where conflict may rise between the member and the relevant authority. The member must not disclose any confidential information to any one without authorisation from court of law or permission from the relevant authority. The member must not hold back any vital information regarding performance of a product / service or take advantage of the inexperience or lack of knowledge of others. These are essential rules for an IT professional, as they demonstrate some essential characteristics an IT professional should possess and it is highly likely that an employer would find these qualities very desirable in their employees.

Duty to the profession is a mixture of ethics and courtesy with professionalism. BCS wish their members to uphold the good standing of BCS and the profession in general. Members are asked to help fellow members in there professional development. Members are advised to act with integrity amongst themselves and with members of other professions with whom they have a working relationship. These are ideal characteristics and would be beneficial for a firm, especially in the long run.

Professional competence and integrity is primarily to do with self-improvement. BCS wish their members to stay on top of their field, so members are expected to read up and stay ahead in the IT field and encourage their subordinates to do so. Members are asked to act responsibly and be accountable for their work and for those working under them. Members are asked to never claim a level of competence that they do not possess. These are important to businesses today as an employee is more valuable if they have good knowledge of the latest products on the market. The Code of Conduct emphasises the notion of being responsible and accountable, this is again essential if the member is to work in companies where his /her work will affect all others, e.g. software application etc. members must also be honest about skills that they have and don’t have and this is important so that firms have accurate idea of an employees skills level, rather than being disillusioned!

The ACM Code of Conduct & Big Business

The ACM have devised their Code of Conduct with a more ethical notion, hence it’s called the ACM Code of ethics and Professional Conduct. Whereas BCS had split there Code of Conduct into four parts and subdivided between professional practice and professional conduct, ACM decided to keep things simple. With respect to the employer the ACM Code of Conduct stipulates that the member must “strive to achieve the highest quality, effectiveness and dignity in both the process and products of professional work”8. This is beneficial to companies as members are asked to simply work to their best.

The ACM Code of Conduct requires its members to be familiar with the legal framework that they are working in, i.e. be aware of any laws that may affect the project they are working on. This helps firms, as their products would be legally ok! In addition ACM members are asked to accept and provide ‘professional reviews’, these are reports on topics on which the IT professional has unique knowledge and these reviews can be used to educate the rest of the company on a particular issue.

The ACM Code of Conduct stresses the need for its members to ensure that they honour contracts, agreements and all assigned responsibilities. This benefits companies as this is a vital aspect for any modern day business and a trust worthy, responsible employee can make a world of difference. Having said that, this is a more moral and general rule of professionalism as opposed to being a specific IT rule, its perhaps more ‘ethically’ bound. In addition, ACM emphasise that there member should observe all company policies, especially those related to computing and communication resources, for example specific main frame computers should only be accessed with prior permission of the relevant authority.

The ACM Code of Conduct further goes on to stipulate rules for members that are in commanding positions, such as directors etc. it basically stresses on the notion of responsibility towards EVERYONE-be it fellow team members, clients or the employer!

THE IEEE Code of Conduct & Big Business

The IEEE called their code of conduct ‘the IEEE Code of Ethics’. Its smaller in quantity than the above mentioned charters. It boasts ten statements as follows;

The IEEE Code of conduct is less precise compared to the other two societies, it is more ethically orientated as in it delves into moral responsibilities. Most of the IEEE Code of conduct is of benefit to the employer as it demands members to act at all times with the highest regard for health, safety and the public which in turn will benefit the employer as there product would be ‘safe’. The Code of Conduct advises its members to disclose any information that may cause conflict. This is a generalized statement and again serves on moral grounds, as it’s asking the member to do what they can in order to avoid a conflict, this in turn is undoubtedly beneficial for the employer.

One of the key IEEE principles is that members should be realistic and honest when giving estimates, this is because currently most businesses have fairly little knowledge on IT and its counterparts. Therefore the companies would rely on the IT staff to come up with appropriate estimates etc. Hence placing a great level of trust and responsibility on the IT professional in which case having such a thing mentioned in Code of Conduct is beneficial for businesses. In addition the IEEE advises its members to avoid bribery in ALL forms, that’s right, be it a packet of M & M’s or a VAIO laptop or hard cash, if its from any remotely questionable source, it should be rejected. This again is more a moral code than a specific IT code.

The IEEE stress that their members must only take part in technological tasks that they are fully qualified to carry out, this is essential! A lot of so called professionals as previously mentioned abuse the lack of knowledge of others and pretend to be something they’re not i.e. a genius programmer, whereas in reality they have little knowledge of programming let alone any substantial experience. Therefore this code greatly benefits businesses as it may help to pt their mind at ease, as the IEEE member should only opt to do something they are capable of!!

The IEEE Code of Conduct demands that its members actively help their co-workers, regardless of their discipline, and increase them in their knowledge of IT. It also asks members to avoid injuring others in all forms, i.e. respect others property and reputation. These are yet again moral imperatives, regardless, they do help build character of the member and promote good habits that are evidently useful and advantageous to big business.

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