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Values in Context

Photo by Ian Schneider on Unsplash

Greg Andrews was a contingent instructor in the Information Technology program. With 30 years of experience in designing IT systems, he had seen the good and bad uses of technology. His course was focused on the human dimensions of IT.

At the beginning of the semester, Andrews asked his students to rank order their top five personal values from a list he provided. Then he asked students to survey ten friends or family members to see which values they picked.

Andrews used the exercise to make the point that the design of IT systems should start by understanding societal values as they relate to the systems that students will eventually help design.

Next, Andrews described the concept of data trusts, a legal framework for managing shared data and the associated concerns for things like privacy, confidentiality, and security. “You are asked to design a data trust for an employer consortium that is interested in college graduates’ decisions when selecting an employer. Your task is to choose the specific values that you want to evaluate to include in the data trust. Use the survey data you collected as one source of insight for this assignment. But you can also go beyond those values as well.”

When the students compiled their work, Andrews was surprised by the results. The data trust items did not match up with the earlier compilation of the students’ personal values. When students made personal value selections, they tended to select societal values such as equality, human dignity, justice, tolerance, etc. These were what they said were important to them. But when they chose the values for the job selection data trust, they looked very different. Factors such as personal growth, opportunity, acceptance, and security were selected. Other values such as locational comfort, pay for worth, and organizational culture were also on the list. The context of the situation changed the value assessments.

Andrews showed his students the differences in what they said the most valued and the values they represented in the data trust. He asked them to help him understand how to reconcile the differences.

At the end of the class, Andrews concluded by sharing the concepts of necessary and sufficient conditions. The values the students considered in their data trust were what students thought were necessary for them to accept a job offer. But these necessary conditions only tell part of the story. Long term, people opt for employers where not only their necessary values are met, but also their personal values, the sufficient condition.

“When you are designing a system, you need to consider both necessary and sufficient values. The specific context of the discussion will lead to a dominance of necessary values. But you must also consider the sufficient values that don’t depend upon context.”

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“The better we understand how identities and power work together from one context to another, the less likely our movements for change are to fracture.” – Kimberle Williams Crenshaw (Civil Rights advocate)

This post is part of our “Think About” education series. These posts are based on composites of real-world experiences, with some details changed for the sake of anonymity. New posts appear on Wednesdays.