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Post With Care

15 January 2024

Story by
Simon Kent Head of Content – The HR World

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The case of the Post Office’s Horizon system offers a cautionary tale for HR professionals.

As the Post Office scandal continues to play out the implications for companies relying on employees’ use of technology as part of their everyday work is something that HR should examine carefully. In an increasingly tech-driven workplace, where efficiency and progress seems to be inextricably tied to new IT systems it is clear that proper checks should be in place to ensure the relationship between employees and their tech remains positive and productive.

Trusting technology over humans

“The Post Office scandal has been described as the most widespread miscarriage of justice in UK history, and it raises important questions about the ethical and social implications of trusting technology over humans,” says Dr Naeema Pasha, Future of Work specialist and author. “To my mind, the greatest lesson from this scandal is how technology can be deemed a higher source of truth than the human experience. The Post Office’s ‘blind faith’ in a flawed computer system cost hundreds livelihoods, reputations and in some cases lives and freedom. Despite the sub postmasters protests, the Post Office kept on insisting that the Horizon system was infallible and that any discrepancies were all human. This is a truly shocking example of how trusting technology over humans can lead to grave injustice and it also raises major ethical dilemmas.”

“The vast majority of your employees are using technology without being a tech wizard,” notes Sue Turner, Founder and Director of AI Governance. “As artificial intelligence, automation and other cutting-edge tools rapidly infiltrate our working lives, we face a critical challenge – equipping everyone, not just a select few, with the tech skills and confidence to thrive in this evolving landscape.”

According to Turner, some of the worst tech fails have occurred when organisations create new tech, or buy in third-party tools, without in-depth consultation with the people who will be using it in real life. She details one organisation that spent a huge amount planning an IT project only for it to fail at the last hurdle because they still had green screen terminals in the organisation. Apparently the project team had assumed there were PCs everywhere and the new system would not work on dumb terminals. However, there was no budget to upgrade to PCs for all, so the project was doomed. “A simple conversation with frontline workers at the outset could have exposed this critical gap and saved a fortune,” says Turner. “It takes time to engage people in planning new systems, but it’s well worth it to avoid costly mistakes.”

An evolutionary question?

“We seem to place greater trust into machine technology more than our own species,” says Pasha. “One explanation is that we have not evolved the skills to spot machine malfunction, as we do with humans. Another is that we have a tech-bias in that we tend to assume that machines are more precise, objective and secure than humans.

“Such tech-biases can make us overlook the flaws and limitations of the technology we use, especially in the age of rapid AI adoption we’re experiencing, we need to realise that to have this type of trust, and not to apply critical thinking, the consequences can be dire.”

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