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The Socio-Technical System in the Hughes case

What is a socio-technical system?

A socio-technical system is a conceptual tool we use to help us understand the entire system within which any particular ethical challenge is embedded. The ethical issues hardly ever arise about disembodied, abstract, systems. Instead, ethical issues come up when a computing system comes into contact with real world: thus socio-technical system. If you need some more background about socio-technical systems, we provide an overview.

But for now, simply remember that a socio-technical system can include hardware, software, physical surroundings, people, roles, procedures, laws and regulations, and data and data structures. This is a great deal of stuff, but in this document, we will help you discover some of the more important pieces of the socio-technical system surrounding the Hughes case.

An overview of the pieces

The Hughes case is less about technical computing systems and more about people and procedures in a corporate environment. Thus, hardware and software will get little attention in this analysis. We will spend most of our time thinking about the people and the procedures involved in this case. Even the data structures we will analyze are not those in the chips themselves, but those that help to track the environmental testing of the chips.


Hybrid microelectronics are at the heart of this case. But it is not the chips themselves that are important to the case. Instead, it is the high-stress environment in which the chips would be used: United States military battlefield systems. The chips in air-to-air missiles or F15 aircraft or tanks would be subject to extreme variations in temperature, shock, and other hazards. This is why testing the chips in their sealed containers was so important, and why skipping those tests, or shipping chips that had failed tests, was such a serious fraud.



The chips themselves embodied software routines, but the design of the software is not the center of this case. Instead, the case is about the organizational procedures that allowed or encouraged the fraud, and that resulted in the whistleblowing.


Physical Surroundings

The major physical surroundings for this case involve E-1000 at Hughes Microelectronics in Newport Beach CA. E-1000 was a very large, "clean" room containing all the testing equipment, environmental testers, quality assurance, and engineers responsible for testing thousands of hybrids every month. It was an open factory floor style organization, and was designed this way to allow the supervisors to better view all the operations going on. This physical organization enhanced the power of the supervisors, since the operators were always "on display." The section on life on the testing line explains more about the social dynamics of the testing floor.



The various players in this case, from Goodearl and Ibarra to upper management at Hughes to the Defense Department, help us understand the complexity of the case. It is easy to simply look for "bad guys" and "good guys" in this case, but a closer look not only makes the picture more complicated, but helps us think about how to change the socio-technical system in ways that will make fraud less likely and whistleblowing less catastrophic.


It is clear that the procedures for testing the chips and for dealing with complaints were the major thing at fault in this case. It was easy for LaRue and Saia to manipulate the system to ship untested chips, Goodearl and Ibarra had little protection when they made their complaints, their complaints were badly mishandled by management, and the Inspector General's office took an extraordinarily long time in moving to trial and getting a settlement.


Laws and Regulations

The specific laws mentioned in this case are the False Claims Act, Whistleblower Protection Act, and the 1987 Department of Defense Authorization Act. These are discussed in brief in our section on US Whistleblower Law, These laws are under constant revision in the United States, and vary widely from country to country. If you are considering blowing the whistle, we recommend you find local legal expertise familiar with whistleblowing law. Our links page can help you look for this.

In addition to laws about whistleblowing, the reason Hughes got into trouble was by violating the Military testing standards required for hybrids. These were specified in great detail, and varies from chip to chip that was being manufactured. Hughes took advantage of the variation in testing standards from chip to chip by claiming (falsely) that some chips should skip particular tests. The complexity of standards was required by the variety of chip architectures, but it made enforcement of the testing standards more difficult.


Data or Data Structures

The lot travelers that were attached to each chip are the most important data structures in this case. The data recorded on them were detailed lists of every procedure that was required, and a place to mark when it was completed. These lot travelers structured the testing regimen for each chip and documented that it had been followed. But they were easily subject to fraud, as evidence by LaRue's documented alteration of two AAMRAM lot travelers. Since the fraud is really a part of the procedure in testing, however, we will discuss the lot travelers in procedures.