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Cognitive Systems Engineering: Work versus Task Analysis

“An ant, viewed as a behaving system, is quite simple. The apparent complexity of its behavior over time is largely a reflection of the complexity of the environment in which it finds itself.” — Herbert Simon

In some respect, it is debatable whether psychology completely escaped from the strictures of a Behaviorist perspective with the dawning of an information processing age. Although the computer and information processing metaphors legitimized the study of mental phenomena, these phenomena tended to be visualized as activities or mental behaviors (e.g., encoding, remembering, planning, deciding, etc.). Thus, for human factors, cognitive task analysis tended to focus on specifying the mental activities associated with work.

However, as Simon's parable of the ant suggests, this might lead to the appearance or inference that the cognition is very complex. When in reality, the ultimate source of that complexity may not be in the cognitive system, but in the work situations that provide the context for the activity (i.e., the beach). Thus, Simon's parable is the motivation for work analysis as a necessary complement to task analysis. The focus of work analysis is to describe the functional constraints (e.g., goals, affordances, regulatory constraints, social constraints, etc.) that are shaping the physical and mental activities of workers. The focus of work analysis is on describing work situations, as a necessary context for evaluating both awareness (rationality) and behavior.

While classical task analysis describes what people do, it provides little insight into why they do something. This is the primary value of work analysis, to provide insight into the functional context shaping work behaviors.

A common experience upon watching activities in an unfamiliar work domain is puzzlement at activities that seem somewhat irrational. Why did they do that? However, as one becomes more familiar with the domain, one often discovers that these puzzling activities are actually smart responses to constraints that the experienced workers were attuned to - but that were invisible to an outsider.

Thus, for those of us who see humans as incredibly adaptive systems - it is natural to look to the ecology that the humans are adapting to as the first source for hypotheses to explain that behavior. And for those of us who hope to design information technologies that enhance that adaptive capacity - it is critical that the tools not simply be tuned to human capabilities, but that these tools are also tuned to the demands of the work ecology. For example, a shovel must not only fit the human hands, but it must also fit well with the materials that are to be manipulated.

Thus, work analysis is essential for Cognitive Systems Engineering. It reflects the belief that understanding situations is a prerequisite for understanding awareness.

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