Human Factors and Ergonomics: Looking Back to Look Forward

During the second world war, the United States lost hundreds of planes in accidents that were deemed ‘pilot error’. Crash landings were a particular problem for the Boeing B-17 ‘Flying Fortress’. The planes were functioning as designed, and the pilots were highly trained, but made basic errors. In 1942, a young psychology graduate, Alphonse Chapanis joined the Army Air Force Aero Medical Lab as their first psychologist. Chapanis noticed that the flaps and landing gear had identical switches that were co-located and were operated in sequence. In the high-workload period of landing, pilots frequently retracted the gear instead of the flaps. This hardly ever occurred to pilots of other aircraft types. Chapanis fixed a small rubber wheel to the landing gear lever and a small wedge-shape to the flap lever. This kind of ‘pilot error’ almost completely disappeared.

A few years later in 1947, experimental psychologists Paul Fitts and Richard Jones analysed accounts of 460 errors made in operating aircraft controls, through interviews and written reports. They noted” that “It has been customary to assume that prevention of accidents due to materiel failure or poor maintenance is the responsibility of engineering personnel and that accidents due to errors of pilots or supervisory personnel are the responsibility of those in charge of selection, training, and operations.” Fitts and Jones took a different slant altogether. The basis for their study was the hypothesis that “a great many accidents result directly from the manner in which equipment is designed and where it is placed in the cockpit.” What had been called ‘pilot error’ was actually a mismatch between characteristics of the designed world and characteristics of human beings, and between work-as-imagined and work-as-done.

Fitts and Jones considered a range of problems, including operating the wrong control, failing to adjust a control properly, forgetting to operate a control, moving a control in the wrong direction, unknowingly activating a control, and being unable to reach a control when needed. The flap-gear substitution error, and many other ‘pilot errors’ were actually problems of cockpit design. They concluded: “Practically all pilots of present day AAF aircraft, regardless of experience or skill, report that they sometimes make errors in using cockpit controls. The frequency of these errors and therefore the incidence of aircraft accidents can be reduced substantially by designing and locating controls in accordance with human requirements” (p.2). They went on to specify design measures for controls and displays (concerning standardisation, simplification, sequencing, interlocks, and other aspects of compatibility of controls with human characteristics and expectations).

These and other studies brought into focus the ‘obvious fact’ that human performance cannot be separated from the design of tasks, equipment and working environments. We can’t just train and supervise human performance. We have to design for it. Accidents associated directly with cockpit design are now extremely rare, and in 2017 there were no passenger deaths from flights in commercial passenger jets.

The birth of a discipline

Research in the US and UK concerning real work in real environments during and after WWII formed the beginnings of the discipline that was termed ‘human factors’ (US) and ‘ergonomics’ (UK). It was not the intention of early researchers to form a new discipline. Rather, “the intention was much more modest, namely, to facilitate discussion, information exchange and collaboration between scientists working across a range of specialisms” (Waterson, 2016). These specialisms were anatomy, physiology, psychology, industrial medicine, industrial hygiene, design engineering, architecture and illumination engineering (Murrell, 1965).

Over time, human factors/ergonomics (HF/E) became a distinct discipline, with its own societies. The first was the Ergonomics Research Society in the UK in 1950 (now Chartered Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors), following by the Human Factors Society of America in 1957.

Despite the different names for the discipline, a formal definition has been agreed, via the International Ergonomics Association – the umbrella association for national HF/E societies and associations. The definition is accepted by member societies around the world:

“Ergonomics (or human factors) is the scientific discipline concerned with the understanding of interactions among humans and other elements of a system, and the profession that applies theory, principles, data and methods to design in order to optimize human well-being and overall system performance.” (International Ergonomics Association)

Another simpler definition was provided by the late John Wilson, who later defined ‘systems ergonomics and human factors’ as follows (extract):

“Understanding the interactions between people and all other elements within a system, and design in light of this understanding.” (Wilson, 2014, p.12)

Simpler still, HF/E is sometimes referred to as ‘design for human use’.

HF/E takes a scientific approach to understanding and design, including the generation and application of associated theory, principles, data and methods. Decades of scientific research in a range of contexts have enabled a sophisticated understanding of human needs, limitations and capabilities, influences on human performance and wellbeing, human influences on system performance, and patterns of interaction between human and other system elements – physical, technical, informational, social, organisational, political, and economic.

Designing interactions

HF/E focuses on the design of these interactions. This differentiates HF/E from other design and engineering disciplines. For industrial applications, a good shorthand for this is ‘work’. So HF/E seeks to optimise the design of work, but with a focus on work-as-done, and not simply work-as-imagined (see also EUROCONTROL, 2016).

Interactions occur at different levels. At a micro level, we have basic interactions such as pulling a lever, pressing a button, turning a dial, or hearing an alarm. At a meso level, interactions combine, bringing more complexity, such as communication and coordination between a pilot, co-pilot, and cockpit. At a macro level, the number of elements and interactions, and associated complexity, increases further, perhaps expanding to air traffic controllers, air navigation equipment, ground staff, airport, airspace, management, regulation, etc. As the lens widens, so does the number of stakeholders, and the number of goals, needs and system or design requirements that need to be considered.

These interactions occur in a context, and context is critical to HF/E. If I turn the wrong burner on my stove (which I do, very often), it is not a problem. I simply turn it off and now I know the correct dial to turn. If I want to be sure I can bend down to look at the little diagram, but often I can’t be bothered. A similar action for B-17 pilots resulted in retracting the gear instead of the flaps, and accidents. A similar action for an anaesthetist might inadvertently turn off a continuous-flow anaesthetic machine because of a badly positioned power switch. If the consequence of my turning the wrong burner dial were more severe, I would bother to check the little diagram often, but I would still make mistakes, mostly because the layout of the stoves is incompatible with the layout of the dials, which look identical and are co-located. If the consequences were indeed more severe, cooker designers would be forced to design dials to be compatible with burners, along with other designed safety features

HF/E in practice is a blend of craft, engineering and applied science. The approach tries to make system interaction and influence visible. It uses methods for data collection, analysis and synthesis, to understand and map system interaction at every stage of the life-cycle of a system or product. HF/E can therefore help in the design of interactions in the context of:

  • artefacts (e.g., equipment, signs, procedures)
  • designed environments (e.g., airport layout, airspace design, hospital design, lighting)
  • planned organisational activity (e.g., supervision, training, regulation, handover, communication, scheduling)
  • work and job design (e.g., pacing, timing, sequencing, variety, rostering, critical tasks)
  • emergent aspects of organisations and groups (e.g., culture, workload, trust, teamwork, relationships).

I like to think of human factors and ergonomics as rooted – to some extent – in four kinds of thinking:

  • systems thinking, including an understanding of system goals, system structure, system boundaries, system dynamics and system outcomes;
  • design thinking, including the principles and processes of designing for human use;
  • humanistic thinking, emphasising human agency, awareness, wholeness, intention, meaning, values, choice, and responsibility; and,
  • scientific thinking, purposeful thinking that aims to enhance scientific understanding by problem specification, hypothesising, predicting, observing, measuring, and testing.

The ultimate goals of this design activity are to optimise human well-being and overall system performance. Some argue that this joint ‘and’ purpose characterises the unique holistic nature of HF/E (e.g., see Wilson, 2014). In practice, it means optimising for several goals concerning the effectiveness of purposeful activity (such as efficiency, productivity, maintainability) and particular human values (such as safety, security, comfort, acceptance, job satisfaction, and joy). Some goals are usually of higher priority than others for particular applications, but they often conflict and compete, requiring practical trade-offs and compromises.

Since the 1950s, HF/E specialists – practitioners and researchers – have come from various academic backgrounds and increasingly a wide variety of professional backgrounds and industries. They work with all sorts of people at all levels: consumers and service users, front-line and support staff, supervisors and senior management, regulators and policy makers in almost all industrial sectors (see Shorrock and Williams, 2016, for an overview).

Human Factors/Ergonomics is booming in certain sectors, where success seems to have begat success. ‘Ultra safe’ sectors such as air traffic management, rail and nuclear power in the UK have well-developed HF/E capabilities. NATS – the UK’s en route air traffic control provider – has a human factors department that has been staffed by 20-30 full time HF/E specialists and psychologists over the past 15 years or so. The Rail Standards and Safety Board (RSSB) and Health and Safety Executive have long had a mature and effective human factors capability, as have the nuclear and defence industries. All provide HF/E services in all aspects of the different sectors, from concept design through detailed design, prototyping and simulation, construction and commissioning, operation and maintenance, and decommissioning.

But the success has not been evenly spread, and has not matched need. It often appears that those sectors with the greatest need – healthcare, road transport, and farming, for example – benefit least in terms of HF/E practitioners in applied roles. Seventy years after Fitts and Jones’ seminal reports on controls and displays, quite basic design problems remain in many industries.

In healthcare, for instance, different medicines look alike and sound alike, despite the presence of official guidance informed by HF/E. There are thousands of machines with design problems so basic as different number formats; in a single hospital, one can find pumps with keypads that are like a telephone, like a calculator, or a keyboard. This shows how far ahead of its time was the work of Chapanis in the 1940s.

In fact, it was Chapanis who designed the standard telephone numerical keypad configuration that is in use today on every telephone and smartphone around the world. He tested six configurations of buttons, two vertical, two horizontal rows, and different three-by-three arrangements. All of these variations can still be found in safety-critical equipment. And most of the problems in using controls that were analysed by Fitts and Jones can be found in in safety-critical equipment used for mining, oil and gas extraction, agriculture, forestry, fishing, manufacturing, construction, recycling, digital products, telecommunication, transport, and healthcare. There may be several reasons for this.


One reason may be a failure of branding and marketing. HF/E specialists have not come from marketing backgrounds are not typically good at it. For a start, HF/E is a discipline and profession with two names, seen as equivalent in the discipline, but different in industry and the media (with ‘human factors’ associated with accidents, and ergonomics associated with ‘design’, Gantt and Shorrock, 2016). Its focus on ‘system interactions’ appears to be lost to many outside of the profession. It doesn’t have a clear elevator pitch, and is not instantly recognised and understood by the public in the way that HF/E specialists would like it to be (with ‘ergonomics’ being associated with office furniture, and ‘human factors’ being associated with nothing much).

Staying technical

A second reason may be a failure of ambition and lobbying. Sherwood-Jones (2009) argued that “many ergonomists are committed to an entirely technical career and have no aspirations to management. … The consequence of staying technical is of course that you will be ignored, overruled and brought in when it is too late to do anything useful, but not too late to demonstrate that ergonomics can fail.” There are few (often no) qualified and experienced HF/E specialists on company boards, in national regulators (even aviation), or policy makers, let alone governments. While aviation is often seen as a paragon of HF/E, only one national aviation administration maintains a high level of expertise and research programme in the discipline: the United States Federal Aviation Administration. With a few exceptions, it seems that HF/E specialists have been happiest at the micro and meso levels of interaction design, and not at the macro level, despite the systemic adverse influence of top-down interventions on system and human performance (e.g., government performance targets, see Shorrock and Licu, 2013).

Shortage of HF/E specialists

A third reason may be a shortage of qualified HF/E professionals (accredited, certified, registered or chartered by relevant societies and associations) situated in industry and government agencies. This is also associated with limited demand and a shortage of HF/E courses. In many countries, there are few or no HF/E professionals even – or especially – in sectors with the highest number of ‘avoidable deaths’.

Taking the UK as an example, in England there are 233 National Health Service Trusts – providers of urgent and planned health care (‘secondary care’). NHS England is an organisation of over 1 million staff, with a planned expenditure for 2017/18 of over £123bn. It espouses a focus on patient safety, and its focus areas for 2017/2018 clearly require HF/E expertise, including improving investigations, reducing medication error, and “an approach to patient safety is widely recognised as world-leading” (NHS England, 2018). The number of qualified full-time HF/E specialists in NHS England care providers can be counted on one hand. In fact, only one out of 233 NHS Trusts employs any Chartered Ergonomist and Human Factors Specialists.

There is some excellent training for clinicians in aspects of behavioral human factors, such as team training, team resource management and non-technical skills, and many Trusts have their own advanced simulation facilities and staff. This does not, however, address the underlying design problems that remain, and at best may provide awareness of these, and compensatory behavioural routines.

Rising popularity

Despite the shortage of HF/E specialists, HF/E is becoming more popular. Over the last decade or so, the term ‘human factors’ and HF/E issues have gained currency with an increasing range of people, professions, organisations and industries. This is a significant development, bringing what might seem like a niche discipline into the open, to a wider set of stakeholders. In healthcare, there is now significant participation in discussions about ‘human factors’, which can be seen especially on twitter. The same can be seen in other industries, especially new sectors such as web operations and engineering. Front-line workers know that HF/E is relevant. It’s kind of obvious that work should be designed for human needs and characteristics. The difficulty seems to be in getting commitment for resource at upper levels.

A two-pronged solution

The criticality of HF/E is not in dispute. So how to gain more traction on designing for human wellbeing and system performance? One way is of course more training opportunities. Another is more lobbying for HF/E posts in commercial, governmental, and intergovernmental organisations. Certain roles, typically involving a wide and deep level of content and method expertise will always require highly qualified and experienced HF/E practitioners (e.g., certified, registered, chartered). For instance, these specialists are now higher demand, and having greater impact, in medical device design and pharmaceuticals. But this h as been tried for decades, with limited success.

So the other half of the solution is to spread HF/E to others, who might be familiar with certain aspects of HF/E theory and method, practicing certain aspects of HF/E design, or advocating or evangelising HF/E principles, but not HF/E specialists as such. The founders of HF/E were not HF/E specialists then (and were probably too specialised to ‘qualify’ as HF/E specialists today!). So this is where you come in. If the idea of designing for human use to optimise performance and human wellbeing appeals to you, then now is a good time to think about how you might learn more, and integrate HF/E in your practice.


EUROCONTROL (2016). HindSight: ‘Work-as-imagined and work-as-done. Issue 25. Brussels: EUROCONTROL

Fitts, P.M. and Jones, R.E. (1947). Analysis of factors contributing to 460 “pilot error” experiences in operating aircraft controls. Dayton, OH: Aero Medical Laboratory, Air Material Command, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, 1947.

Gannt, R. & Shorrock, S.T. (2016). Human factors and ergonomics in the media. In Shorrock S. & Williams, C. (2016). Human factors and ergonomics in practice: Improving system performance and human wellbeing in the real world. CRC Press.

Murrell, K.F.H. (1965). Ergonomics: man in his working environment. London: Chapman and Hall.

NHS England (2018) Patient safety. Accessed on 10/01/18 at

Sherwood-Jones, B. (2009). Usability assurance (blog). Accessed on 10/01/18 at

Shorrock, S. and Licu, T. (2013) Target culture: Lessons in unintended consequences. HindSight: Safety versus Cost. Issue 17. 10-16. Brussels: EUROCONTROL.

Shorrock S. & Williams, C. (2016). Human factors and ergonomics in practice: Improving system performance and human wellbeing in the real world. CRC Press.

Waterson, P. (2016). ‘Ergonomics and ergonomists’: lessons for human factors and ergonomics practice from the past and present. In Shorrock S. & Williams, C. (2016). Human factors and ergonomics in practice: Improving system performance and human wellbeing in the real world. CRC Press.

Wilson, J (2014). Fundamentals of systems ergonomics/human factors. Applied Ergonomics, 45(1), 5-13.

For more information on HF/E degree courses in the UK, see here. For shorter courses in the UK, see here.

For more information on HF/E degree courses in the USA, see here.

For information on other HF/E societies and associations and educational opportunities, see here.

See also

Four Kinds of ‘Human Factors’: 1. The Human Factor

Four Kinds of ‘Human Factors’: 2. Factors of Humans

Four Kinds of Human Factors: 3. Factors Affecting Humans

Four Kinds of Human Factors: 4. Socio-Technical System Interaction

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Learning from Communities: A Conversation with Cormac Russell

The study of communities and community-building activities can provide important insights into collaboration within and between organisations. Over the last 21 years Cormac Russell has worked in 35 countries, with communities, agencies, non-governmental organisations and governments. This post includes the podcast and transcript of a conversation between Cormac Russell and me, about learning from communities.

A short edited version of the conversation can be found here in HindSight 26.

Key Points

  1. Healthy communities have permeable boundaries to allow people in, and to create space for people who are inside to be able to get out.
  2. Communities have ‘connectors’ at the edge, who connect people and help create community. Connectors are trusted and gift-oriented.
  3. People can be seen in terms of their gifts, skills and passions. Discovering these and connecting them between people is at the heart of asset based community development.
  4. Professions have become more siloed, and the effect can be to ‘other’ those people who are not in the silo.
  5. Organisations can help to understand interdependence via small group conversations.



Steven Shorrock (SS): Cormac Russell, thank you for making the time to talk to me on this podcast from a series called Inquiries from the Edge. I wonder if you could just take a moment to introduce yourself the listeners to who you are and what it is that you do.

Cormac Russell (CR): Sure, so it’s good to be with you Steve, and good to be participating in this conversation, this inquiry.  I suppose the space that I hold dearest is just this love of community, and an interest in how to grow community. My formal credentials around that are that I am an ABCD faculty member, and ABCD stands for asset based community development. So there is an Institute that essentially is at the centre of trying to understand how people, you know, living in indigenous communities in small bounded places can get powerful. And we have spent a long time thinking about people all over the world. So I personally, over the past 21 years, have been working in about 35 different countries at that neighbourhood or small place level. Really thinking about power as distinct from empowerment – really thinking about how people themselves get connected and grow power. And the methodology that we use is called, as I have said, asset based community development. So I have a little bit of responsibility around promoting that the approach in the UK. So that is another appendage to my name I am Director of ABCD in Europe.

SS: So you talk about community there. What in your mind makes community a community? What defines a community?

CR: Yes it’s a great question, and I think a question that could probably tie us up in knots in a lot of ways, but the working definition that I think a lot of people seem comfortable with is that it is a group of related people. What they are related to or what they are related by is, kind of, perhaps academic. What I really like to do is ask the question ‘where is community?’ because I think today that if we want to talk about ‘what is community?’ we could have so many disembodied examples.

I regularly hear people refer to groupings of people as communities and when you enquire into the reality, you find that there are a lot things that are excluded. I would personally think about when I think about community, I would think about culture. I think about economy. I think about environment, the place, if you like – built and natural. I think about the associational life of the community but also the capacity of the community to welcome others that are not currently in the community into that space.

So I think…I’m a little bit hesitant about just defining community as a related group of people. I often say that if you are standing on earth there is more community happening under your feet then there is above the ground. You know, so community means an awful lot of things and the fullest definition for me is a group of related people that are also related to the place that they are in, in some shape or form, are creating a culture together that will prevail beyond them, and have some way of making exchange happen.


SS: Right, so that relates to the reason for our conversation today, really. As you know I am the Editor in Chief of a magazine called HindSight, which is directed primarily at air traffic controllers and also pilots. It’s a safety magazine produced by EUROCONTROL. And the next edition of HindSight is called ‘Safety At The Interfaces’ and it’s about participation between different groups of people. Now the interesting thing is, some of those groups, especially tightknit groups such as air traffic controllers and pilots, will sometimes use the word ‘community’ to describe their groups. So what are you’re thoughts on that and what makes these groups different to the natural communities that you work with?

CR: Well I think, there is a paradox, in this because I guess that what people do when they are describing themselves as being in a community is that they are trying to say that these are my people, and we have a way of being in relationship with each other. And so one doesn’t want to say anything that dishonours that or makes people feel ‘less than’. But it feels to me that that maybe what they are actually experiencing and trying to describe is a peer group. And to an extent what they are experiencing within that peer group is many of the experiences that we have when we create community and maybe even family. You often hear people talk about their fraternity as a family or as a community, but it does seem to me that if we wanted to be little bit more precise, I think what would be talking about is a group of people who are associating with each other and their shared … you know, what helps them to be related is the fact that they are all, in this instance, of the same discipline. And so to me that’s probably a peer group. Now it’s interesting isn’t it because to an extent you might say that that’s splitting hairs but if you think about another peer group, if you think about a peer group of people who are in recovery from addiction, they also have other aspects to their lives, you know, outside of that peer group, and a healthy peer group would encourage those different aspects to their lives.

The interesting thing, I think, about a peer group is that it’s a group of people who are together by consent rather than control. So there’s something that is consenting about them being in relationship with each other and that’s something maybe to explore because I wonder when, you know, you have a group of, say, people who come together and form a golfing club in an institution like yours. They’re peer group as well, right? They are related by their affinity to golf, and to each other. How that dynamic is different than a peer group that is organised around discipline would be really interesting to think about that and what kinds of dynamics and behaviours are created within those contexts.

SS: So related to that in your book, which is called ‘Looking Back To Look Forward’, you interview a pioneer in community development, Professor John McKnight. And he related to you story about a group that he once belonged to called the ‘County Labrador Retriever Owner Association’. I wonder if you can recall the story because it relates to something you’ve just mentioned?


CR: My recollection is that John was talking about having a strong affinity to dogs. He’s a great lover of dogs, and so we were talking about what we would call associations. So this Labrador Association just had this wonderful love for Labrador dogs, so he felt at home. Until a different breed of dog, so I think they were around doing whatever they do in the park or whatever it might be, parading their dogs, admiring each other’s dogs, then feeling good about the praise they were getting for their own dogs. And then walks in to the association somebody else with a breed of dog other than their breed, and suddenly there was a kind of internal consternation in the association. “What do we do with this?”

So he was relating the story to make the point, I think, that they are an affinity group. They have an affinity for Labrador dogs. That there is a paradox, at one level that affinity to dogs allows them to be in a deep relationship with each other but at another level the minute that somebody outside of that affinity group comes in, the group locks down. And that invisible boundary around the group that says “this is the in-group and there’s the out-group” suddenly becomes very apparent by the behaviour.

“Every community, every peer group, every affinity group, has this invisible boundary that says to the world “these are the people who are in, and these are the folks who are out”.

So the very thing that allows community forecloses on community. He was trying to relate this idea that every community, every peer group, every affinity group, has this invisible boundary that says to the world “these are the people who are in, and these are the folks who are out”. So his challenge to us, I think, was to figure out how you could blur, or how you could create permeability around those boundaries. And to an extent that’s kind of the challenge of community. Its not to be able to grow a closed hermetically sealed circle like an awful lot of affinity groups online are, for example, they are the same like-minded people who vote the same, live in the same kind of house, think the same, look the same. And we have seen how populism has grown, you know, in recent elections and recent public decision-making as a consequence of this. So he’s really pointing that out to us and that this is pretty dangerous, this kind of tribalism, but it can feel cosy and it can feel warm and fuzzy at the same time.

SS: So he was saying what holds us together is the belief that we have the best breed of dog. And maybe as professions, professions of all sorts, think that we are the best breed of profession and we have to have a boundary around our profession which may be a social boundary, it may even be physical boundary. So thinking back to air traffic controllers, they work in an operations room, an Ops room, which may be a tower or a radar centre, but there is tight security and it’s for good reason, it’s not easy for anyone to get in or out. So there are all kinds of boundaries around this group of people. But the question then is, is that boundary always a good thing and when do we need to create that permeability in the boundary in order that air traffic controllers can interact with others that they need to interact with in order to create safety both in the short term and in the long term?


CR: I suppose in a sense there is a tension here in the question because the one thing that we don’t want to do is get into a dualism or a polemic that says having an identity around our discipline, and having fraternity allows us to feel good about what we do, is not necessarily bad. So how do we get the best of it, but as you say allow it to breathe, allow it to be open.

“It isn’t just allowing people in. It’s also about creating space for people who are inside to be able to get out on to do other things”

It’s interesting, it isn’t just allowing people in, I think, it’s also about creating space for people who are inside to be able to get out on to do other things. Because my sense of it is if you go back to the Labrador idea and the Labrador dogs, what held them together was certainly this sense of, Labradors you know it’s the best thing, but actually in truth there’d be quite a few people who are reasonable and who maybe don’t hold that is tightly or as firmly. But in order to maintain their affinity and their membership of the group, they kind of have to play a game. They have to become socialised into almost “we are the best”, so there is that kind of tribalism piece.

And I think there is something about saying, how do we free some folks up inside those groups who are probably more pro-social, who are probably more at the edge anyway, and can just operate in the interface. Because everybody isn’t at the centre of the community circle. They are quite…people are spread all over. Some are more at the edge. Some have a foot in and a foot out.  So I think some of it is about being able to say, well actually if we look closely at it rather than definitively saying, you know, we got a set of pilots or we’ve got a set of air traffic controllers, there effectively is an invisible exclusion zone around them. To be saying, well, in actuality they are probably quite a few who behave like that but quite a few at the edge who are trying to figure out how to negotiate that interface themselves. And we talk a lot about this idea that, you know, when you think about the edge, I think that there are a number of people at the edge. So there are probably people who are loosely called ‘connectors’ at the edge, who move quite fluidly.  I kind of think about them as multicultural in a sense, in that they can move in between any groupings really but they have that competency and capability.

“So there are people who are loosely called ‘connectors’ at the edge, who move quite fluidly.  I think about them as multicultural in a sense, in that they can move in between any groupings really but they have that competency and capability.”

And then I think there are people who are good brokers. They are not necessarily… they may not necessarily be people who are good relationship builders, but they are good askers. So maybe they have an authority or they have a leadership position, that says you know what, I’d like to have different conversation and I’d like different people. So in a sense I think that’s possibly a role you play. You kind of occupy a gap between these worlds.

So I think that when we set out the terrain, if we did a map of the terrain I think it would be helpful to be really cautious about how we diagnose or how we fix our map onto the terrain. And say, you know, the map is not the territory. The territory is much, much more blurry and there are a lot of covert double agents, kind of moving in between all of these bubbles. And so maybe one of the questions is how do we liberate them more, how do we open up and maybe give them the power to have those conversations that begin to shift and change the dynamic.

SS: So you use this word ‘connectors’ and that’s something that you have wrote about on your blog and it’s something I’ve heard you speak about. So rather than asking, I guess, who are they, what is it that connectors actually do?


CR: Well what can I find helpful to think about this how a ‘connector’ is different to a ‘leader’ and a ‘networker’. And then kind of get into how they, what are their practices or what is it that they do. So I feel, and this is a very, very reductive way of describing it, but I feel that leaders are really, really good at crystallising issues that people can get around, so they can grow a followership. Not even necessarily around themselves, but around a vision or an issue, and they can hold some stewardship around that. They are the good ones.

“I feel that leaders are really, really good at crystallising issues that people can get around, so they can grow a followership.”

So we need leaders and I think networkers tend, to my mind, to be, and I don’t mean this at all negatively, but they tend to be quite opportunistic in the way that they bring people together. So they kind of sense the network being about a job of work or being about very intentional exchanges. So I think entrepreneurs are really good networkers. But there is a lot of thought going to who owes who favour and who is good for a favour. There is a lot of transaction, I think, in networking.

For me, I think what distinguishes a connector from a networker or a leader is, number one I don’t feel that a connector, when I am in a relationship with a connector and I see what they are doing, in the relationship, I don’t feel like they are trying to sell me anything, or sell me out. I don’t feel they are trying to impose an agenda upon me so this is kind of inverting your question. I’m now telling you what they don’t do. And I will get to what I think they do.

What I think they do or what I experience them doing, because there are connectors in my life, is number one, I think they are gifted-oriented. So I see them being able to see in me something that I can contribute to somebody else. So I see them looking for that. I don’t, typically I don’t, believe they know that they are. I think that’s just instinctive. Most of them just come born that way. But they are very, you can see it in their interactions, they are almost looking for the hook within you that will join the hook that they have discovered in somebody else. And you can see it in their facial expressions, you can literally, I now recognise, there is recognition, it’s almost like an aha moment when they spot that and I suppose that because they are gift-oriented they’ll spot that through by eliciting, through questions.

So they ask questions, you know. “What do you like to do?” “What are your hobbies?” So you will kind of find that. And in the moment when they hear you say something that they think will either add value to somebody else they know, in terms of their quality of life, or will in some way, maybe, bring something into a space that wasn’t there before, they will say something like “you know I know somebody and I think that you would get on with like a house on fire”. So what’s really interesting about them is two things. One, they’re questioners, they’re revealing gifts, that’s one. The second, is that they are seeing how those gifts, right, so they spotted your gifts and they spotted the gift of another person and somehow they instinctively know that just spotting gifts is not enough. So just doing the discovery is not enough. They then know that they’ve got to connect those two gifts. So two unconnected gifts is reprehensible to a connector. They want to see them connected, so they will make those connections. You will literally find yourself one-minute having a conversation with them and the next minute walking down the street or walking down the corridor, and being introduced to somebody and them say things like well there’s no time like the present and suddenly you’re been carried along. So somehow they feel welcome to do that and you don’t feel like you’re going being to stalked or you’re being bullied in the process. And I think the final thing they do is in the connecting they will often, not always, but they will often say something or do something that suggests that you both act in some way together, or if it’s three or four. So they’ll will suggest that you mobilise.

“Two unconnected gifts is reprehensible to a connector. They want to see them connected, so they will make those connections.”

SS: So they will put a seed in your mind.


CR: That’s right, exactly. And the final thing they do, often, is they then lead by stepping back. They disconnect. It’s really interesting. So this isn’t what a networker does. The networker, kind of stays close up to the network because they need something back from the network. Whereas I find the connector will disconnect. Not in any kind of antisocial way but it’s kind of like “ah, that’s that done now”. So there is a sense of altruism in it, you know, in that they are getting something back but they’re getting something back in terms that allows them to step away.

If we go back to our conundrum of earlier on around the boundary circle that hasn’t got enough permeability, then one of the ways of creating permeability is to find the connectors within each of those circles and help them relate to each other.


SS: So in my professional life, And I guess listeners who are thinking about their worklife, I certainly met several connectors who, they’re often in professional associations and, so they often act in a voluntary capacity. Sometimes they don’t, they don’t want any kind of Association. But what they do is, as I experience those people, is they reach out between professions, between sites. So between one site that may be in one city on one site that maybe in another. And also even between organisations. So they I guess maybe people who are just connectors in their everyday life, but I see people naturally do that kind of thing at work. So they reach out, they maybe controllers, and they reach out to the safety specialists, they reach out the engineers, they form those kind of connections. So is that the kind of person that you’re thinking about?


CR: Absolutely. And in the community context what we would try to do, is we would try to find some kind of way of revealing those connectors, and getting them connected together. So you are creating, you’re optimising possibilities. So they are there naturally, they are in prisons, they are in organisations, they are in families, they are in are communities and, in the sense of communities of place. So it is beginning to say, okay well if they are there, how is the culture currently nurturing what they do naturally anyway, or is it stifling it? And if it is stifling it, how might we, rather than get stuck in that narrative and that story, how might we disrupt that constructively and innovatively? And that’s where community building and community organising comes in think.


SS: Another thing that comes to mind there is that those connectors, when I think about one thing that holds them together or something they may have in common, is that they are trusted and that can be, I think, something that differentiates them from leaders or from networkers who may or may not be trusted, but I sense connectors are always just naturally trusted.

CR: Yes, Absolutely.

SS: That, I guess, it would be a defining characteristic?

“I think it’s really striking isn’t in life generally that when you are in relationship with somebody that isn’t trying to get you to be interested in them but is genuinely interested in you and has an interest in other people, that that’s kind of uncommon.”

CR: I think they’ve earned those credentials. I think it’s really striking isn’t in life generally that when you are in relationship with somebody that isn’t trying to get you to be interested in them but is genuinely interested in you and has an interest in other people, that that’s kind of uncommon. And therefore you’ll find that trust builds very, very quickly with people who behave like that. And what is interesting about them is that even though trusted, they are not in any particular rush. So they are going at the speed of trust. They will read the pace really well. So that’s the other thing. I mean the example I gave you was quite a quick snappy example but I’ve seen connectors patiently take their time to build relationships with people and really very thoughtfully wait for that moment when they, by instinct, felt it was the time to connect or it was a time to introduce something. They are also able to tune in to where people are at in their lives and will make those introductions, those connections, based very much around that.


SS: Something that you mentioned earlier was that people with this connecting capacity are ‘gift-oriented’. I am wondering if you can say a little bit more about what you mean by people’s gifts and how that is relevant to this whole thing about connecting different groups and even connecting people within the same group.

CR: Well I suppose, maybe just to give some definitions around it first of all and then maybe talk a little bit about it in general terms. If you think about a person in terms of their capacities, just to broaden the framework a little bit, I think about people as having gifts, and what I mean by that is stuff that they are just born with, they do naturally. So they didn’t learn necessarily, it’s just a part of their make-up. So I think some people may be very patient, for example. It’s not something that I would say most people would think of definitively as a skill. You know if you say to somebody, “How did you learn to be so patient?” “It’s just my nature, it’s my temperament.” [Dog barking] We know as parents, we have seen it in our children, we see children very, very early on display temperaments. So I think that is the domain of gifts.

And it is very, very interesting, you know, to think about how different genders, actually, in our experience doing a community work we find, we very rarely get away with starting a conversation with a man about “what are your gifts?”. So it is much easier for us to go to the second expression of capacity, which is skills, with men. With women, I think this is a vast generalisation, but, you know across 21 years, 35 countries, you can begin to make some common observations and there are certainly, there are gender preferences around how to start a conversation and grow trust. This is something that connectors know, actually, instinctively as well. So it’s much easier for me to start a conversation with the man about his capacities if I start about his skills, you know. “What have you learned?” “What could you teach?” “What three things do you know well enough that you could pass on to a younger person that you might mentor?”, as opposed to “What are your gifts?”. And it’s really striking and it feels like it has a gender relationship in whatever way you understand that fluid concept.

So the skills piece alongside the gifts is interesting but skills are broadly, you know, as you would imagine that they would be, are things that we’ve acquired, and things that perhaps we’ve refined enough to either feel that we have learned them, and we can therefore find a way of expressing them to the world, whether it’s a craft, you know, or it’s a knowledge skill. So we often talk about the skills, you know, that are head-based skills; things that I know and I could teach somebody else. And skills of the hands, so crafts, you know. Saddle making, I have a cousin who is a saddle maker and he could perhaps, if he had enough patience, teach me that. But I think he has also got a gift for it, he has got a flair for it as well as a set of skills. So we see you these marching together.

“I think you can have a gift and the skill and never express it.”

I think the third thing I think about in terms of capacity is passion. And the way I would make the distinction between a gift, a skill and passion is, I think you can have a gift and the skill and never express it. So I can be very gifted at something I don’t even know. And I think there’s are lots of people in organisations and in life generally outside of the organisational world, in what some people call the life world, you know, outside of institutions, outside of contracts, who have gifts that they don’t know they have. Now the interesting thing is that connectors are really good at helping them see those. So this assumption that we know what our gifts are, or even our skills, is to be challenged.

Now a passion is by definition different because a passion is something somebody is taking action around. They might not be particularly good, but they feel passionately about their kids so they take action to do something and the action might be that the lobby, you know, for better medical treatment for their children. But they are incredibly shy person by nature. So it’s not their gift to speak out, and they have no public voice. When they stand up to make a presentation they would rather somebody shoot them. It’s that fearful for them. So they don’t have a skill around public speaking but somehow at that moment the passion for their child mobilises them to speak out, even though their voice is shaking.

So this is really interesting in my mind, somebody can have those three capacities and to an extent, you know, a lot of our work is about people helping people discover what they are and then contribute them to other people. That’s how you build community, right?  You show up and you make that contribution. So that’s what I think community is about. But you can’t make that contribution until somehow you know that within yourself. Now you can go and spend 10 years in therapy to discover it or you can get involved in community life and dynamically it starts to get revealed. Or you can do both.


SS:  So joining those two things up there, you’ve talked about gifts, skills and passions as our three capacities, which is a useful way of thinking about the contributions that we can make, I think. And the last one of those was passions. Now thinking about the issue of the interfaces between the various professional groups, or the interfaces between various locations of work, or the interfaces between different organisations, it strikes me that those passions are a critical bridge that could be built to connect up disparate groups such as traffic controllers and safety specialists and engineers and meteo specialists, and all of the other kind of specialists that we have in the aviation world that live in silos. So I am guessing a way forward is to look for, well, what do you as professionals in these different groups care about enough to join together and take action on it, for safety or for any other thing – value – any other thing that you care about?

CR: That is certainly one way in. I think there are other entry points and to an extent it might be a scattergun approach. So I think it’s really interesting to just take an environmental perspective on this for a second and say, you know twenty, thirty years ago, if you look at the way organisations would have kind of come together and figured some of the stuff out, certainly a very big part would be having clubs and groups and associations that were about passion and interest as opposed to discipline. And so I think that what they do is they soften out the boundaries. They say, you know, here are a whole set of differences that’s are very demarcated.

“The only way you can have that conversation is to talk about what you can’t do. And that demands a certain humility”

That’s what we do I think in the institutional world we demark. So we elementalise and we talked about specialisms. And the specialism becomes a big part of my identity so I start defining myself by what I am and by what I am not. And a big part of what we are trying to do is, I guess not feed into that while honouring it at the same time. So one of the ways might be, okay well what are some of the areas of common ground where we need each other? “What are the things we can do together that we can’t do apart.” So in a sense that’s an invitation to go right to the very edge of your specialism and be honest about the limits of what you can do. The only way you can have that conversation is to talk about what you can’t do. And that demands a certain humility.

So it’s the opposite of, we are together rah rah rah, aren’t we great. Well yes we are up to a point, but actually let’s have a mature adult conversation about what we can’t do, because I think that moment you can really invite other people into that interface space. People that we need. So it’s the gift conversation, but institutionally, it is saying: “You have a gift that we don’t have. We need it. We can’t do without you. Come in.” That’s the great siren call of community. “You have a wonderful singing voice. We have a choir. I don’t know if you’ve heard it. It’s pretty awful. We need your voice. Come in.” But to an extent that’s, kind of, that is what the connector does at the edge, you know. But it’s also able to bring all the folks who are maybe a bit reticent inside the circle as well, and so you know guys, you know, just listen to yourselves for a second. So there is something about, and we don’t want to put to much burden on the connector here, but definitely there is something about having that conversation at the interface that says it’s in our self-interest.

SS: So what I’m thinking as you’re telling a story is it reminds me of some of my professional experience with these fault lines and the kind of fault lines that come to mind are, For instance between air-traffic controllers and safety specialists. Between air-traffic controllers in tower versus an approach unit downstairs. Between staff of all kinds on two different sites within the same organisation. Fault lines also between staff at different levels, so at management levels and the line controller, engineer and so on level, that’s very common. I’m wondering what would be practical ways, then, for professional groups to begin to address some of those fault lines. I’m thinking maybe of both formal ways or structured, systemic ways but also informal ways.


“When we are in our silos we ‘other’ the people are aren’t in out silos. And we deify the people who are, ourselves included.”

CR: That’s right. I think that’s wise. So again you’ll know more about what would work but I think there’s a rich lane to tap into, and again the point I was making, I think of my father working in Shannon airport and I think it was 41 years, and one of the big parts around how he interfaced, he was ground control manager in Shannon airport in Ireland for a good number of those 41 years, and the way he interfaced and the way he kind of brought people together was very much through fun and food and celebration and conviviality. So the pitch and putt club was a big way of doing that, ensuring that, you know, really challenging the idea that everybody has their own separate Christmas party, and actually saying, no we need to find a way of having, and the Christmas party he always saw as really critical because that was where family came in and where they would, you know, do things. He was very insistent on linking in with the community. So finding ways of being involved in bringing kids on trips to Lapland and things of that nature. Always trying to find ways that he would would bring people in to personal relationship with each other, and connection wasn’t about their discipline. So that was something I learned from him by watching him and he just instinctively understood that if you connect people by discipline they tend to go deeper into their silos but if you connect them by human affinity and by care and compassion and passion, and things like that, they find ways of building relationships that make them more inclined to challenge their silos. Because you are humanising. You are humanising the folk that are ‘the other’. And that’s the problem, you know, when we are in our silos we ‘other’ the people are aren’t in out silos. And we deify the people who are, ourselves included. And so a lot of that attempt to just give people the opportunity to be in relationship with the ‘other’ is, I think, is absolutely gold dust.


SS: So rather than air-traffic controllers having their own annual barbecue or whatever, actually just having a barbecue where you invite people, you flatten the hierarchy that is implicit and you flatten all of the power distance and the power relations and you create an opening around the professional boundary, that’s what you’re talking about.  But doing that in an informal way rather than through a project or through a program or something like that.

“If you try to change the paradigm from within, then all that happens is that antibodies are created to kill off that attempt.”

CR: That’s right. And it’s really interesting because to an extent, if you take the idea, the theory of paradigms, one of the things that Kuhn – the guy who popularised paradigms – would say is that at the edge of every paradigm are ideas that are floating about the place, often disconnected. And it is when they become connected productively that new paradigm form. So it is very much thinking about going to the edge and creating that space. But if you try to change the paradigm from within, then all that happens is that antibodies are created to kill off that attempt and that is why systemically the more effort we put into trying to mentally work out the problem and break down the silo and facilitate different conversations the more rigid, almost, the structures and the silo becomes.

So I think finding playful ways at the edge is really, is very worthwhile, and not just, and the other thing that is interesting and maybe is problematic for your context, is not just thinking about the community as being the institution. But I think what I really appreciate about what my father did was he found ways of creating permeability that invited families in, and invited the wider community in. So he talked a lot about the community being the families of the people who were employed and their wider neighbours. And he talked a lot about this idea that the airport was a citizen among a much wider set of relationships. So the idea that Aer Lingus needed to be a good citizen and in that instance., you know, they had a job of work to do because they were an airport and thinking about how they related to other people. So from anything is basic as noise management right through to making sure that there were days that people could come and maybe, people who would never fly in plane various reasons could have the experience. So I think what he was really instinctively doing was quite systematic in other ways because over the years he was breaking down silos.

“Most police officers I know today talk about their role in relationship to other police officers or to first responders. They talk about their discipline. And so that’s a silo within a silo, in that sense.”

Now interestingly, today if you look at the way that group of people organise, and compared to, say, the way they were organised so 20 years ago, I would say that they have become more siloed. So it’s much, much harder, you can see it four example, It’s really hard to get a group of people to come out to sustain the pitch and putt club, you know. And what that tells me is we’re living in different times. We’re living in times where people are maybe little bit more family-oriented, a little bit more self-oriented, and people are organising around their discipline. We see that now not just in the aviation industry, Steve, we see this in policing, we see this in all of the helping professions that, you know, 20 years ago if you looked at – this is true I think right across Europe – if you how people thought about their job of being a police officer, for example. They would’ve talked a lot about their beat, where they policed, the place, the people, the neighbourhood, the town, the village. Most police officers I know today talk about their role in relationship to other police officers or to first responders. They talk about their discipline. And so that’s a silo within a silo, in that sense. But it’s worth paying attention to it.

So as we try and crack this nut it’s important that we don’t put on rose tinted glasses and look back into the past and, kind of, “okay, you know, let’s recreate what worked 20 years ago” because whatever we do we have to do on the basis enabling people to find ties that bind across silos, that are relevant to the way people live their lives today.

But certainly if there are barbecues that are being organised by silo, a very simple way of maybe thinking about breaking that down would be to suggest that. Now another way would be to say, well, okay so what we want to get to is we want to get to a shared barbecue. But we know that there may be some resistance to that. So how might we systematically go with that based on what we’ve talked about in our conversation. Well what we might initially do is we might invite a group of connectors from each of those silos to work together towards organising a joint barbecue because they will bring people to the barbecue. Where as if we just try and impose it top-down because we think it’s good idea, its going to break the silos, we probably won’t achieve it. So this is a way of taking something that’s very organic and being a little bit more intentional or systematic about it.


SS: And I guess what that might do is reveal some of the interdependencies that exist. So between all of those silos, and you’ve mentioned there police. It’s the same I think with all of the medical specialties who are in a medical silo, but then there are multiple silos within that medical silo. But in fact the work that anyone in any profession, in any silo does is only meaningful in its interactions with all of the other people that are involved in that. So the work of air traffic controllers means absolutely nothing except in the context of their interactions and interdependency with pilots, with engineers, with meteorological specialists, with aeronautical information specialists, with safety, quality, and all of the other groups that you can imagine that form the aviation system. So in a sense the group on its own is only special in relation to all of these other groups of people that they are interdependent with, right?


CR: Absolutely, absolutely. And so that principle of ‘better together’ is something that has to be revealed… I don’t think that we can, we won’t win that argument by stealth of argument. That is something that people need to feel in their bones because the initial impulse is to think that we are conceding, or we’re giving something away or we are losing something, and it’s only when people feel that actually there’s something really valuable, and something to be gained, in fact something quite natural about working this way, and thinking this way, and practising this way, and I think that that’s where the intentional community building comes in. Because that’s now what we’re talking about this. So there is this ideal that says we are better together and then there is a whole set of practices that says well as human beings we like in organising in small groups and that’s as it should be. So what we are really trying to create it is both.

And the minute people think that to be part of a bigger federation, I have to – Catalonia is a case in point, in Spain. And this notion of nation state, or the federation. And we see it in the UK with Brexit, and Europe.

“You can continue to hold your intimate small group connections, while at the same time getting the benefits of the wider relationships and we are going to figure out how to do that in a way that gives you both ends.”

The trick is to be able to say to people you can continue to hold your intimate small group connections, while at the same time getting the benefits of the wider relationships and we are going to figure out how to do that in a way that gives you both ends. And I think a lot of what we do is we give people an either/or’. We say, either you stay in your silos and we will just figure out how to extract the best of you and we will have a separate team of managers who just put that together after-the-fact as best as we can. It will never be perfect. And we just accept that is just the way of the world with a big system.

Or we say to people, you know, part of what we have to do in systems is something we have probably never done which is to build a community that allows mass localism, so that you can have that sense of community, that sense of affinity, that sense of security that all human beings need – to be part of a team, to be part of the group. Which you can’t get past, you know, probably 3 to 5 to 6 people, in a sense of, you can stretch it. A lot of sociologists talk about, Ian Dunbar talks about 150, you go past 150 people and you really into the realm of acquaintances. I think it’s probably overgenerous the most of us. So we know all of this. So I think a big piece, no one individual can figure this out. So I think when you have complex groups and systems together, being able to say you can be Catalonian and you can be Spanish at the same time. And we’ll figure out how that happens.

“You can welcome the stranger at the edge. They won’t compromise your intimacy. In fact they will enhance it.”

And this goes back to the whole question of networkers. I think that networkers federalise. Connectors say you can have the intimacy while also building and proliferating the potential for growing in all kinds of different directions. So you can welcome the stranger at the edge. They won’t compromise your intimacy. In fact they will enhance it. And that’s the role you play in a sense. And that’s a little bit different than connector. I think that’s the role of the animator or the community builder. Beginning to find those connectors and have those conversations, can be sometimes mentored, sometimes trained, sometimes hold attention, but make meaning out of that. Giving people the opportunity to really understand “what’s going on here?”, and being able to say “Ah, alright now, your concern is, you’re going to be giving up something. Let’s find a way of making sure and that you’re not at a loss”. And I think that that’s part of what hardly ever gets teased out.

“So we need to have that social contract conversation. What are your wants what are your offers?”

And that’s why Peter Block’s work is important. The small-group conversation. And being able to have lots of small group conversations that intentionally permeate to allow people to move between those conversations. So I think that’s something else to think about. How can we be intentional in our conversations and involve people that are dissenting and saying “no I don’t agree” and being able to articulate that? Because I think an awful lot of the reason that we’re not building community is not because people are activity dissenting. It’s not because we have a Catalonian outbreak. It’s because people are paying lip service to our attempts to break down silos. They say “oh yeah totally agree, loved that training it was awesome, definitely. I’m going to be this, that or the other.” And then they go back to business as usual. So there is something, I think, about being able to facilitate those kinds of conversations and welcome out the dissenting voice, but inviting people to take their complaints and turn them into requests, and inviting people to articulate what they want as well as what they are prepared to offer. So we need to have that social contract conversation. What are your wants what are your offers? And I think that begins to open things up. And the fluid way of doing that is to create more associational life. Like in the informal spaces as well.


SS: Okay well I think that’s probably a good time to just wrap-up and I think from this conversation, things that have struck out to me are issues of what’s the difference between a community and a professional group. We had a discussion about the boundaries of groups and the positive and more negative aspects of boundaries. We talked about the role of the connector. The crucial role of the connector in connecting people within a community but also connecting people across different professional groups and how they might be able to help what the role of the connector might be. And we talked about informal ways of groups getting together so you mention things like the pitch and putt, you know, and we talked about the barbecue. The informal unstructured ways that connectors might use to connect different groups of people. So in my world whether they are controllers and engineers and safety specialists and pilots or whatever. Rather than always going down the more formal route. Those are I think some of the things that stick in my mind when it comes to the question of the interfaces between different groups between different locations and how we can improve collaboration between those. Is there anything that I’ve missed in that short summary, Cormac?


“Your organisation can show up in very intentional ways to help those things find expression and get connected up as well.”

CR: No I think that covers and I suppose, beginning to recognise that your organisation can show up in very intentional ways to help those things find expression and get connected up as well. The animating piece as important. And in those points of interface you can begin to seed some really interesting conversations and maybe even practices around having conversations. So beginning to have sessions that start with appreciative enquiry or encourage groups talk about their theie wants and there offers. All of that will open up new spaces.

SS: OK well Cormac Russell thank you very much for joining me and giving your time to talk about your experience of community and what insights that might offer us in thinking about professional groups and the boundaries and interfaces between thank you very much.

CR: Thank you, Steve. It’s a pleasure, take care, thank you.



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Bonding and bridging: Expanding who ‘we’ are

The text in this post is from the Editorial of HindSight magazine, Issue 26, on Safety at the Interfaces: Collaboration at Work, available for download here.

Over the past decade or so, my colleagues and I have spent a lot of time talking to people in 32 countries about safety. We have spent time with thousands of operational, technical, specialist, support and managerial staff. It has been a unique opportunity to get an insight into almost every job of work that makes up the world of air traffic management. The different roles and activities fit together like a sort of four-dimensional puzzle. Each of the pieces of the puzzle is a function, somewhere in the lifecycle of the air traffic management system. Having listened to thousands of you in person, and having analysed tens of thousands of completed questionnaires, we know that the most positive or favourable themes concern your perceptions of direct colleagues (including your direct managers). Your trust in your direct colleagues, and your interactions with them, is also the thing that you most often say is most critical to safety.

The relationships, trust and reciprocity (or ‘give and take’) between people in a social network come together as something called ‘social capital’. Think of it as your ‘social wealth’. It is what gives you that sense of connectedness, belonging and security. When this refers to a group of like-minded or specially related people – perhaps a profession, a team, or a family – it is called bonding social capital. This bonding is normally for the good. It gives that cozy feeling of ‘us’; it looks inwards. In groups with strong bonds, people trust one another, help one another out, and look out for one another. If you are a controller or commercial pilot, it is most obvious in the relationship between you and your immediate colleagues in the Ops room or in the cockpit.

As controllers, you likely know one another – more so if you are on a fixed shift system or work in a small unit. If you were once in a fixed team, but have since become part of a flexible system more akin to a pilot’s situation, you may have felt a sense of loss of fellowship or camaraderie that is more associated with a fixed team. Even so, as controllers, and as pilots, you share a profession, and will have confidence in your colleagues by virtue of their training and experience. Of course, you will adjust your trust depending on your experience of working with others. Even across the RT between controllers and pilots, those bonds seem to hold. Issues crop up, but it is rare that controllers spend much time in workshops talking about problems with pilots; there is an affinity.

But, as we have seen in recent years and throughout history, strong bonds within a group can also be for the bad. Faced with what is seen as an external threat, groups can dig in, lock down, and lock out the outsider, becoming isolated and disenfranchised. Even when there is no particular relationship problem, the interface between groups is often where we see safety problems, but also opportunities.

In organisations, we sometimes use the word ‘division’ to describe these groups, or the word ‘department’ (which, going back to the Old French departir, means the same: division or separation). It is curious that, when we present our organisations to the world, we often present an organisational chart of divisions (which does little to clarify the purpose, the flow of work, the product or service, or the customer!).

Indeed, when we look at the least favourably scoring items on the EUROCONTROL questionnaire, and when we ask you about your needs, these mostly concern interactions with other departments, or with senior management. Issues tend to sit at the interfaces. They have come up as issues of interaction between groups (most often in the same organisation), in a harder ‘process’ sense (e.g., involvement in the design of procedures and tools, action and feedback on safety issues, missing or faulty equipment, training) or in a softer ‘relationship’ sense (e.g., respect, recognition, and all manner of issues of communication). When these issues are not resolved, the effect is two-fold: relationships within groups are fortified, but so are the boundaries around groups. The result? Silo-isation.

Strong bonds within groups of like-minded individuals, professions, or teams, are not enough for a healthy organisation, or society. When you zoom out, what is needed is bridges between groups. This is the second kind of social capital: bridging social capital. This bridging increases trust and reciprocity with ‘them‘; it looks outwards. The bridges or connections enable us to tap into different perspectives and expertise that we may need to achieve our goals, whatever they are.

The thing is, bonds form quite naturally over time within like-minded groups. You work alongside each other. You go to coffee together. Maybe you meet outside of work. As you get to know one another through day-to-day exchanges, trust grows.

Bridges, on the other hand, need to be built. They don’t build themselves. Contact between different groups is often not routine, and so you see less of each other. You also have different characteristics and different ways of seeing the world, so more effort is needed to build bridges.

Somehow, we need to make the boundaries around our various professions, departments and locations softer and more permeable, and build bridges between them. Organisations can help or hinder this bridge-building. The design of buildings and facilities, the conduct of formal and informal gatherings, the design of projects, the communication; these may separate groups, or bring them together. Similarly, we as individuals can help or hinder bridge-building. The invitations we send to informal gatherings, the associations and unions we form, who we choose to eat and drink with; these connections will reinforce or disrupt silos. We can all show up to help build bridges.

With Issue 26 of HindSight we hope to give some inspiration and ideas for collaboration across many interfaces, within and between organisations. It is a natural counterpart to Issue 25, on Work-as-Imagined and Work-as-Done. Collaboration helps to bring the two into better alignment.

We should cherish our bonds, but more bridges are needed to allow bonds to grow between groups. This is the only way to expand who ‘we’ are, and to improve safety at the interfaces.

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Four Kinds of Human Factors: 4. Socio-Technical System Interaction

This is the fourth in a series of posts on different ‘kinds’ of human factors, as understood both within and outside the discipline and profession of human factors and ergonomics itself. The first post explored human factors as ‘the human factor’. The second post explored human factors as ‘factors of humans’. The third post explored human factors as ‘factors affecting humans’. This post explores a fourth kind of human factors: Socio-technical system interaction.


Polycom Practitioner Cart in Action by Andy G CC BY-SA 2.0

What is it?

This kind of ‘human factors’ aims to understand and design or influence purposive interaction between people and all other elements of socio-technical systems, concrete and abstract. For industrial applications, a good shorthand for this is ‘work’. The following definition, from the International Ergonomics Association, and adopted by the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society and Chartered Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors and other societies and associations, characterises this view of human factors.

“Ergonomics (or human factors) is the scientific discipline concerned with the understanding of interactions among humans and other elements of a system, and the profession that applies theory, principles, data and methods to design in order to optimize human well-being and overall system performance.”

Note from this definition that ‘human factors’ is formally indistinguishable from ‘ergonomics’. While some people attempt to make a distinction between the terms, the relevant professional societies and associations do not, and typically instead recognise that the two terms have different origins (in the US and Europe, respectively). The terms are often used interchangeably by HF/E specialists, akin to ‘counselling’ and ‘psychotherapy’, with scientific journals (e.g., Ergonomics, Human Factors, Applied Ergonomics) using one term or the other but with the same scope. (The equivalence of the terms of sometimes a surprise to those who are not formally trained in human factors and ergonomics, especially those from anglophone backgrounds since many languages use translations of ‘ergonomics’ (ergonomia, ergonomie, ergonomija, eirgeanamaíocht, ergonoomika, ergonomika…).

It is relevant that ‘ergonomics’ derives from the Greek ergo (‘work’) and nomos (‘laws’). There are, in fact, very few accepted laws in human factors/ergonomics (aside from familiar laws such as Fitts’ Law and Hicks’ Law), but many would acknowledge and agree on certain ‘principles’. It is also relevant that the origin of human factors and ergonomics was in the study of interaction between people and equipment and how the design of this equipment influenced performance. Notably, Fitts and Jones (1947) analysed ‘pilot error’ accidents and found that these were really symptoms of interaction with aircraft cockpit design features. For instance, flap and gear controls looked and felt alike and were colocated (a problem that has been largely solved in cockpits but remains in pharmacy in terms of medicines).

The beginnings of human factors and ergonomics, then, focused not on the human or the factors that affect the human per se, but on interaction, and how context shapes that interaction. If we ignore context, ‘factors of humans’ and ‘factors that affect humans’ become less problematic. If I turn on the wrong burner on my stove (which I do, about 30-40% of the time), it is not a problem. I simply turn it off and now I know the correct dial to turn. If I want to be sure I can bend down to look at the little diagram, but often I can’t be bothered. If an anaesthetist presses the wrong button, she might turn off the power to a continuous-flow anaesthetic machine inadvertently because of a badly positioned power switch. If the consequence of my turning the wrong dial were more severe, I would bother to check the little diagram often, but I would still make mistakes, mostly because the layout of the stoves is incompatible with the layout of the dials, which look identical and are co-located.

This fourth kind of human factors is a scientific discipline, especially from an academic point of view, and a design discipline, especially from an applied point of view. But what we are designing is not so much an artefact or procedure, as the interactions between people, tools, and environments, in particular contexts. This design involves science, engineering and craft.

Human-factors-as-sociotechnical-interaction has a dual purpose to improve system performance and human wellbeing. System performance includes all system goals (e.g., production, efficiency, safety, capacity, security, environment). Human wellbeing, meanwhile, includes human needs and values (e.g., health, safety, meaning, satisfaction, comfort, pleasure, joy).

Who uses it?

This perspective – more nuanced than the other three – is most prevalent among professional human factors specialists/ergonomists, who are accredited, certified, registered or chartered by relevant societies and associations. However, it is also natural fit with the work of system engineers, interaction designers, and even anthropologists.

The Good

This kind of human factors takes account of human limitations and capabilities, influences on human performance, and human influences on system performance. It is rooted in:

  • systems thinking, including an understanding of system goals, system structure, system boundaries, system dynamics and system outcomes;
  • design thinking, and the principles and processes of designing for human use; and,
  • scientific understanding of people and the nature of human performance, and empirical study of activity.

This kind of human factors also makes system interaction and influence visible. It uses systems methods to understand and map this interaction, and how interaction propagates across scale, over time, as non-linear interactions within and between systems: legal, regulatory, organisational, social, individual, informational, technical, etc. While the ‘factors affecting humans’ perspective tends to be restricted to linear ‘resultant’ causation, the systems interaction perspective is alert to emergence.

As an example, what can seem like a simple and common sense intervention from one perspective (e.g., a performance target, such as the four-hour accident and emergency target in UK hospitals), can create complex non-linear interactions and emergent phenomena across almost all aspects of the wider context noted above. (See the example from General Practitioner Doctor Margaret McCartney in this post, concerning targets for dementia screening [examples are at the bottom of the post]).

Human factors as system interaction considers all stakeholders’ needs and system/design requirements, in the context of all relevant systems, including an intervention (or designed solution) as a system (e.g., a sat nav), the context as a system (e.g., vehicles, drivers, pedestrians, roads, buildings), competing systems (e.g., smartphone apps, signs), and systems that collaborate with the intervention system to deliver a function (e.g., satellites, power sources). Most failed interventions can be traced to a failed understanding of one or more of these systems, especially the context as a system. (See the example from surgeon Craig McIlhenny in this post on the installation of a fully computerised system for ordering tests [radiology requests, lab requests, etc.])

This kind of human factors is the only kind that really recognises the world as it is: complex interaction and interdependency across micro, meso, and macro scales. Also unlike the other three kinds of human factors, at least in terms of their connotations, human-factors-as-sociotechnical-interaction has a clear dual purpose: improved system performance and human well-being. It is one of the only disciplines to have this dual focus.

The Bad

This kind of human factors is it is the least intuitive of the four. It is much easier to restrict ourselves to discussion of ‘the human factor’, ‘factors of humans’ and ‘factors affecting humans’, since these tend to restrict us to isolated factors and linear cause-effect thinking, usually within a restricted system boundary. This kind of human factors is therefore the perspective that tends to be neglected in favour of simplistic approaches to ‘human factors’.

It is also the most difficult of the four kinds of human factors to address in practice. In safety management, for instance, the tools that are routinely in use tend not to address system interactions. Taxonomies focus on ‘factors of humans’ and ‘factors affecting humans’, but do not model system interactions. Fault and event trees map interactions but only in the context of failure, and the interactions typically are fixed (unchanging), linear (lacking feedback loops), and assume direct cause-effect relationships, with no consideration of emergence. There is an important distinction here between thinking systemically (thinking in an ordered or structured way) and systems thinking (thinking about the nature and functioning of systems).

When human factors is approached as the study and design or influence of system interaction, it is rare that simple, straightforward answers can be given to questions. The reason that “it depends” (usually an unwanted answer to a question) is because the answer to a question, the solution to a problem, or the realisation of an opportunity in a sociotechnical system does depend on many factors: the stakeholders (and their skills, knowledge, experience, etc), their activities, the artefacts that they interact with, the demand and pressure, resources and constraints, incentives and punishments, and other aspects of the wider context – informational, temporal, technical, operational, natural, social, financial, organisational, political, cultural, and judicial. Not all of these will always be relevant, but they need to be considered in the context of interactions across scale and over time.

It is fair to say that this kind of human factors is depersonalising. As we study, map and design system interaction, the person (‘the human factor’) can seem to be an anonymous system component, certainly less interesting than system interaction. Even tools that we use to try to capture this in design – such as personas – tend to depict imaginary people. So this kind of human factors can feel more like an engineering discipline than a human discipline. It is important that this be addressed in the way that human factors is practised, both in general interpersonal approach and via qualitative methods that aim at understanding personal needs, assets and experience. Systems thinking and design thinking must be combined with humanistic thinking.

Finally, as with the second and third kinds of human factors, this kind struggles with issues of responsibility and accountability (the concepts, subtly different in English, are no different in many languages). Responsibility for system outcomes now appears to be distributed among complex system interactions, which change over time and space. Outcomes in complex sociotechnical systems are increasingly seen as emergent, arising from the nature of complex non-linear interactions across scale. But when something goes wrong, we as people, and our laws, demand that accountability be located. The nature of accountability often means that this must be held by one person or body. People at all levels – minister, regulator, CEO, manager, supervisor, front line operator – have choice. With that choice comes responsibility and accountability. A police officer chooses to drag a woman by the hair for trying to vote. A senior nurse chooses whether to bully junior nurses. A professional cyclist chooses to take prohibited drugs. A driver chooses whether to drink before driving, to drive without insurance, to drive at 60mph in a 30mph zone, or to or send text messages while driving. There may well be contextual influences on all of these behaviours, but we make choices in our behaviour. In these kinds of cases, it is important that ‘systems thinking’ is not used to scatter such choices into the ether of ‘the system’, stripping people of responsibility and accountability. That would be the ruin of both systems thinking and justice.

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Four Kinds of Human Factors: 3. Factors Affecting Humans

In the first post in this series, I reflected on the popularisation of the term ‘human factors’ and discussion about the topic. This has brought into focus various differences in the meanings ascribed to ‘human factors’, both within and outside the discipline and profession itself. The first post explored human factors as ‘the human factor’. The second post explored human factors as ‘factors of humans’. This third post explores another kind of human factors: Factors Affecting Humans.


17/52 : Tchernobyl – Chernobyl by Eric Constantine CC BY-NC 2.0

What is it?

This kind of ‘human factors’ turns to the factors – external and internal to humans – that affect human performance: equipment, procedures, supervision, training, culture, as well as aspects of human nature, such as our capabilities and limitations. Factors affecting humans tend to include

  • aspects of planned organisational activity (e.g., supervision, training, regulation, handover, communication, scheduling)
  • organisational artefacts (e.g., equipment, procedures, policy)
  • emergent aspects of organisations and groups (e.g., culture, workload, trust, teamwork, relationships)
  • aspects of the designed environment (e.g., airport layout, airspace design, hospital design, signage, lighting)
  • aspects of the natural environment (e.g., weather, terrain, flora, fauna)
  • aspects of transient situations (e.g., emergencies, blockages, delays, congestion, temporary activities)
  • aspect of work and job design (e.g., pacing, timing, sequencing, variety, rostering)
  • aspects of stakeholders (e.g., language, role)
  • aspects of human functions, qualities and states that affect performance (e.g.,
    • cognitive functions such as attention, detection, perception, memory, judgement and reasoning, decision making, motor control, speech;
    • physical functions and qualities such as strength, speed, accuracy, balance and reach;
    • physical, cognitive and emotional states such as stress and fatigue).

The following well-known definition from the UK Health and Safety Executive (1999) seems to emphasise the ‘factors that affect humans’ kind of human factors:

“Human factors refer to environmental, organisational and job factors, and human and individual characteristics, which influence behaviour at work in a way which can affect health and safety” (Health and Safety Executive, Reducing error and influencing behaviour HSG48)

Who uses it?

This kind of human factors is the most traditional in human factors guidance and courses, and so is familiar to human factors specialists. It naturally fits courses on human factors (as modules), texts on human factors (as chapters), and studies on human factors (which might consider specific factors as independent variables).

This kind of human factors is also of interest to safety specialists, who might use taxonomies to classify ‘causal factors’ to incidents and accidents, or select ‘performance shaping factors’ as part of human reliability assessments.

It also suits the way that organisations tend to be organised (functionally, e.g. training, procedures, engineering) and so tends to make natural sense in an organisational context; it is obvious that the various factors affect behaviour. It is just not obvious how.

The Good

Some of the positive aspects of this kind of human factors are shared with the ‘factors of humans‘ kind. One is a great body of knowledge to help understand, classify and predict or imagine these effects. The design of artefacts such as equipment, tools and procedures, as well as tasks, jobs and work systems, affect human performance in different ways. This understanding can therefore be applied to and integrated in the design of equipment, procedures, tools, regulations, roles, jobs, and management systems, etc.

The ‘factors affecting humans’ kind of human factors is also relatively easy to understand at a basic level. Most people seem to know that the design of artefacts (even simple ones, such as door handles, or more complicated ones such as self-assembly furniture instructions) affect our behaviour. The details of the effects are not obvious, but the existence of some effect is fairly obvious.

While the ‘factors of humans’ perspective goes down and in to the cognitive, emotional and physical aspects of human nature, the ‘factors affecting humans’ perspective extends also up and out into the system, environment and context of work. This acknowledges the influence of factors outside of humans on human performance, and therefore helps to explain it. ‘Human error’ is not usually ‘simple carelessness’, but a symptom of various aspects of the work situation. This acknowledges an important reality for any of us; our performance is subject to many factors, and many of these are beyond our direct control.

This kind of human factors therefore more clearly points to design as a primary means to influence performance and wellbeing, as well as instruction, training and supervision. The view of factors affecting humans also mirrors to some degree the way that organisations are designed and operated, as functional specialisms (e.g., training, procedures, design).

Together, ‘factors affecting humans’ and ‘factors of humans’ comprise what many would think of as ‘human factors’, especially staff and managers in organisations.

The Bad

Many of the downsides of the ‘factors of humans’ perspective on human factors are addressed by the ‘factors affecting humans’ perspective. But some other issues remain. One concerns the difficulty in understanding the influence of multiple, interacting factors affecting humans in the real work context. How do factors affect performance when those factors interact dynamically and in concert in the real environment, which is probably far messier than imagined?

In trying to understand performance, we tend to dislike the mess of complexity and instead prefer single-factor explanations. This can be seen in organisations, media, the justiciary, and even in science, which is one facet of human factors. But the effects of multiple interacting factors in messy environments are hard to extrapolate from experiments. Experiments tend to focus on each variable of interest (e.g., a new interface or shift system or a checklist; ‘independent variables’) while controlling, removing or ignoring myriad other factors that are relevant to work-as-done (e.g., readiness for change, culture, supervision, staffing pressures, unusual demand, history of similar interventions, resources available for implementation; ‘confounding variables’), in order to measure things of interest (e.g., time, satisfaction, errors; ‘dependent variables’). Even where we go beyond single factor explanations, the effects of multiple, interacting factors affecting humans in real environments are hard to understand from reading about these factors or from factorial tools such as taxonomic safety databases. They are also hard or impossible to estimate with predictive tools, such as human-reliability assessments or safety risk assessments.

A reductionist, factorial approach can hide system-wide patterns of influence and emergent effects. Factors can appear disconnected, when in reality they are interconnected. Influence appears linear, when it is non-linear. Effects appear resultant, when they are emergent. Wholes are split into parts. Information is analysed but not synthesised. Hence, when a change is introduced, in the full richness of the real environment, surprises are encountered. The air traffic control flight data interface is fine in standard conditions but not for complex re-routings at short notice under high traffic load. The new individual roster system is good for staff availability but adversely affects teamwork. The checklist is completed but before the task steps have actually been completed. Interventions on factors affecting humans are designed and implemented but don’t work as imagined; they are less effective than predicted, have unintended consequences or create new unforeseen influences, changing the context in unexpected ways. The direction of influence of ‘factors affecting humans’ is often assumed to be one-way (linear), as per the HSE definition above. But people also influence these influencing ‘factors’ in the context of a sociotechnical system. So the design of a shift system influences behaviour, but people also influence shift patterns (e.g., via shift swapping). Interfaces influence people, but people use interfaces outside of design intent. Feedback loops are hard to see with a fragmented and linear approach to human factors. These might sound like rather abstract or theoretical problems, but the examples above are just the first real ones that come to mind; there are many cases of interventions that fail in large part because factors are considered in a non-systemic and decontextualised way that is too far from the messy reality of work.

Additionally, when applied in a safety management context, the ‘factors affecting humans’ perspective is almost entirely negative. From a safety perspective, the positive influence of ‘factors affecting humans’ (and indeed ‘factors of humans’ and ‘the human factor’) is mostly ignored. What is it that makes people and organisations perform effectively to ensure that things go right? Safety management has little idea. Only the contribution of ‘factors’ to unwanted outcomes (real or potential) is usually considered. This can give human factors in safety a negative tone, reducing human activity to ‘causal factors’. Human factors (or ergonomics) is really about something much broader; improving performance and wellbeing, (especially) by design.

There can be something unintuitive and distancing about human factors viewed from a reductionist, factorial point of view. Perhaps it is partly that the narrative of real experience is lost amid the analysis. Consider textbooks, the initial source material for anyone learning human factors (or ergonomics) as a discipline. Relatively few human factors texts are organised around narrative. Instead, they are usually organised around ‘factors’. One of the rare examples of the narrative approach is Set Phasers on Stun by Steven Casey, while an example of the factorial approach is Human Performance: Cognition, Stress and Individual Differences, by Gerald Matthews, Stephen Western and Rob Stammers. Both are excellent in their own ways, but the latter is the default (and happens to be far less interesting to the wider audience). Rich narrative tries to recreate or bring to life lived experience and context, while a factorial or analytical approach deconstructs experience and context into concepts. (Again, an example is incident databases, which analyse factors extracted from multiple situations, partly with the intention of understanding factor prevalence across scale.)

Finally, but related to all of the above, this kind of human factors struggles with questions of responsibility (as with the ‘factors of humans‘ perspective). At what point does performance become unacceptable (e.g., negligent)? How do we locate responsibility and accountability amid the ‘factors’. And if top management is responsible for those ‘factors’, then what when they move on? The ‘human factor‘ perspective, while much misused, at least seems to acknowledge that human beings have some choice and, with that, responsibility. To those affected by situations involving harm (e.g., harmed patients and families, local communities affected by chemical exposure and oil spills), deconstructing the influences on behaviour, in an attempt to explain, may be seen as excusing unacceptable behaviour, sidestepping issues of responsibility and turning a blind eye to the dark sides of organisations, and even human nature.

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Four Kinds of ‘Human Factors’: 2. Factors of Humans

In the first post in this series, I reflected on the popularisation of the term ‘human factors’ and discussion about the topic. This has brought into focus various differences in the meanings ascribed to ‘human factors’, both within and outside the discipline and profession itself. The first post explored human factors as ‘the human factor’. This second post explores another kind of human factors: Factors of Humans.


Ear by Simon James CC BY-SA 2.0

What is it?

This kind of human factors focuses primarily on human characteristics, understood primarily via reductionism. Factors of humans include, for example:

  • cognitive functions (such as attention, detection, perception, memory, judgement and reasoning (including heuristics and biases), decision making – each of these is further divided into sub-categories)
  • cognitive systems (such as Kahneman’s dual process theory, or System 1 and System 2)
  • types of performance (such as Rasmussen’s skill-based, rule-based, and knowledge-based performance)
  • error types (such as Reason’s slips, lapses, and mistakes, and hundreds of other taxonomies, including my own)
  • physical functions and qualities (such as strength, speed, accuracy, balance and reach)
  • behaviours and skills (such as situation awareness, decision making, teamwork, and other ‘non-technical skills’)
  • learning domains (such as Bloom’s learning taxonomy) and
  • physical, cognitive and emotional states (such as stress and fatigue).

These factors of humans may be seen as limitations and capabilities. As with human-factors-as-the-human-factor, the main emphasis of human-factors-as-factors-of-humans is on the human; but general constituent human characteristics, not the person as an individual. The factors of humans approach acts like a prism, splitting human experience into conceptual categories.

This kind of human factors is emphasised in a definition provided by human factors pioneer Alphonse Chapanis (1991):

“Human Factors is a body of knowledge about human abilities, human limitations, and other human characteristics that are relevant to design.”

But Chapanis went on to say that “Human factors engineering is the application of human factors information to the design of tools, machines, systems, tasks, jobs, and environments for safe, comfortable, and effective human use.” He therefore distinguished between ‘human factors’ and ‘human factors engineering’. The two would probably be indivisible to most human factors practitioners today (certainly those who identify as ‘ergonomists’, i.e., designers), and knowledge and application come together as parts of many definitions of human factors (or ergonomics). Human factors is interested in these factors of humans, then, to the extent that they are relevant to design, at least in theory (in practice, the sheer volume of literature on these factors suggests otherwise!).

Who uses it?

Factors of humans have been researched extensively, by psychologists (especially cognitive psychologists, and increasingly neuropsychologists), physiologists and anatomists, and ergonomists/human factors specialists. Human abilities, limitations and characteristics are therefore the emphasis of many academic books and scientific articles concerning human performance, applied cognitive psychology, cognitive neuropsychology, and human factors/ergonomics, and  is the standard fare of such courses.

This kind of human factors is also of interest to front-line professionals in non-technical skills training, where skilled performance is seen through the lenses of decision making, situational awareness, teamwork, and communication.

The Good

Factors of humans – abilities, limitations, and other characteristics – must be understood, at least at a basic level, for effective design and management. Decades of scientific research have produced a plethora of empirical data and theories on factors of humans, along with a sizeable corpus of measures. Arguably, literature is far more voluminous for this kind of human factors than any other kind. We therefore have a sophisticated understanding of these factors. Much is now known from psychology and related disciplines (including human factors/ergonomics) about sustained attention (vigilance), divided attention, selective attention, working memory, long term memory, skilled performance, ‘human error’, fatigue, stress, and so on. Much is also known about physiological and physical characteristics. These are relevant to the way we think about, design, perform, and talk about, record or describe human work: work-as-imagined, work-as-prescribed, work-as-done and work-as-disclosed. Various design guidelines (such as the FAA Human Factors Design Standard, HF-STD-001) have been produced on the basis of this research, and hundreds of HF/E methods.

This kind of human factors may also help people, such as front-line professionals, to understand their own performance in terms of inherent human limitations. While humanistic psychology emphasises the whole person, and resists reducing the person into parts, cognitive psychology emphasises functions and processes, and resists seeing the whole person. So while reductionism often comes in for attack among humanistic and systems practitioners, knowledge of limits to sustained attention, memory, judgement, and so on, may be helpful to better understand failure, alleviating the embarrassment or shame that often comes with so-called ‘human error’. Knowledge of social and cultural resistance to speaking up can help to bring barriers out into the open for discussion and resolution. So perhaps reductionism can help to demystify experience, help to manage problems by going down and in to our cognitive and physical make-up, and help to reduce the stigma of failure.

The Bad

Focusing on human abilities, human limitations, and other human characteristics, at the expense of the whole person, the context, and system interactions, comes with several problems, but only a few will be outlined here.

One problem relates to the descriptions and understandings that emerge from the reductive ‘factors of humans’ approach. Conceptually, human experience (e.g., of performance) is understood through one or more conceptual lenses (e.g., situation awareness, mental workload), which reflect partial and fragmented reflections of experience. Furthermore, measurement relating to these concepts often favours quantification. So one’s experience may be reduced to workload, which is reduced further to a number on a 10-point scale. The result is a fragmented, partial and quantified account of experience, and these numbers have special power in decision making. However, as humanistic psychology and systems thinking reminds us, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts; measures of parts (such as cognitive functions, which are not objectively identifiable) may be misleading, and will not add up to form a good understanding of the whole. Understanding the person’s experience is likely to require qualitative approaches, which may be more difficult to gain, more difficult to publish, and more difficult to digest by decision-makers.

Related to this, analytical and conceptual accounts of performance with respect to factors of humans can seem alien to those who actually do the work. This was pointed out to me by an air traffic controller friend, who said that the concepts and language of such human factors descriptions do not match her way of thinking about her work. Human factors has inherited and integrated some of the language of cognitive psychology (which, for instance, talks about ‘encoding, storing and retrieving’, instead of ‘remembering’; cognitive neuropsychology obfuscates further still). So while reductionism may help to demystify performance issues, this starts to backfire, and the language in use can mystify, leaving the person feeling that their experience has been described in an unnatural and decontextualised way. Gong further, the factors of humans approach is often used to feed databases of incident data. ‘Human errors’ are analysed, decomposed, and entered into databases to be displayed as graphs. In the end, there is little trace of the person’s lived experience, as their understandings are reduced to an analytical melting pot.

By fragmenting performance problems down to cognitive functions (e.g., attention, decision-making), systems (e.g., System 1), error types (e.g., slips, mistakes), etc, this kind of human factors struggles with questions of responsibility. At what point does performance become unacceptable (e.g., negligent)? On the one hand, many human factors specialists would avoid this question, arguing that this is a matter for management, professional associations, and the judicial system. On the other hand, many human factors specialists use terms such as ‘violation’ (often further divided into sub-types; situational violation, routine violation, etc) to categorise decisions post hoc. (Various algorithms are available to assist with this process.) To those caught up in situations involving harm (e.g., practitioners, patients, families), this kind of analysis, reductionism and labelling may be seen as sidestepping or paying lip service to issues of responsibility.

While fundamental knowledge on factors of humans is critical to understanding, influencing and designing for performance, reductionist (including cognitivist) approaches fail to shed much light on context. By going down and in to physical and cognitive architecture, but not up and out to context and the complex human-in-system interactions, this kind of human factors fails to understand performance in context, including the physical, ambient, informational, temporal, social, organisational, legal and cultural influences on performance. This problem stems partly from the experimental paradigm that is the foundation for most of the fundamental ‘factors of humans’ knowledge. This deliberately strips away most of the richness and messiness of real context, and also tends to isolate factors from one another.

Because this kind of human factors does not understand performance in context, it may fail to deal with performance problems effectively or sustainably. For instance, simple design patterns (general reusable solutions to commonly occurring problems) are often used to counter specific cognitive limitations. These can backfire when designed artefacts are used in natural environments, and the design pattern is seen as a hindrance to be overcome or bypassed (problems with the design and implementation of checklists in hospitals is an example). Another example may be found in so-called ‘human factors training’ (which, often, should be called ‘human performance training’). This aims to improve human performance by improving knowledge and skills concerning human cognitive, social and physical limitations and capabilities. While in some areas, this has had success (e.g., teamwork), in others we remain constrained severely by our limited abilities to stretch and mitigate our native capacities and overcome system conditions (e.g., staffing constraints). Of course, in the absence of design change, training may also be the only feasible option.

A final issue worth mentioning here is that, more than any other kind of human factors, the ‘factors of humans’ kind has arguably been over-researched. Factors of humans are relatively straightforward to measure in laboratory settings, and related research seems to attract funding and journal publications. Accordingly, there are many thousands of research papers on factors of humans. The relative impact of this huge body of research on the design of real systems in real industry (e.g., road transport, healthcare, maritime) is dubious, but that is another discussion for another time.


Chapanis, A. (1991). To communicate the human factors message, you have to know what the message is and how to communicate it. Bulletin of the Human Factors Society, 34, 1-4.

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Four Kinds of ‘Human Factors’: 1. The Human Factor

Over the last decade or so, the term ‘human factors’ has gained currency with an increasing range of people, professions, organisations and industries. It is a significant development, bringing what might seem like a niche discipline into the open, to a wider set of stakeholders. But as with any such development, there are inevitable differences in the meanings that people attach to the term, the mindsets that they bring or develop, and their communication with others.  It is useful to know, then, what kind of ‘human factors’ we are talking about? At least four kinds seem to exist in our minds, each with somewhat different meanings and – perhaps – implications. These will be outlined in this short blog post series, beginning with the first: The Human Factor.



Steph Kelly, Air Traffic Controller at Heathrow Airport. NATS UK Air Traffic Control            CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 

What is it?

The first kind of human factors is the most colloquial: ‘the human factor’. Human-factors-as-the-human-factor seems enters discussions about human and system performance, usually in relation to unwanted events such as accidents and – increasingly – cybersecurity risks and breaches. It is rarely defined explicitly.

Who uses it?

As a colloquial term, ‘the human factor’ seems to be most often used by those with an applied interest in (their own or others’) performance. The term was the title of an early text on human factors in aviation (see David Beaty’s ‘The Human Factor in Aircraft Accidents’, originally published in 1969, now ‘The Naked Pilot: The Human Factor in Aircraft Accidents‘). It can be found in magazine articles concerning human performance by aviators (e.g., this series by Jay Hopkins in Flying magazine) and information security specialists (e.g., Kaspersky, Proofpoint). Journalists tend to use the term in a vague way to refer to any adverse human involvement. Aside from occasional books and reports on human factors (e.g., Kim Vicente’s excellent ‘The Human Factor: Revolutionizing the Way People Live with Technology‘), the term is rarely used by human factors specialists.

The Good

In a sense, ‘the human factor’ is more intuitively appealing than the term ‘human factors’, which implies plurality. It seems to point to something concrete – a person, a human being with intention and agency. And yet it also hints at something vague – mystery, ‘human nature’. Human-factors-as-the-human-factor might therefore be seen in the frame of humanistic psychology, reminding us that:

  1. Human beings, as human, supersede the sum of their parts. They cannot be reduced to components.
  2. Human beings have their existence in a uniquely human context, as well as in a cosmic ecology.
  3. Human beings are aware and aware of being aware – i.e., they are conscious. Human consciousness always includes an awareness of oneself in the context of other people.
  4. Human beings have some choice and, with that, responsibility.
  5. Human beings are intentional, aim at goals, are aware that they cause future events, and seek meaning, value and creativity. (Association for Humanistic Psychology in Britain)

The individual, and her life and experience, is something that cannot be reduced to ‘factors’ the same way as a machine can be reduced to its parts, nor isolated from her context. The individual cannot be fully generalised, explained or predicted, since every person is quite different, even if we have broadly similar capabilities, limitations, and needs. Importantly, we also have responsibility, borne out our goals, intentions and choices. This responsibility is something that professional human factors scientists and practitioners are often nervous about approaching, and may deploy reductionism, externalisation or obfuscation to put responsibility ‘in context’ (this is sometimes at odds with others such as front-line practitioners, patients and their families, management and the judiciary, who perceive these narratives as absolving or sidestepping individual responsibility; see also just culture regulation).

Unfortunately, these possible upsides to human-factors-as-the-human-factor are more imaginary than real, since the term itself is rarely used in this way in practice.

The Bad

In use, ‘the human factor’ is loaded with simplistic and negative connotations about people, almost always people at the sharp end. ‘The human factor’ usually frames the person as a source of trouble – an unreliable and unpredictable element of an otherwise (imagined to be) well-designed and well-managed system. It comes with a suggestion that safety problems – and causes of accidents – can be located in individuals; safety (or rather, unsafety) is an individual behaviour issue. By example, Kaspersky’s blogpost ‘The Human Factor in IT Security: How Employees are Making Businesses Vulnerable from Within’ repeatedly uses adjectives such as ‘irresponsible’ and ‘careless’ to describe users. That is not to say that people are never careless or irresponsible, since we observe countless examples in everyday life, and the courts deal with many in judicial proceedings, but the question is whether this is a useful way to frame human interaction with systems in a work context. In the press, ‘the human factor’ is often used as a catch-all ‘explanation’ for accidents and breaches. It is a throwaway cause.

The human-factors-as-the-human-factor mindset tends to generate a behaviour modification solution to reduce mistakes – psychology, not ergonomics – via fear (threats of punishment or sanctions), monitoring (monitoring and supervision), or awareness raising and training (information campaigns, posters, training).  The mindset may lead to sacking perceived ‘bad apples’, or removing people altogether (by automating particular functions). In some cases, each of these is an appropriate response (especially training, for issues requiring knowledge and skill), but they will tend not to be effective (or fair) without considering the system as a whole, including the design of artefacts, equipment, tasks, jobs and environments.


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