Most fields of professional activity have a settled home within the divisional and departmental structures of organisations. Operational staff work in operational divisions. Engineering staff work in engineering divisions. Everyone else tends to know their place: finance, human resources, legal, safety, environment, quality, security, corporate communications, and so on.
Not so for human factors (or ergonomics; HF/E). Within organisations that are large enough to have a divisional structure, ‘human factors’ can be found in a variety of divisions.
In this post, I outline four common homes for HF/E within organisations (after Kirwan, 2000), drawing on personal experience in each of the four organisational divisions in different organisations over the past 21 years, and some of the little literature on this (Kirwan, 2000; Shorrock and Williams, 2016). I conclude with some of the implications of organisational homelessness.
Human Factors in Operations Divisions
‘Human performance’ is, naturally, core to HF/E (but not equivalent), and in sectors such as transportation, energy production, manufacturing, power generation. and mineral extraction, HF/E is sometimes located in operational divisions of organisations. When housed here, HF/E practitioners may assist with the design and assessment of work, training, non-technical skills and team [team/bridge/rail] resource management, procedure and job aid design, observational safety, assessments and advice on fatigue and shiftwork, staffing and rostering, maintenance, personal resilience and confidence, stress management, safety investigation, quality improvement, and advice and support on human performance more generally. Such issues are reflected in texts such as Flin et al’s Safety at the sharp end and Davies and Matthews’ Human performance: Cognition, stress and individual differences.
Being close to operational teams and work-as-done can be especially rewarding. It is the only way to really understand The Messy Reality and Taboo issues. Problems and opportunities for work-as-done are hard to see from afar (if you want to understand risk, you need to get out from behind your desk). This divisional location can provide credibility with front-line operational staff, the beneficiaries of most HF interventions, and allow for the development of the relationships required for problem solving and opportunity management.
The other side of this coin is that there is a particular risk in Ops of becoming too close to operational staff, while also under the operational management structure. Independence can be compromised.
Housed in operations, human factors – as a design discipline – may also be in the unhappy position of inheriting upstream design decisions…and any resulting problematic situations. Without proper involvement to the design process, problems may come to light late in the design and development process. At this stage, there is considerably less opportunity for influence. HF/E practitioners in this context can also risk losing design skills, and also lose track of research; the research-practice gap can seem especially wide from Ops, where it tends to be valued least of all.
The shorter term focus of operations also brings an acute-chronic trade-off: when time is limited (i.e., all the time) handling today’s problems and opportunities leaves less time for future problems and opportunities.
Human Factors in Engineering Divisions
Human factors is, fundamentally, a design discipline. This is sometimes a surprise to some who perceive it as a behavioural (or ‘human performance’) discipline, which might be seen to be more naturally aligned with operations. However, human factors – by definition – operates primarily through design, not behaviour modification. This is exemplified by various textbooks, including old classics such as Sanders and McCormick’s Human Factors in Engineering and Design and Wilson and Sharples’ Evaluation of Human Work and, more generally, ISO 9241 – Ergonomics of hums-system interaction, especially Part 210: Human-centred design for interactive systems).
The international Ergonomics Association – the umbrella organisation for all HF/E societies and associations around the world – defines the profession as that which “applies theory, principles, data and methods to design in order to optimize human well-being and overall system performance”. So HF/E specialists can often be found in engineering divisions of organisations.
In this organisational context, HF/E can help to address the design of equipment, tools, artefacts and infrastructure, such as control rooms, buildings, and signage. In such cases, the costs of not integrating human factors are extremely high. Compared to procedures and work routines in operational contexts, equipment, tools, artefacts and infrastructure are difficult and expensive to modify. Often, operations inherit design problems and have to adjust to them, sometimes with HF/E support in operations…
There are downsides to be aligned with the engineering divisions of organisations. Practitioners will tend to find they have to work within existing design and engineering processes, which may not be ideal for iterative human factors design. Being part of the design and engineering tribe brings some distance from operations – socially and culturally. As a result of organisational silos, the practitioner embedded in this context may well be closer to work-as-imagined and work-as-prescribed than work-as-done. Some who identify as human factors specialists – especially when previously integrated in safety or operations – will need to develop new design and engineering skills to be accepted. Designers and engineers, meanwhile, can naturally find it frustrating to have to pass a ‘human factors test’, or depend on knowledge that they do not have.
Human Factors in Safety (and Health) Divisions
Many organisations have a division of safety, focusing on operational safety (major hazards) or occupation safety, or both. Human Factors practitioners in this context – especially n high-risk industries – are likely support activities such as safety investigation, safety assessment (e.g., human reliability assessment), safety surveys, specific activities such as fatigue and stress management, and perhaps safety policy and the development of safety management systems. Safety departments may exist within a broader safety, health, environment, quality and, increasingly, security, in which cases other activities may be supported (e.g., concerning noise, vibration, the thermal environment, vision).
This context can be a good compromise between operations and engineering, affording close cooperation with both engineering project teams and operations, given sufficient attention to forging relationships across organisational boundaries. High level independent influence on strategic decisions (e.g., via safety management system requirements) can also be a benefit.
Safety divisions (and departments) are, however, often seen as external to both operations and engineering (both culturally and organisationally, requiring, for instance, internal contracting for services). HF/E may be seen as an interference, or supporting only one aspect of system performance (accident prevention), and not activities that support effectiveness more generally. Safety (and health) is only one of the goals of HF/E, which seeks to optimise system performance and human well-being.
Human Factors in R&D Divisions
For some HF/E practitioners outside of academia, R&D divisions offer a chance to do industry-centred research and development from the inside. Within government, inter-government or commercial organisations, HF/E practitioners conduct applied research on all aspects of the discipline – physical, cognitive, social, and organisational.
It is intellectually stimulating and offers a chance to generate and apply knowledge, with a longer time horizon (see Chung et al, 2016). It can offer the chance to imagine future work, and understand work-as-done now. From a professional development perspective, R&D offers the best chance to try to keep up with the impossible task of keeping up with the literature for any particular aspect of HF/E.
But of the four options outlined above, practitioners in R&D may experience the greatest distance both from front-line staff and senior management. This is reflected in outputs. As Kirwan (2000) notes, “There are three main types of papers, in order of importance to the company: trade journals, conference papers, and journal papers. The order of importance to the company and to the success of the unit is the reverse of the academic ordering of importance” (p. 668). This can be a surprise to practitioners. While Kirwan also noted, that “[journal] papers will be of greater perceived importance to the company if the HF group is located within a research division in that company”, there are in practice several barriers to publication as well as research application in organisations (Chung and Shorrock, 2010; Salmon and Williams, 2016), helping to explain the small minority of industry practitioners that author HF/E journal articles; as low as 3% in 2000 and 2010, compared to 76% and 81% of papers authored by research institution authors only, in the same years (Chung and Williamson, 2018).
This may reflect a decline in in-house HF/E R&D. Some major organisations that were previously heavy hitters in R&D no longer have a large R&D function, or no longer perform HF/E R&D.
Organisational Misfits…or Connectors at the Edge?
To many, the organisational homelessness of human factors brings confusion about the nature of the discipline and profession. Is it about design, or engineering, or operations, or safety, or health…? Human factors has a sort of identity problem.
This identity problem might be seen as fundamentally exogenous, existing in large part because of the functional structures of (especially) large organisations, which divide decision making from work, design and engineering from operations, research from practice, system performance from human well-being. These are all within the scope of HF/E; none can be excluded. But organisations are what they are, and command-and-control structures resist systems thinking.
So HF/E is indeed an organisational misfit, which might seem ironic since HF/E is concerned with the fit between system elements. HF/E is no more at home in operations, engineering, safety, R&D, or other organisational functions. Individual practitioners, may feel more at home in one context in particular, but will often be found at the edge of functions, interfacing with other functions at the organisational system as a whole. Organisations, meanwhile, may see a better fit for HF/E in one division, or indeed – perhaps ideally – spread over several. But there is no universally appropriate home. Traditional organisational structures are simply at odds with systems disciplines that work across functional divisions, especially those that do not reflect the flow of work or influence in a system.
For any individual practitioner, experience of a variety of organisational functions is helpful to understand the internal processes and sub-cultures that exists within organisations, and to identify the formal and informal bridges that exist, or can be built, between them.
So organisational homelessness can be a weakness, but also a source of strength. As a systems discipline, HF/E sees the whole, and focuses on interaction and influence, not just parts. As well as providing technical HF/E support, practitioners using an HF/E approach might ideally combine a systems and humanistic approach, mediating, bridging and connecting different organisational functions as connectors. This quote, from an interview on learning from communities with Cormac Russell, describes well this ideal:
“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.” Cormac Russell
In organisations that divide by design, bridging is just as important as bonding…or more so. Organisational homelessness can help practitioners to navigate different worlds, without getting entrenched in one.
Chung, A.Z.Q. and Shorrock, S.T. (2011). The research-practice relationship in ergonomics and human factors – surveying and bridging the gap. Ergonomics, 54 (5), 413-429. [pdf]
Chung, A.Z.Q., Shorrock, S., and Williamson, A. (2016). Chapter 9: Integrating research into practice in human factors and ergonomics. In S. Shorrock and C. Williams (Eds.), Human factors and ergonomics in practice: Improving system performance and human well-being in the real world. CRC Press.
Chung, A.Z.Q., and Williamson, A. (2018). Theory versus practice in the human factors and ergonomics discipline: Trends in journal publications from 1960 to 2010. Applied Ergonomics, 66, 41-51.
Davies, D.R. and Matthews, G. (2013). Human performance: Cognition, stress and individual differences. Psychology Press.
Flin, R., O’Connor, P., Chrichton, M. (2008). Safety at the sharp end: A guide to non-technical skills. Ashgate.
Kirwan, B. (2000). Soft systems, hard lesson. Applied Ergonomics, 31, 663-678.
McCormick, E.J. and Sanders, M.S. (1992). Human Factors in Engineering and Design. McGraw-Hill.
Salmon, P. and Williams, C. (2016). Chapter 10: The challenges of practice-oriented research. In S. Shorrock and C. Williams (Eds.), Human factors and ergonomics in practice: Improving system performance and human well-being in the real world. CRC Press.
Shorrock, S. and Williams, C. (2016). Chapter 8: Organisational contexts for human factors and ergonomics in practice. In S. Shorrock and C. Williams (Eds.), Human factors and ergonomics in practice: Improving system performance and human well-being in the real world. CRC Press.