Proxies for Work-as-Done: 7. Work-as-Instructed

In any attempt to understand or intervene in the design and conduct of work, we can consider several kinds of ‘work’. We are not usually considering actual purposeful activity – work-as-done. Rather, we use ‘proxies’ for work-as-done as the basis for understanding and intervention. In this series of short posts, I outline briefly some of these proxies. (See here for a fuller introduction to the series.)

Proxies for Work-as-Done | Steven Shorrock | CC BY-NC-ND 4.0
  1. Work-as-Imagined
  2. Work-as-Prescribed
  3. Work-as-Disclosed
  4. Work-as-Analysed
  5. Work-as-Observed
  6. Work-as-Simulated
  7. Work-as-Instructed (this post)
  8. Work-as-Measured
  9. Work-as-Judged


Work-as-instructed is the explanation and demonstration describing how work is to be conducted or performed.

Function and Purpose: Work-as-instructed is the explanation and demonstration describing how work is to be conducted or performed. It is often based on work-as-prescribed, but may also be based on group norms or personal preferences. Like work-as-prescribed, work-as-instructed is intended to define and direct how work should to be done to achieve its objectives, and often why it ought to be done this way. It may relate to all aspects of work, including physical (e.g., motor skills), mental (e.g., decision making), social (e.g., team behaviour), and organisational (e.g., communication, command and control). Work-as-instructed serves to update work-as-imagined on the part of the learner, and may combine with any of the other proxies (for instance, integrated into work-as-simulated).

Form: Work-as-instructed takes a number of forms, inside and outside the place of work, including classroom training, computer-based training/e-learning, simulator training, shadowing, demonstration, role play, and job rotation. It may be more or less formal, and more or less integrated into day-to-day work. It may occur at any stage, e.g., induction, initial/basic training and continuation/refresher training. 

Agency: Work is instructed by those in dedicated training functions and by more experienced or senior members of an organisation who do the work routinely. These kinds of work-as-instructed can be very different. Work-as-instructed may also be integrated into digital interfaces by interaction designers (e.g., help systems, bots, in-app guidance), which may become indistinguishable from work-as-prescribed.

Variety: For any given job or activity, there are many varieties of work-as-done, and even more varieties of work-as-imagined, but work-as-instructed is much more limited in its variety, often linked to work-as-prescribed, which is even more limited in variety. While work-as-prescribed cannot account for the subtleties of variation in work-as-done, work-as-instructed can better account for variation via interactivity and adaptation. Variety in work-as-instructed differs depending on instructor and learner characteristics (e.g., their attitudes, beliefs, preferences, and competencies), the contexts of the instruction (legal and regulatory, organisational and institutional, social and cultural, personal, physical and environmental, temporal, informational, technological), and the nature of work-as-done. For instance, variety may be limited significantly for very simple tasks, for mandatory training, where there is little time for instruction, when instruction does not adapt with feedback or to individual needs, or when instruction is limited by forcing functions (e.g., in computer-based training). 

Stability: Formal work-as-instructed will tend to change slowly with updates and revisions to training plans, procedures, policies, standards, norms, and so on. In some cases, it may persist even as the actual work or job (or associated artefacts) in question no longer exists, or has changed substantially (similar to the defunct archetype). Informal work-as-instucted will tend to be more variable over time and in different contexts.

Fidelity: Work-as-instructed should comprise reasonably accurate descriptions of how work should be done. It should also reflect how work really is done, since there can be consequences (for safety and quality, for example) when there are significant gaps between the two. But in practice, the two can be quite different – what is instructed may not ensure that goal conflicts can be resolved. There can be conflicts between different proxies for work-as-done. For instance, work-as-instructed may conflict with what a person observes on the job (work-as-observed), what a person is told on the job (work-as-disclosed), what is measured on the job (work-as-measured), and how work is judged by others such as co-workers (work-as-judged). There can also be conflicts within different forms of work-as-instructed. Classroom instruction (‘this is how you should do things’), for instance, is often contradicted by on-the-job instruction (‘this is how we really do things, and how you should too’). Work-as-instructed and work-as-done tend to drift apart over time, for a number of reasons. For instance, some aspects of work-as-instructed will be forgotten (especially rarely used aspects of work), not understood as intended, or ignored. Some people involved in instruction may no longer be active in doing the actual work, or do minimal hours to retain a licence, themselves losing currency with the contexts and demands of work-as-done. The contexts and demands of work-as-instructed and work-as-done may differ significantly, affecting transfer of training. For some tasks, it is not always possible to instruct in a way that work is really done. This is because of the variable nature of work-as-done and its multiple contexts, and the indeterminable nature of work-in-the-head (task switching, risk assessment, judgement), which is complex and covert, as well as coordination requirements. Work-as-done is also inextricably connected to people, contexts, and tools, and the combinations of these are more or less infinite, and so it is not always possible to instruct in a way that will fully align with reality.

Completeness: Work-as-instructed may form a more-or-less complete description of overt activity, but at different levels of granularity. For many tasks and jobs, not all aspects of work-as-done can be instructed, and so many aspects will need to be learned by experience. An understanding of more fundamental and general principles will therefore be required, along with ‘reflection-in-action’ (Schön, 1983). Again, this may apply especially to work-in-the-head.

Granularity: Work is instructed at different levels of granularity from course (e.g., general principles of work) to fine (e.g., fine motor movements, decision making criteria). The level of detail and flexibility will vary. No matter what the level of granularity, instruction often lacks the detail, richness and subtlety of actual work, including the many interdependencies and conditions.

Work-as-Instructed and Work-as-Done | Steven Shorrock | CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

Author: stevenshorrock

This blog is written by Dr Steven Shorrock. I am interdisciplinary humanistic, systems and design practitioner interested in human work from multiple perspectives. My main interest is human and system behaviour, mostly in the context of safety-related organisations. I am a Chartered Ergonomist and Human Factors Specialist with the CIEHF and a Chartered Psychologist with the British Psychological Society. I currently work as a human factors and safety specialist in air traffic control in Europe. I am also Adjunct Associate Professor at University of the Sunshine Coast, Centre for Human Factors & Sociotechnical Systems. I blog in a personal capacity. Views expressed here are mine and not those of any affiliated organisation, unless stated otherwise. You can find me on twitter at @stevenshorrock or email contact[at]humanisticsystems[dot]com.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.