Twenty Five Years: Reflections on the Practice of Improving Work

Twenty five years ago, I embarked on a career in Human Factors/Ergonomics (HF/E). I had just graduated in Work Design and Ergonomics, and following the summer placement in an air navigation service provider, joined the organisation as a Human Factors Analyst. Since then I have worked in a variety of organisations in internal and external consulting HF/E roles, and in academia.

While there are many conceptions of Human Factors, it is essentially about improving work, via design. Even efforts to improve work through coaching and training (should) involve design. In this post, I reflect on what I learned since graduating and have found to be most important to practice in the design and improvement of work.

Image: Kurayba CC BY-SA 2.0
  1. Nurture relationships. Practice environments typically involve complicated, often safety-critical, technology and processes. No matter how technical or complex the project, the quality of relationships between multiple stakeholders is the most potent influence on change. I have learned much from people who are gifted at bringing people from many countries and communities together, providing a space for relationships to blossom. I have also seen how poor relationships have been the biggest barrier to success in otherwise achievable programmes.
  2. Consider all stakeholders. Work design practice should consider all relevant stakeholders (not just ‘users’), who are affected by or have influence on system performance. Stakeholder mapping should be an early step in any attempt to understand or intervene in work. In many sectors, some stakeholders receive much attention while others are ignored. In air traffic management, I found that air traffic controllers receive the most HF/E attention while engineers, air traffic assistants and aeronautical information officers receive little to no attention.
  3. Beware user-centredness. We must consider the total context in which humans are embedded, though there will always be trade-offs, and unwanted consequences are likely. ‘User’-centred design is too-often individualistic, ignoring wider ecological harm in the product lifecycle. I have sometimes observed in design projects that optimising for certain users comes at the expense of others. This can be associated with a lack of stakeholder analysis for others up- or downstream, and other times a reflection of values and priorities.
  4. Empathise, but don’t sympathise. Maintaining healthy relationships with all relevant stakeholders requires that you empathise without sympathising or over-identifying. If you are seen as aligned with one stakeholder group, you risk alienating others. When advocating for the needs of certain stakeholder groups (eg operational) I have found it important to maintain sufficient independence such that a working alliance remains with decision makers.
  5. Cultivate credibility. Credibility (ethos) is decisive in all attempts to understand and improve work. Practitioners must work on both expertise and trustworthiness, which in turn is expressed through relationships. Sustained experience in an industry sector is often needed. This became most clear to me on a major new air traffic control tower project at one of the world’s busiest airports. I had to communicate with, and somehow persuade, stakeholders from operational to senior management. No theory or method could be of use without credibility.
  6. Transcend disciplinary boundaries. No discipline is sufficient to approach a complex problem. While HF/E is naturally interdisciplinary (involving psychology, engineering, and anatomy and physiology) there are limits to this. Other disciplines need to be considered. I have found several Important but under-appreciated disciplines such as sociology, philosophy, systems thinking, complexity theory, practice theory, sport science, counselling, art and anthropology, to be relevant to practice.
  7. Stay on the edges. Most problems and opportunities lie in the interfaces. There is value remaining unattached to a function or identity (sort of organisationally homeless), dissolving boundaries and building bridges between teams, professions, locations, hierarchical levels, etc. In person, in print (eg HindSight) and in the digital world, I have found it helpful to try to be a welcome guest in other professional worlds (eg health and social care) and simultaneously make the boundaries of my world porous.
  8. Collaborate with researchers. The research-practice gap is significant and generally ignored. For practitioners, detached from researchers and inaccessible or unusable research products, it is easy to lose contact with research outputs. Collaboration is one way to address this. Over the years, I’ve dipped in and out of academia as full time faculty and adjunct positions. But there are other avenues for collaboration. These have included joint projects, and in-person and digital networking.
  9. Hone your craft. Practice is a craft that utilises theories and methods, but is not determined by them. It’s usually the case in complex social situations that no theory or method will give a workable answer. The importance of craft was something that I wanted to explore in the edited book ‘Human Factors and Ergonomics in Practice’, along with my friend and co-editor Claire Williams. Reflection-in-action is necessary for unique, complex, uncertain, or changing situations.
  10. Get in early. Early intervention in a design or implementation project will improve outcomes. Change is less painful and costly when done when early on, with smaller adjustments (including adjustments to assumptions, beliefs and attitudes for those invested in projects). It is often the case that HF support is requested at a late stage, once problems emerge. This has been the case with major infrastructure projects, often made worse by assumptions that commercial off the shelf (COTS) solutions will work need little HF integration.
  11. Think in systems. Human factors is a systems-oriented design discipline. But systems thinking is not (and cannot be) taught comprehensively in programmes. It pays practitioners to appreciate the various traditions of systems thinking that help provide insights into work. At the end of my Master degree in 1997, I had an understanding of sociotechnical systems theory, but not other traditions and associated concepts, theories and methods. To facilitate learning, I have gradually started to focus on systems thinking before HF/E. 
  12. Get multiple perspectives. There are multiple perspectives on situations, events, problems and opportunities. Each may be partial, but together can give a more complete picture. Shifting between perspectives illuminates different experiences, perceptions and understandings. In safety culture work, I have found individual interviews and (more so) focus groups most useful to get multiple perspectives on situations, but there needs to be sufficient diversity and numbers of people to get a rich picture. This is not always evident when planning the work.
  13. Think critically, but don’t be dogmatic. It Is important to think critically and challenge established concepts. But exploring the practical value of new concepts takes time. Meanwhile, old concepts can provide a foot in the door. It pays to be pragmatic and integrative. For over 10 years I have been involved in a Europe-wide safety culture programme. It is the most effective lever for access to an organisation to try to understand how things work and what could be done (via small group discussions) at all levels that I have found in 25 years.
  14. Look for opportunities for system-wide influence. Work design tends to involve very technical activity, reflecting its ‘engineering psychology’ traditions. But to have system-wide influence, it is typically necessary to engage at senior levels. In the latter half of my time as a practitioner, my work has included increasing interaction and work with stakeholders including CEOs and senior managers, regulatory bodies, judiciary, and government committees.
  15. Be mindful of the roles you are playing. Practitioners play different roles in the introduction of new technology and in practice more generally. It pays to be mindful of these roles, and others’ perceptions them. In work with front line actors (eg pilots and controllers), senior managers and judiciary, my role sometimes switches (advocate, barbarian, evangelist) and others may perceived this differently. I have found it necessary to avoid certain confusions (eg rescuer).
  16. Remember that work-as-done is the only real thing. It is important to remember that work-as-done is the only real work. The various proxies for work-as-done have strong illusory power, creating a ‘work-as-imagined fallacy’ trap (a sort of psychologists’ fallacy). In my early years as a practitioner, I often confused work-as-analysed and work-as-measured with the real thing. Engaging in regular conversation and observation with those who do the work about their work and contexts proved a good way to break the spell.
  17. Be a translator. Translation is critical to increase the opportunity, capability and willingness to engage, yet it is a much neglected activity. It involves communicating concepts, ideas, theories and outputs of practice (including reports) in an other-centred way. Most of my writing and editing is now translational. This blog and HindSight magazine are conduits for this, along with white papers (eg Systems Thinking for Safety) and products (eg Discussion Cards), and talks, videos and podcasts.
  18. Write concisely: It can be a hard lesson to learn that willingness of stakeholders to read long reports and scientific articles is less than you imagine. The truth is that much of what you write will be read thoroughly by very few, skimmed by some, and not read at all by most. At a certain point, I switched from writing scientific articles to blog posts, social media posts, and magazine articles. I realised that those outside of the HF research community rarely read journal articles, and those with the most power to effect change almost never do.
  19. Communicate artfully. We overestimate others’ willingness to engage with technical articles, reports, books and presentations. Incorporating art into practice can help to unearth unconscious assumptions, engage imagination, elicit feelings, and make communication memorable. At Edinburgh Fringe Festival, I attended an immersive play on a nuclear disaster. To help communicate HF concepts, we commissioned the theatre group to perform the play to aviation stakeholders including safety specialists, pilots, controllers, and the judiciary.
  20. Communicate what human factors isn’t. The boundaries of HF have become broader, more fuzzy and confused over the years, but there remain many things that HF isn’t, or isn’t limited to. These present the wrong impression to decision makers and staff and harm future HF efforts. In healthcare, I was surprised to find that HF was often equated with team training or crew resource management, which had been imported from aviation. While the concepts and practices are important and can certainly be translated, it is a false equivalence.
  21. Unleash your gifts and passions. Practice is not a matter of mere technical rationality: application of standardised processes and abstract theories. It involves craft embedded in the world of the person, whose gifts and passions can be integrated into practice. In my 30s, I lost enthusiasm for engineering-focused HF. I’d been drawn away from my raison d’être – real people – and my childhood gift and passion – art. I undertook a courses in counselling and integrated this into my practice. I later integrated art into my communication.
  22. Mind your language. Some concepts (such as human error and violation) that have a long pedigree in work design practice can be perceived and used differently by different professions. Since words create worlds, we need to be mindful of this. While my PhD was on ‘human error’, I came to see how my psychologist-ergonomist understanding differed from the understanding in practice (error-as-cause). This led to talks, discussions, oral evidence and articles, especially after the train accident at Santiago de Compostela.
  23. Be mindful of the mode of change. Work design should normally be in the WITH mode of change, where change is done collaboratively to serve a genuine need. In some cases, we should create space for the BY mode. This is where change is done by those who do the work. With groups, I have felt a need to encourage people to self-organise and do some things (such as increasing interpersonal contact or organising small group activities) for themselves, rather than rely on things being done FOR them, or requiring a professional to work WITH them.
  24. Be patient. One of the frustrating things about practice can be the timescales for understanding and improvement. For operational people, work timescales are seconds to minutes. For support roles such as work design, it can be years. Projects that are focused on culture or large infrastructure projects generally have very long timescales. Gaining feedback and small improvements (eg in practice) along the way has helped to bring a feeling of progress.
  25. Take care of yourself. Some aspects of practice can have a significant toll on wellbeing. It’s important to recognise that life is more than work, and mental wellbeing has to come first. Take a step back to see what’s really important. Several aspects of practice over the years have created (often hidden) stress. These include frequent international travel, delivering unwelcome news from data collection exercises to senior managers, and ‘holding a group’ which is experiencing expressing strong emotions. 

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.

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