Cognitive work analysis in the wild

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Dan Jenkins, DCA Design


Cognitive Work Analysis (CWA) is a framework that was developed with the explicit aim of understanding the constraints that shape complex sociotechninical systems. Its genesis lies in the analysis of nuclear power stations and it has since been applied to a wide range of complex environments spanning healthcare, defence, nuclear and aviation. Over the last twenty years, CWA has gained a modest group of followers in the academic and research community; however, its use within the practitioner community has been somewhat limited. There are a number of factors that are likely to have impacted this limited uptake, however, these primarily relate to (1) the perception that it takes a significant investment of time to apply CWA, and (2) a lack of familiarity with those outside the academic community.

The purpose of this paper is to address both these factor by challenging the perception that CWA is overly time consuming to apply and raising the profile of its use in a practitioner setting. The paper will discuss how CWA has been effectively applied to a range of smaller scale consultancy projects. Two examples will be used to illustrate this point. The first will use an example of a domestic heating system to discuss how the initial phase of CWA, work domain analysis (and its primary tool the Abstraction Hierarchy), can be used to explore the link between physical objects and higher order system purposes. The example will highlight how physical changes made, for example the addition of new components (e.g. wifi, digital displays), can perform new functions (e.g. connectivity, enhanced feedback), which can have both a positive and a negative impacts on overall system values (e.g. efficiency, thermal comfort). The case study will highlight how a systemic view is critical for managing the complex interrelationships in even mildly complex systems.

The second case study will use the example of a radiography machine to explore how complex multi-sensory information requirements can be identified and clustered to form physical and digital user interfaces. The case study will be used to highlight the importance of a structured approach for considering, often subtle, information cues and their impact on decision making and system control.

Date & time

7-8 June 2016

NCTL Learning and Conference Centre, Nottingham

What is a Complex System?

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