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Human Factors Integration in ATM System Design/Principle 9: Purpose-Oriented View of New Technology

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Be ready to participate in strategic decisions and introduce a purposeorientated view of technology

Principle 9: Purpose-Orientated View of New Technology.
Principle 9: Purpose-Orientated View of New Technology. Icon: EUROCONTROL © (All rights reserved)

Technology is often perceived as increasing productivity and efficiency without further investment. In complex systems like ATM, however, the anticipated benefits are easily hijacked by complexity. As a result, the realised benefits fall short of expectations.

Confidence in technology does not makes a strategy. It is task of HF/E to introduce a purposeorientated view of new technology and to describe the mechanisms for an increase in system performance and well-being.

Traditionally, there is a strong focus on technology as a lever for more productivity and efficiency. Historically, this is understandable. Technological advancements on the ground and in the cockpit led to massive increases in safety and capacity in air travel. Primary and secondary radar, ground proximity warnings, traffic alerts and collision avoidance are only a few of these remarkable feats of engineering. For these, the benefits were selfexplanatory and almost immediate. This led to the notion that the introduction of more technology would always be beneficial, as if it was an end in itself. “Tech” is perceived as increasing safety or capacity without any further investment – you just have to introduce it. Hardly surprising, there are many ideas and concepts floating around that follow this worldview: multi-touch, speech recognition, augmented reality, etc.

Simulations further bolster this almost magical thinking. It has become relatively easy to demonstrate desirable results using laboratory studies and rapid prototyping, provided you can idealise the context just enough to avoid the pitfalls of real-life complexity.

Alternatively, as Doyle & Alderson put it: “Computer-based simulation and rapid prototyping tools are now broadly available and powerful enough that it is relatively easy to demonstrate almost anything, provided that conditions are made sufficiently idealised. However, the real world is typically far from idealised, and thus a system must have enough robustness in order to close the gap between demonstration and the real thing” (quoted in Woods, 2016).

In operational use, more often than not the anticipated benefits from new technology never come at all. At best, they emerge whenever the real situation is actually like the idealised laboratory setting for a limited amount of time. However, most of the time, it is not – there are numerous quirks and workarounds in the current system that were not considered in the design. Situations are not as described in procedures and checklists. People use artefacts very differently from their intended purpose. New behaviours and unforeseen consequences emerge and undermine the anticipated benefits (“Artefacts shape cognition” (Woods, 1998)). In the end, controllers might even feel misunderstood and perceive the new features as a waste of resources, which then is projected negatively onto the organisation.

It is essential to close the gap between demonstration and “the real thing”. Technology alone cannot guarantee gains in safety or capacity. There has to be a very good understanding of how the work is actually carried out by the operators in the real world. Technology and the people using it form a joint cognitive system (cf. Woods & Hollnagel, 2006) with its cognition being situated, meaning it can only be understood and replicated in situ – not in the laboratory.

Management is under pressure to react to the emergence of new technologies and approaches. In order to achieve supposed competitive advantages, it seems appealing to implement new technologies as fast as possible. However, there is no such a thing as a free lunch. Technology is likely to create new problems that lead to additional effort and costs that exceed the original budget by far in the long term. Therefore, new technologies cannot be implemented without further investment in HF/E.

Organisations should exercise caution from temptation to quickly jumping on new technologies because they are fashionable and a strategic decision should be taken after sound consideration of further HF/E considerations.

This may even be the case if previous concept studies proved the high potential of certain technologies in the first place. The actual challenge is not to be the fastest but to make technology work in a complex system. The first organisation that implements wellelaborated and balanced automation that works in a complex environment will be the actual global leader in technology. This, however, requires a paradigm shift that goes beyond a pure technology-centred perspective.

Principle 9: Purpose-Orientated View of New Technology.
Icon: EUROCONTROL © (All rights reserved)

It is not new technologies that should be the focus of ATM strategies. Instead, a deep understanding of current operations, bottlenecks, inefficiencies and latent potentials should be the starting point for strategic considerations. A comprehensive description of operational drivers for safety, capacity and efficiency as well as an honest description of organisational weaknesses help to achieve the best fit between real operations and new technologies. Then, strategic considerations do not just focus on new technologies, but on the operational purpose of technology. A definition of purpose finally becomes a management tool that helps to select the right pieces of technology out of thousands of potentially misleading possibilities.

Therefore, HF/E should be a careful advisor whenever problems are intended to be solved by more technology. Do we really understand the underlying mechanisms in the system? Are there other ways to do it? A purposeorientated view helps to facilitate the implementation of more automation and new technologies. In addition, it avoids unwanted consequences, including skyrocketing costs, due to an improper implementation.

Source: White Paper on Human Factors Integration in ATM System Design, EUROCONTROL, 2019

The White Paper is available on Bookshelf here: White Paper on Human Factors Integration in ATM System Design