Chapter 8: Organisational Contexts for Human Factors and Ergonomics in Practice

by Steven Shorrock and Claire Williams

Practitioner summary

The way HF/E fits within an organisation and interacts with other organisations is integral to HF/E in practice. In this chapter, we consider four broad contexts of HF/E practice via interviews with 17 of the practitioners who have authored this book. We consider four organisational contexts: external consultancy; working in producers, manufacturers and service providers; working in universities and research institutes; and working in governments (including regulators) and inter-governmental organisations. The practitioners reflect on the economic, organisational, social and personal aspects of HF/E practice in these four contexts.

Chapter quotes

“The various organisational contexts affect our possibilities in HF/E, both facilitating and constraining our practice. The real issues are not so much about HF/E theory and methods, but rather concern our social, organisational and economic interactions.”

“The contributors to this chapter have raised a spectrum of issues for HF/E practitioners working in the four contexts considered. What are we to make of these reflections? What are the themes? Some common factors, expressed in different ways, are issues that are rarely taught on HF/E courses, and rarely discussed in the HF/E literature.”

“There are several trade-offs, such as breadth vs. depth, project work vs. end-to-end/lifecycle involvement, theoretical vs. practical, macro vs. micro, and every context offers upsides and downsides. But what stands out is the collective diversity of HF/E practice in different types of organisation, in various departments within organisations, at every hierarchical level, in almost every industry.”

Practitioner reflections

Reflection by Ben O’Flanagan (co-author of Chapter 14)

For me the interesting question is what distinguishes HF/E from other disciplines. There will be a lot of universalities that reflect the characteristics of the differently sized type of organisations that you mention, which you can expect would be the same for other disciplines.

One of the common threads across all organisations when it comes to HF/E is that we spend a disproportionate amount of our time having to define what HF/E is and what it is not, and then actively communicating to try and influence key stakeholders. But there is a lot of noise and the message can get lost. Other disciplines (from the outside) don’t seem to encounter quite the same difficulties in having to make the case for their involvement/ inclusion.

The common thread is that we lack clear brand identity. People don’t understand HF/E, don’t know how to integrate it and confuse it with other related fields such as change management, risk management, HR, organisational development, UX, etc etc. We also struggle with quantifying the benefits from HFE activities and demonstrating the costs of not doing HFE. Attracting people to the discipline is the other key challenge that we face (definitely worse here in Australia because of a lack of uni courses and awareness within relevant existing uni courses such as psychology).

Approaches to this issue will need to vary according to context but it seems to me that there is a spectrum from what I would call All Out HF/E to Stealth HF/E.

All Out HFE is about developing a clearer brand and more aggressively market it (collectively). Fiercely identifying and tagging any benefits associated with HFE would be a key part of this approach, as well as having successful and clear cost benefit models. I don’t know what other related disciplines do but there must be a good practice model out there somewhere that we can follow.

Stealth HFE implies that we should stop calling what we do HF/E explicitly and instead of trying to spend time and effort defining it, focus effort on better integrating it into other activities so that it is done but not called out. Works better in a mature operational environment with good awareness of HF. Interestingly can it be/ should it be attempted in a less mature environment? With this approach, HF/E is more of an enabler for other fields/ disciplines as per user centred design.

Do we need fierce HF/E gatekeepers or should we try to build ourselves into everything by stealth? Can we do both? What approaches might be better at preventing incidents and improving work environments? Given the potential scale of HFE, is the all out approach even possible without more closely defining what we do?  How much of a brand  is possible with HF/E? I know which end of the spectrum is easier to attract graduates to, but All Out HF/E requires much greater commitment from practitioners and professional societies.

Where do we want to take the discipline and the profession?


About stevenshorrock

I am a systems ergonomist/human factors specialist and work psychologist with a background in practice and research in safety-critical industries. My main interest is human and system behaviour in the context of safety-related organisations. I seek to enable improvement via a combination of systems thinking, design thinking and humanistic thinking. 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
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