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Automation and Teamwork


Automation has different meanings to different people, but it is safe to say that automation has been and is continuing to increase in complex systems. Melanie Wright and David Karber looked at automation’s effect on teams (“Effects of Automation of Information Processing Functions on Teamwork”, Human Factors, Vol. 41, No. 1, 2005, pp 50-66). The authors measured various aspects of team performance with automation of the first three stages of information processing:

  1. information acquisition (analogous to relevant data from one console being displayed on a different unit’s console),
  2. information analysis (analogous to the information from the other console providing cues as to my actions, e.g., increase or decrease rates), and
  3. decision selection (analogous to my rates being automatically cut based upon the status of your unit).

FYI - The fourth and last stage of information processing is action implementation. While the study dealt with battlefield threats, the results apply to process plants as well.

Automation of information acquisition altered communication patterns as might be expected, with less reliance on human transfer of information. However, no difference was observed under this condition with either team coordination or task performance. Automation of information analysis improved team coordination and collaborative planning. A negative impact on team coordination was seen with automation of decision selection, showing performance breakdowns with decision automation under conditions of high task difficulty.

The impact of automating decision selection is important, as that is what safety shutdown systems do. The operators at Three Mile Island bypassed a safety system because they thought its actuation would exacerbate the upset (this is based upon their erroneous assessment of what was actually occurring). Problems with human-automation interaction have been consistently reported in the human factors literature and this study is consistent with that. Like its effect on individuals, automation has a mixed effect on teams. Some automation enhances performance, while other automation degrades performance.

Copyright © 2005 Beville Engineering, Inc., All Rights Reserved



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