Academic journal article Human Factors

A Sociotechnical Method for Designing Work Systems

Academic journal article Human Factors

A Sociotechnical Method for Designing Work Systems

Article excerpt


The allocation of tasks between humans and machines in complex systems has traditionally been referred to as the issue of function allocation. It is a problem encountered during the design of new systems and has increasing importance as the range of computer-based applications continues to grow and as their power and potential functionality increase. Put simply, computers can do increasingly more, and this technical potential may imply a diminishing role for humans. These design choices are critical to the success of the subsequent system, although their impact may not be experienced until much later (Sharit, 1997). Most previous work on function allocation has focused on human-machine interactions largely from a microergonomic perspective, to the exclusion of wider organizational and environmental concerns. As Hendrick (1997) has noted, interactions among the human, machine, organizational, and environmental aspects of a system need to be considered by including a more macroergonomic frame of reference.

However, the allocation of work among human operators -- the issue of job design or work organization -- is also relevant to the design of complex human and computer systems. The study of job design and the division of labor among humans has received much more attention (Medsker & Campion, 1997), but almost always in isolation from traditional concerns for the more micro aspects of task allocation. In spite of the widespread claims that a sociotechnical perspective should be adopted and job design issues be considered during system design, task allocations of this kind are usually made later, often during system implementation (Cherns, 1976, 1987).

In our view, decisions about task allocation among humans, and between humans and machines, are design choices. They are central to system design, to its subsequent use and performance, and to the experiences of the humans working within, and interacting with, the system. These choices should be made in interconnected ways (Clegg, 2000; Clegg, Older Gray, & Waterson, 2000; for alternative views, see Fuld, 1993, 2000; Kidd, 1992; Sheridan, 2000). The potential benefits of optimizing these design decisions include better overall system performance (Bainbridge, 1982; Corbett, 1985), more satisfying jobs (Chapanis, 1965), increased motivation (Greenstein & Lam, 1985), and better use and development of skills and intuition (Goom, 1994; Rouse, 1981).

These very issues currently preoccupy many organizations, which helps to validate the need for work in this area. The need for a new method for function allocation is outlined in more detail in the next section. In particular, we point to a number of improvements that could be made to the coverage and scope of previous methods of function allocation. We then describe the method and provide a worked example based on its use with a naval command and control function ([C.sup.2]) allocation problem. After that, we report the findings of a preliminary evaluation of the example, drawn from the views of participants who used the method in a workshop setting. Finally, in the Discussion section, we consider the theoretical contribution of this work and its relation to other research in the area.


Based on a review carried out as part of our previous work within the area of function allocation (Older, Waterson, & Clegg, 1997), it is clear that the most-cited work on function allocation is by Fitts (1951). Fitts's method lists those tasks the human is more capable of performing, alongside those at which the machine is "better." Although it was not intended for such purpose (see Hancock & Scallen, 1996; Price, 1985), the Fitts list (and modifications of it) has become the most widely used technique on which to base task allocation decisions.

Over the years, the Fitts list approach to function allocation has been the subject of widespread criticism. …

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