During recent decades, we have witnessed a dramatic change in the conditions of work. The very fast pace of technological change has influenced work conditions in all application domains, such as transportation, shipping, manufacturing, and process industries. At the same time, the rapid development of transportation systems, information technology, and just-in-time schemes have led to a high degree of integration and coupling of systems. Under these challenging conditions, a single decision can have dramatic effects that propagate rapidly and widely through global society. Furthermore, most work organizations today live in a very aggressive and competitive environment and success is granted only to those that exploit the benefits of operating at the fringes of usual, accepted practices. Closing in on and exploring the boundaries of established practice under pressure necessarily runs the risk of crossing the limits of safe practices.
This evolution brings with it a concurrent change in the approaches to be taken to the design of work support systems, and consequently, to the analysis of work and related academic research paradigms. There has been a move from formulation of "the one best way" associated with scientific management theories toward "user-centered" tool design based on analyses of actual performance during work.
Recently, however, the pace of change has become so fast, and the need for high reliability of new systems so high, that the design of new work tools and systems cannot be based only on empirical, incremental evolution based on studies of existing work conditions. Predictive models of work behavior become necessary, models that can serve to predict work behavior by explicitly identifying the behavior-shaping features of a new work environment. In Vicente's terms, we need to replace the normative and descriptive models of work analysis by formative models.
This is the aim of Kim Vicente's book on cognitive work analysis (CWA). It is an important book that advances cognitive engineering by providing a pedagogic introduction to the formative analysis of work requirements. It is evident that Vicente now has developed a teaching curriculum that has been refined by years of interaction with students.
In this effort, Vicente opens up several important questions related to current approaches to academic research and design. First, he advocates research based on a fundamental respect for people engaged in practical work. Through the years, academic studies of work performance have often led to the conclusion that technicians behave in unsystematic and irrational ways and that designers are clumsy, or even stupid, resulting in proposals of "more rational" ways to work. However, over and over again, careful studies of work in the field have shown that, when the behavior of experts was found to be irrational or unsystematic, the frame of reference applied for judgment was wrong. Researchers had failed to identify the criteria that actually shaped workers' behavior.