Review: A Strategy for Human Factors/Ergonomics as a Discipline and Profession

A colleague brought to our attention a recent article that appeared in Ergonomics, the official Journal of the Institute for Ergonomics and Human Factors, titled "A strategy for human factors/ergonomics: developing the discipline and profession." I found the article particularly timely, because I've recently been engaged in a similar discussion with a small group of ergonomics professionals I work with in an ergonomics-related non-profit. In essence, the topic boils down to a few key questions, at least in my mind:

  • is there such thing as an ergonomics discipline or profession?
  • if so, what and who does it encompass?

Surprisingly, this debate has gone on for as long as I've been involved with ergonomics, beginning in 1983. Also surprising, to me, is that we've made what seems like little progress toward consensus on these very core issues. One obvious indication that consensus remains illusive is the fact that we still can't decide whether to call what we do "ergonomics" or "human factors." Herein, I'll first summarize the article, then follow with some personal reflections on this important issue.

In "A strategy for human factors/ergonomics: developing the discipline and profession," which is a position paper resulting from a two year effort by IEA's Future of Ergonomics Committee, authors Jan Dul, Ralph Bruder, Peter Buckle, Pascale Carayon, Pierre Falzone, William S. Marras, John R. Wilson and Bas van der Doelen describe:

... a vision of the future of the human factors/ergonomics (HFE) discipline and profession (the terms ergonomics and human factors are used interchangeably) ... The goal of the committee was to formulate a position paper for the HFE community on strategies for the future of the HFE discipline and profession ... the present paper focuses on a strategy for the world-wide promotion of the discipline and profession in order to reach global excellence in HFE.

The committee is careful to point out that they are mainly western academics, though with global experience, and that the article is not a literature review, nor is it a consensus paper representing the views of the greater HFE community (I'll use their terminology, HFE = human factors/ergonomics, while summarizing their work).

They begin with the premise that:

HFE has great potential to ensure that any designed artefact, ranging from a consumer product to an organisational environment, is shaped around the capacities and aspirations of humans, such that performance and well-being are optimised. When HFE does not play a role in system design, this can lead to sub-optimal systems with quality deficits, reduced efficiency, illness, dissatisfaction, etc. HFE can provide solutions to these problems.

This is followed by the caveat that:

... the potential of HFE remains under-exploited.

They suggest there are four main reasons HFE is under-utilized:

  1. many potential beneficiaries are not aware of the value HFE can bring;
  2. sometimes when there is a demand for HFE, there isn't enough "high-quality HFE," or that the available HFE resources are too limited in scope to be recognized as applicable;
  3. the HFE field is small in comparison to established design disciplines such as engineering and psychology, and though HFE principles may be applied within these disciplines, there may be no explicit reference to the HFE discipline.
  4. "... the very strength of HFE, its multi-disciplinary base, is also a potential weakness; a diversity of topics, views and practices exist within the HFE community, resulting in unclear communication to the external world."

The remainder of their paper is dedicated to a four step process through which they (1) describe the fundamental characteristics of HFE; (2) identify developments in the "external world that are important to HFE"; (3) formulate the value of HFE for system design applications; and (4) propose a strategic path for the HFE community "that can help to achieve a prosperous future for HFE."

The fundamental characteristics of HFE

Extracting the key characteristics of HFE from the IEA definition, the committee states:

  1. HFE takes a systems approach.

  2. HFE is design driven.

  3. HFE focuses on two related outcomes: performance and well-being.

Interested readers are encouraged to read the full article, accessible at no cost at the time of this writing, referenced below, for detailed explanations of these three characteristics.

Developments in "the external world"

The committee recognizes that they cannot completely capture all such developments, but do present the following examples:

  1. Cultural diversity

Essentially, globalization (my word, not theirs) creates cross-cultural changes and dependencies between economies, industries and countries, and environments designed for one group may not be appropriate for others, something that the HFE community is well aware of and can actively address through design.

  1. Aging

Health, population, cultural and economic trends are changing age population age distributions in many world regions, resulting in older workers remaining in the workforce as well as a need for technology adaptations for aging populations. The HFE community is adept at recognizing, characterizing and developing design solutions for such population effects.

  1. Information and communication technology

The rapid growth of these technologies, such as social media, remote/digital collaboration, and an "explosion of information transfer" impact a wide variety of systems, including education and sociotechnical systems consisting of geographically dispersed and culturally diverse people, are changing the way we work, play and communicate. HFE has a role to play in these trends, such as enhancing teamwork, design of more natural human-computer interactions, and much more.

  1. Enhanced competitiveness and the need for innovation

The committee points to globalization as partially responsible for forcing many companies to develop new business strategies, including a need to innovate in product and process design, and points to HFE as a source for assistance in these efforts.

  1. Sustainability and corporate social responsibility

"Sustainability – the development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs– includes attention to natural and physical resources (‘planet'), but also attention to human and social resources (‘people'), in combination with economic sustainability (‘profit') ... HFE can contribute to developing actions and programmes aimed at combining the people and profit dimension of sustainability and social responsibility by optimising both performance and well-being." 

The value of HFE for stakeholders

The committee recognizes that the demand for HFE is directly related to the perceived value of HFE among stakeholders of system design. They identify those stakeholders as (interested readers are directed to the full paper, cited below, for additional details):

  • System actors (employees in work-systems, and end-users for products and services) who can benefit from HFE through:
    • Improved physical, psychological and social well-being

    • Higher motivation, growth and job satisfaction 

    • Improved performance 

    • Better experience

    • Shorter time of familiarization

    • Better fitting of products/services to individual characteristics/needs

    • Fewer mistakes

    • Greater efficiency

  • System experts (any of a variety of professionals that can be involved in a design effort) who can benefit from HFE through:
    • Better users’ acceptance of designed systems

    • Better performance

    • Better fit with (legal) standards 

    • Improved development process 

  • System decision makers (e.g., managers, purchasers) who can benefit from HFE through:
    • Better productivity

    • Better quality and reliability of production processes and produced goods and services

    • Lower operating costs due to lower levels of health problems, motivational deficits, accidents, absenteeism, and related productivity loss

    • More innovation by increased employee creativity 

    • Better reputation for hiring and retention of talented employees

    • Better decision-making

    • Better market performance 

    • Greater profitability

    • Less re-design

  • System influencers who can benefit from HFE through:
    • Social wealth

    • Economic wealth

 

"(Mis)match between potential value, perceived value, and provided value"

The authors note that HFE value is perceived differently by different stakeholders. For example, system experts such as engineers may perceive value in the performance outcomes, while system actors and influencers may perceive value in the well-being outcomes. Overall, however, they suggest that the perceived value of HFE among stakeholders is limited. For example, a company that gains from many of the HFE benefits outlined above will not necessarily tie those gains to HFE theory, practice or personnel.

They also recognize that the well-being outcomes that are often the sole perceived value among system actors and influencers may not be seen as valuable to system experts and decision makers, who they term dominant stakeholders. Those same dominant stakeholders are more likely to value performance outcomes, yet remain largely unaware that HFE can deliver such value, which explains the "... limited explicit demand for HFE from this group."

"Strategy for the future"

The committee recommends the following elements be included in a strategy "to strengthen the demand for and the application of high-quality HFE ... for all stakeholders:"

  1. Strengthening the demand for high-quality HFE by:

    1. Communicating with stakeholders, in their language/terminology;

    2. Building partnerships with stakeholders and their representative organizations; and

    3. Educating stakeholders as to HFE contributions to system design.

  2. Strengthening the application for high-quality HFE by:

  1. Promoting the education of HFE specialists to apply high-quality HFE;

  2. Ensuring high quality standards of HFE applications and HFE specialists; and

  3. Promoting HFE research excellence at universities and other organizations.

They propose an "HFE demand development cycle" with the following elements:

  1. stakeholder demand for high-quality HFE, which leads to
  2. application of high-quality HFE, which leads to
  3. increased stakeholder awareness of the need for high-quality HFE, which leads to
  4. increased stakeholder demand for high-quality HFE

They see this as a combined 'push' and 'pull' strategy that will require involvement from all of the various HFE stakeholders, including individuals like you and me.

Strategy implementation

The committee wraps-up their report by giving some examples of the types of strategic actions the HFE community could take.

The implementation of the strategy is an essential but complex endeavour that needs further development. We only touch upon two aspects: (1) developing an action plan by translating the strategy into actionable tasks, and (2) managing the development and implementation of the action plan.

They call for a leadership role by IEA that includes:

  • the development of a global action plan, "with global consensus;" 
  • the development of action plans by IEA federated societies and networks, with IEA monitoring and sharing "lessons learned;" and 
  • "developing a plan of action at international level, targeting appropriate international institutions and organisations."

Comments from the Reviewer (Peter Budnick)

Ergoweb has been "beating this drum" for many years -- as long as I can remember. It's all about value. We practitioners know ergonomics provides value, but we find it challenging to convince others of that value. As the committee notes, the two primary outcomes from ergonomics are improved system  performance (and, therefore, human performance), and improved human well-being. Many ergonomists demonstrate a passion for the well-being aspect of ergonomics, yet as a field, we stumble when it comes to recognizing and demonstrating the system performance value we produce. Not surprisingly, the system decision makers place a great deal of value on system performance, but less so on the well-being aspect. Unless and until we integrate our value with the value measures already in place in organizations, we will continue to meet with resistance. That resistance is not necessarily a sign that we aren't creating value, but instead is a sign that we are not being effective at measuring and communicating that value. 

I commend the committee members, many of whom I know and trust as very dedicated professionals, for their work in putting together this important report. I've served on international committees before, and I know how hard it is to reach a conclusion, let alone get anything of substance accomplished, so this work is to be commended. By the same token, however, I question whether we can or should wait for leadership from an international organization to drive this process. Ergoweb will certainly support any effective efforts they put forward, but we, and I hope you, won't wait for a top-down approach. Each of us has a role to play in elevating and communicating the value of ergonomics, and there's no better time to start than today. The committee has provided us with a blueprint of sorts to help our diverse field understand the value we provide. But ultimately, it's up to each of us to capture, demonstrate and communicate that value.

The committee did mention one particular thing that I see as a strong role for IEA and its federated societies: "high-quality HFE". They didn't dwell on the terminology, but implicitly state that quality is an important part of this process. I strongly agree that quality will make or break the future of ergonomics.

Reference

Jan Dul, Ralph Bruder, Peter Buckle, Pascale Carayon, Pierre Falzone, William S. Marras, John R. Wilson and Bas van der Doelen, "A strategy for human factors/ergonomics: developing the discipline and profession," Ergonomics, Volume 55, Issue 4, 2012, DOI:10.1080/00140139.2012.661087

At the time of this writing, this article was available online, at no charge: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00140139.2012.661087


This article originally appeared in The Ergonomics Report™ on 2012-04-04.