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Situational Awareness, Distributed Cognition and Sense-Making

The concept of situational awareness (SA) was developed to describe the way in which fighter pilots establish 3D models of the airspace around them during combat (Endsley, 1989, 1993). The project was triggered by a finding that, in studies of air combat, over 50% of pilots never saw the aircraft that shot them down. The concept was later applied to civil aviation and incorporated into CRM (Endsley, 1995). It has been defined as:

‘The perception of the elements in the environment within a volume of time and space,

the comprehension of their meaning and the projection of their status in the near future’

(Endsley, 1989)

Unfortunately, this description of SA seems to be no more than a reframing of the classical model of information processing. Baxter and Bass (1998) observe that, in reliable systems, operators do not generally need a high level of SA, and that there does not appear to be a direct causal link between the level of SA held by an operator and the general level of performance of the system as a whole: high SA can still lead to an accident. Flach (1995) points out that the failure to separate the cause and manifestation will lead to circular arguments in which accidents result from incomplete SA which, in turn, was the result of an earlier loss of SA. Despite its prevalence and the fact that it is widely, and confidently, used as an assessment marker, SA is a contentious subject. Parasuraman et al. (2008; see also Banbury and Tremblay (2004); Endsley et al. (2003)) make a robust defence of the concept stating that it is underpinned by strong empirical evidence whereas Dekker et al. (2010) take a different view, claiming that SA is no more than ‘folk psychology’. At the heart of the debate lies the nature of the experienced world. The traditional approach to information processing, and remembering that the brain as a digital computer metaphor prevailed at that time, assumed that information processing resulted in a version of the outside world generated inside the head which had a high degree of verisimilitude. Parasuraman et al. (2008) considered SA to ‘represent a continuous diagnosis of the state of a dynamic world’. As such, there was ‘a ‘grounded truth’ against w'hich its accuracy can be assessed. The authors claim that SA is an estimate of the accuracy of the relationship between the ‘objective’ world and the world as understood by the actors. That said, others have argued that SA is both a condition - our understanding of the current status of the world - and a process - the methods by which we clarify that understanding.

More recent conceptualisations see the creation of meaning as a two-way process between the human and the outside world. Clausen and Hutchins (1996), in describing the performance of a crew' in a simulator, observe that an aircraft flight deck represents a distributed cognitive system. Information processing in such a context can be characterised as propagation of representational states across representational media. Representational media include the values presented by displays and indicators, and also any other aspect of the workplace through which we can gain an understanding of the status of a process. For example, some pilots use the position of the landing lamp switch to remind them about the granting of permission to land. The switch is not moved until after landing has been authorised by АТС and, thus, if the switch is ‘on’ then permission must have been given. The switch conveys information about the legal status of the approach. As the task progresses, the flight deck is progressively reconfigured to reflect the current status of the system. From this perspective, aspects of the aircraft’s configuration as represented by the flight deck is a surrogate for SA. However, holding an accurate representation of the world is of little use unless it supports sense-making. Weick (1995) identifies seven properties of sense-making:

  • • Focussed on and by extracted cues
  • • Driven by plausibility rather than accuracy
  • • Grounded in identity construction
  • • Social
  • • Enactive of sensible environments
  • • Ongoing
  • • Retrospective

This view suggests that ‘reality’ is socially constructed rather than some sort of objective internal representation of the world ‘outside of my head’. Weick’s ‘extracted cues’ are the flags that draw our attention to those aspects of the situation that support future actions. To save cognitive effort, and we need to remember that the brain consumes 30% of the energy produced by the body, we tend to stop processing as soon as we reach a plausible explanation of events. The relief FO on the Heathrow B-777 stated that the problem ‘looked like a double engine flame-out’. This ‘plau- sible-but-wrong’ analysis was framed by experiences of failure drills in training. Sense-making is also influenced by the social niche we occupy. For example, the captain’s sense-making was shaped, in part, by the broader responsibilities he held as the commander of the aircraft. So, his analysis of the situation took into consideration the need to either take back control of the aircraft or leave the FO as the flying pilot, by the need to prepare the crew and passengers for a possible adverse outcome. Finally, and probably the most important, sense-making is continually refreshed as the world unfolds, and as a result, we can only know what has already passed and what we face now; we cannot know the future.

The ‘environment’ we work in, then, is created by us, and, in turn, we respond to that environment as it changes through time. Furthermore, we can see that the interpretation of external information is a subjective process and is driven not by what information is objectively available but, rather, by what is accessible to individuals and what they chose to sample. Sense-making is not static but, rather, it is a dynamic process that changes as events unfold. The extent to which our mapping of facts onto reality is successful is a measure of the way we employ information-seeking behaviour.

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