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Acting in the Public Domain – Collaboration to Achieve Operational Goals


Level l in the system model represents private action. It encompasses those processes that take place largely inside our heads before they become visible activities. It would not matter if we were looking at an aircraft operated by a single pilot or a large aircraft with two pilots and a relief first officer (RFO) sitting on the centre jump seat. Each pilot will be engaged in private thought before public action. The internal world of the individual was the focus. Although the discussion of error dealt with outcomes, the actions observed were the product of internal processing. In this chapter the focus is fully on public performance. At Level 2 in my hierarchy - collaboration - our actions become known to others. Elements of my performance are accessible and are amenable to change. What we are interested in here is how two or more individuals combine their efforts to achieve a goal. Once again, the action flows from decisions but the decision process is now a shared activity: decisions happen in the space between individuals, not solely inside the heads of individuals. This example involving a crew of a business jet epitomises problems with collaboration:

Before departure the Captain told me to order 1020 lbs of jet-A fuel. We already had approximately 1200 lbs. The flight was scheduled l hr lOmins and, for the Learjet 31, the approx fuel burn is 1500 lbs. I felt that a total of 2220 lbs was not enough fuel, but was afraid to speak up because [of] his [the Captain’s] attitude and that of management (I have brought what I thought were safety issues to my manager before and she told me that my job is to ‘protect the ego of the captain’ and not to speak up unless I was about to die. If I report safety issues or point out a captain’s mistake, I fear losing my job). Once airborne, the Captain looked at the estimated fuel on arrival and became very irate. He told me to ask for a higher altitude. We were level at FL370 and we requested FL400. The controller hesitated, but after we told him the situation, he worked it out. Climbing towards FL400, the Captain instructed me to figure out why we were showing landing fuel to be so low. He asked me to look at the FMS to see if we had it programmed so that it would show low fuel. While verifying the FMS, I heard the alt warning chime. I mentioned to the Captain that we were above our assigned alt and still climbing. After using abrasive language directed towards the autopilot, he clicked the autopilot off and started a descent. We climbed to approx FL405. As we descended, I noticed that we had a high rate of descent and mentioned that we were assigned FL400.

We descended past FL400 to approx FL396 before returning to FL400. We were later assigned FL450 for fuel flow reasons. The controllers had to move other aircraft for us to obtain the altitude. We landed with approx 25 mins of fuel on board.

(ASRS. May 2005. Learjet 31).

Collaboration involves not simply immediate crew members. In the discussion of error detection, we saw that third parties can play a role. Other agencies, such as air traffic control (АТС), are involved. We can also see that collaboration is distributed across time: a past conversation with my manager will shape my actions in the present. Collaboration is shaped by individual factors, such as personality and stress, and also by group dynamics, such as rank and status.

From a systems perspective, an airline crew can be seen as a unit of delegated control. The airline allows a crew to undertake a task with a considerable degree of autonomy but control is still exercised through procedures, schedules, flight plans, etc. Coordination between crew members is facilitated by acts of communication. This chapter looks at groups as social entities doing work. Communication will be considered in more detail in the next chapter. Level 2 does contain a paradox: although we are talking about performance in a social context, the Learjet case study illustrates how people can still act autonomously within a structured group. One of the challenges of collaborative action is to manage, or constrain, individuals who have a negative effect on performance and undermine the functioning of the group. Acting in a group requires a degree of surrender: we no longer have full autonomy (even if I might think otherwise).

We will be looking at work as a coordinated action. The scope of action is bounded by rules but individuals differ in their view' of rule obligation. We saw examples of this in the last chapter when we considered violations. Humans exercise agency in that they have volitional control over their behaviour and autonomy is an important component of the social construction of individual w'orth. We exercise control, then, and, to a degree, choose action. The implications of this need to be understood if we want to make sense of collaborative performance.

The chapter starts with an exploration of the ephemeral nature of ‘collaboration’ before looking at some structural aspects of groups. We will then consider how crews work together to manage tasks by monitoring the progress of work. Finally, we will attempt to apply the concept to a crew' trying to cope w'ith a dynamic, changing situation.

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