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A Functional Model of Communication

Rasmussen and Svedung (2000) identified communication acts that support performance within their skill-rule-knowledge (SRK) hierarchy (column (a) in Table 8.2). Their framework includes communication at both Levels 1 and 2 in my hierarchy. For example, the movement of an index or marker on a navigation display will trigger a response at the skill level in order to keep the aircraft on the correct track. The failure of an undercarriage indicator lamp to turn green will trigger a response at the rule level. A discrepant system value will trigger processing at the knowledge level in order to resolve the information on the display. While these signals are all processed at the individual level, it is often these environmental cues that are the starting point for interpersonal communication at the collaboration level.

In column (b) of Table 8.2, I offer some specific functions that flow from their analysis. Unlike the other taxonomies discussed earlier, the SRK structure allows us to map performance onto underlying knowledge structures and to link communication to the conduct of flight.

Flight deck communication is largely constrained by design. To promote the predictability mentioned by Kanki and Palmer and increase the efficient use of limited bandwidth, crews follow checklists and use formal, prescribed language, often described as ICAO standard phraseology. These frameworks exist to coordinate aviation in a multilingual world with crews often comprising foreign nationals working with no shared mother tongue. However, this technocratic view of the world ignores the fact that humans are social animals and, as we saw, language first evolved to facilitate bonding. It is important to remember that social communication - by which I mean not task focussed - facilitates cooperation and, so, I need to add an additional category to the three listed in column (b) and that is developing social bonds. Communication in aviation, then, has three functions directed at task management and one directed at social bonding.


Task-related Functions of Communication


(a) Type of Communication Act (Rasmussen & Svedung)

(b) Purpose


Interpreting message content in relation to mental models. Talking in 'shorthand’

Clarify future goals and intentions


Controls sequence of actions, identifies discrepancies or unexpected status change

Control (option selection)


Time/space signals that update and synchronise, the body language of actors

Control (current action) and verification of status

The task management functions are, first, those communication acts designed to control activity and to verify progress. At Level 1, this could be simply the internal dialogue that accompanies work. At Level 2, it includes such things as the challenge and response management of checklists, requests for activity in support of aircraft control and statements that verify the current status of the aircraft. An example would be the procedural calls associated with the aircraft reaching a cleared altitude. Acts in this category would also include observations of discrepant signals suggesting that goal constraints might not be satisfied. The next group of functions is designed to control the near-term management of the operation. Here we see decision-making being verbalised. Acts in this cluster will include proposed plan modifications and discussions of probabilities of meeting goals. The final category of task-related acts deals with the future state of the aircraft and includes the statement of future plans and intentions, anticipated responses, expected next steps, etc. The discussion among the crew relating to the diversion to Shemya and the dumping of fuel we saw in the last chapter fall into this category. Speech acts in this category often attempt to bring clarity and, so, are linked to sense-making.

On the aircraft, social speech presents a problem. We try to minimise non-task- related conversation in order to maintain a task focus and to reduce the risk of missing radio calls. This is codified in the ‘sterile cockpit’ rule. Unfortunately, we need to recognise the importance of social interaction at the appropriate time. The social category of communication events includes utterances intended to reduce stress, moderate the tone or atmosphere on the flight deck or establish social bonds. These four core clusters of communication apply equally to activity within teams and also to all collaborative action across organisational boundaries. I want to return to the crew of the ATR 72 and consider their interaction in the light of this analysis before I apply the framework to an example of collaborative action with multiple actors.

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