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Research Themes

Human-Centred Design

Effective design of tools and equipment has always focussed on human requirements - what is the role of the person, what is the role of the technology and how do they interact? As socio-technical systems become increasingly complex, understanding and designing for the multiple ways different actors will interact with the system has become ever more challenging. In the CIHS we innovate in the design processes that put people front and centre,
ensuring that the system works for the people integral to it.


Autopilots have been the norm in aviation for decades and the aviation sector has long experience of the benefits and challenges of automation and of effective ways of human-machine coordination. Automation is now appearing in many aspects of life – banking, autonomous vehicles, robots for the elderly, etc. This brings particular challenges – role delineation, handover between the human and the artificial agent, the operator’s understanding
of what the system is doing. Automation is a special case of human centred design – at some point the automated system has to interface with the human.

Process and System Modelling

A long-kept secret of many industries is that the way things are actually done differs significantly from the way they are supposed to be done. The traditional approach has been to train for compliance while tacitly accepting non-compliance. When something goes wrong – an error, incident or accident - the operator is blamed for “deviating from procedure”, while the company hopes there is no audit trail showing that the deviation was tolerated by management.

In the CIHS we treat deviations as nuggets of gold – they can tell us so much about a task or process and the stresses and strains that it comes under in the dynamics of an operational environment. By understanding how things are really done in a range of contexts, and how this maps (or does not map) onto the official procedure, we can model the operational process in its natural environment. From this we can identify where improvements can be made – changing the procedure, redesigning the equipment or process, improving the training, enhancing the communication tools.

Risk, Safety and Performance

There is a saying in the film industry that you should never work with animals or children. There is too much that can and will go wrong. An extension of that argument is that the ideal system should not include people – they are too unpredictable.

Fortunately the movie industry largely ignores that advice and makes many a great film with children, animals or both. The risk is worth it. Similarly ideal systems always include people – otherwise what is the point? A healthcare system without patients? A transport system without passengers?

The systems we work with include people as a natural, inevitable, part of the system. They bring risks, but they also open up opportunities - for innovation, creativity and connection. In the CIHS we bring a range of tools to bear to dynamically identify people-related hazards, and assess and manage the risk they pose. The more complex the system, the more complex this process becomes and the more sophisticated are the methods that are needed.

Of course people are not just hazards in a system. They are dynamic hazard identifiers and risk managers. The best systems build on these capabilities to empower people to effectively contribute to the overall safety of the system through preventative and mitigation action, coordination and reporting.


Training needs analyses, and training courses themselves tend to focus on the technical requirements of the job. But in most jobs the greatest challenges and the greatest opportunities for performance gain are in the non-technical skills required to do the job in a range of operational and social contexts – under time pressure, when fatigued, when the procedure is unclear or unworkable and despite tensions with colleagues.

Our competence requirements analyses are designed to capture these nontechnical skills. A particular focus is on the tacit knowledge - knowledge that is gathered on-the-job that people may not even know that they know. Our approach to competence is not individualistic (i.e. focusing on one person) but is holistic and collective. The performance of any single worker relies on inputs from other colleagues and collaborators who perform roles in other processes and sometimes in other organisations. Only by looking at the performance of all workers who contribute to an output, and the context in which the work takes place, can competence be assured.

Communication and Coordination

One of the most common causes of both every-day nuisances and catastrophic failures in organisations is communication failure. Huge resources are poured into the design of ICT systems while human communication receive scant and amateurish attention.

We employ a range of tools that put the communication and coordination requirements front and centre of our analyses. They enable us to visualise the network of relationships, the critical communications channels, the
ones that are vulnerable, and the ones that are mission-critical. On this basis a new communications landscape can be designed – clearer protocols, agreed codes, enhanced technology and critical checks.

Change Management and Implementation

Having acquired new technology or designed a new process, many organisations rely on a simple once-off one-way communication, such as an email, to inform staff and introduce the change. Evidence from industry is that the process of introducing change is as critical, and often more challenging, than deciding the direction of that change in the first place.

By incorporating the implementation of change into our engagement with industry, we ensure that we don’t leave clients “high and dry” with a new technology or process that fails to deliver because it is not effectively
implemented. Experience from cross-sectorial implementation projects has provided the CIHS with practical skills and methodologies for planning, executing and evaluating implementation projects in operational settings.


As organisational culture becomes a pervasive explanation of organisational performance, cultural transformation seems a panacea for system problems. Culture is the link between how individuals think and act and how that sustains an organisation over time. It covers just about everything that happens in an organisation from the point of view of values, beliefs and norms of behaviour and the meanings attached to everyday things. Our understanding of the culture of organisations requires both breadth, through surveys, and depth, through interview and observation. Much of our work concerns the implementation of policies, processes, procedures and practices which can promote the positive development of an organisation’s culture.


Leadership is critical to every organisation. Yet in our research we have found that many leaders are unprepared to do what needs to be done to implement effective change. We put leadership practice centre stage, shifting the focus from the traits and characteristics of individual leader to the shared activities, interactions and functions of ‘leadership’. Our approach emphasises accountability, transparency, and continuous improvement in building leadership strategy and capabilities.

Last updated 24 April 2018