The Relationship of Cognitive Systems Engineering to Systems Engineering

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Question

What is the relationship of Cognitive Systems Engineering to Systems Engineering?

Answer

Cognitive Systems Engineering: Cognitive Systems Engineering is a professional discipline that uses systematic methods of cognitive analysis and cognitive design to ensure that cognitive work is both efficient and robust. The aim is amplify and extend the human capability to know, perceive, decide, plan, act and collaborate by integrating system functions with the cognitive processes they need to support. Note that this is not about integrating humans into systems or humans with systems. The focus is on the cognitive work with a particular emphasis on how we might employ technological functionality to support that work.

Cognitive Systems Engineering deals with socio-technical systems in which the work is information intensive. The socio in socio-technical refers to the social processes of communication, cooperation and competition.

Human Systems Integration: Within Systems Engineering, Cognitive Systems Engineering can be located in the specialty area of Human Systems Integration. The latest edition of the INCOSE Systems Engineering Handbook (V 3.1, August 2007, Appendix M ) defines Human Systems Integration as the interdisciplinary technical and management processes for integrating human considerations within and across all system elements. This definition and the term itself implies that we wish to integrate humans with systems or possibly, that we wish to integrate humans into systems.

Both the term, Human Systems Integration, and the INCOSE definition can be taken to imply that the human should be subservient to technology and many in the engineering professions assume this perspective at least implicitly. Less egregiously, some accord equal status to humans and technology. Although many Human Factors professionals and Cognitive Systems Engineers also express this latter view, it is the humans in the system who make the decisions. Technology must be subservient to that demand. Cognitive Systems Engineering should be directed at ensuring robust and effective coordination between the humans in the system and also ensuring that human functionality is supported and enhanced by technical functionality. The implication of this perspective is that we do not want to integrate humans with technology but rather to integrate humans with humans and humans with work and to use technological capabilities to facilitate that.

Cognitive Systems Engineering can be deployed to good effect in any information-intensive work domain. Health care, military command-and-control and industrial power generation are just three work domains that can benefit from the systematic analysis and design of cognitive work. The focus is on helping workers think more effectively by design of support technologies, work processes or training. In that regard, Cognitive Systems Engineering seems most relevant to the Human Systems Integration domains of Manpower, Training, Human Factors Engineering and Safety as defined in the INCOSE Systems Engineering Handbook (V 3.1, August 2007, Appendix M).

That is not to belittle the remaining domains of Personnel, Environment, Occupational Health, Habitability and Survivability, or even to claim that Cognitive Systems Engineering could not contribute in those areas, but rather to point out that the current work in the Cognitive Systems Engineering does not currently offer much that is useful for those remaining domains.

Human factors engineering: Human factors engineering is a professional discipline that uses formal methods of analysis and design to ensure that work is both efficient and robust. Note the similarity of this definition to the one for Cognitive Systems Engineering; the only difference being that all references to cognition have been removed. Human factors engineering is a broader discipline that takes account of physical as well as cognitive work. Alternatively, it could be said that Cognitive Systems Engineering is a sub-discipline of Human Factors Engineering. The terms Ergonomics and Engineering Psychology are sometimes used instead of Human Factors Engineering. Some think of Ergonomics as a discipline that focuses primarily on physical work but that view is not universal. There is no useful distinction between Engineering Psychology and Human Factors Engineering.

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