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General document | Cognitive Work Analysis: Foundations, Extensions, and Challenges


This essay, which reviews the foundations, extensions, and challenges of cognitive work analysis, is based on a keynote address delivered at the 10th International Naturalistic Decision Making Conference held in Orlando, Florida from 31 May to 3 June, 2011. It describes the origins of cognitive work analysis and the utility of this framework for designing ecological interfaces, as well as for tackling a variety of other design challenges, particularly, the design of teams or organisations. Also featured in this essay is the formulation of a methodological perspective of cognitive work analysis, which complements the conceptual accounts provided by Rasmussen (1986), Rasmussen, Pejtersen, and Goodstein (1994), and Vicente (1999). Finally, this essay highlights the latest shift in research emphasis from work domain analysis, the first dimension of cognitive work analysis, to the subsequent dimensions of this framework.


Workers in complex sociotechnical systems, such as military systems, have incredibly challenging jobs. To help them perform their jobs effectively, it is indisputable that first we need to understand the nature of their work. Only then is it possible to design interfaces, teams, or training systems, for instance, that will enable workers to meet their work demands successfully – in a way that is safe, productive, and healthy (Vicente, 1999).

This essay, which is based on a keynote address delivered at the 10

th International Naturalistic Decision Making Conference held in Orlando, Florida from 31 May to 3 June, 2011, reviews the foundations, extensions, and challenges of cognitive work analysis, a framework for the analysis, design and evaluation of work in complex sociotechnical systems (Rasmussen, 1986; Rasmussen, Pejtersen & Goodstein, 1994; Vicente, 1999). This framework comprises five dimensions of analysis, namely, work domain analysis, control task analysis, strategies analysis, social organisation and cooperation analysis, and worker competencies analysis. Each dimension is concerned with the analysis of particular types of constraints on actors' behaviour. Within these constraints, actors have many possibilities for action. By focusing on the analysis of constraints, rather than specific instances of behaviour, cognitive work analysis promotes designing for adaptation.This essay demonstrates that there have been substantial research outcomes in cognitive work analysis over the last few decades. Included in these achievements is the development of the cognitive work analysis framework itself, which has its origins in the work of Jens Rasmussen and his colleagues at the Risø National Laboratory in Denmark. Based on empirical studies of how work is achieved in naturalistic settings, these researchers conceptualised a solid foundation for work analysis.

Subsequently, some of the concepts of cognitive work analysis were extended into ecological interface design (EID), a framework for designing interfaces for complex sociotechnical systems (Rasmussen & Vicente, 1989; Vicente & Rasmussen, 1990, 1992). Unlike other approaches to interface design, the EID framework has been subjected to a comprehensive program of controlled experimental investigations. These investigations have demonstrated that EID can lead to better performance than existing interfaces for many types of systems, including military ones. The EID program has addressed in part some of the limitations of the original research by the Risø group, which relate to the lack of experimental testing of the concepts of cognitive work analysis and the generalisability of these concepts to a variety of systems. Future research on EID will include extensions to this framework to incorporate, among other things, additional concepts of cognitive work analysis and other work analysis techniques.

Novel applications of cognitive work analysis, to problems other than interface design, have been achieved largely in industrial settings. These applications include the evaluation of system design concepts, the definition of training needs and training-system requirements, and the development of new team or organisational designs. Some of these applications have required extensions to the basic concepts of cognitive work analysis. While these applications have had an impact in industrial settings, and have made a unique contribution to design relative to standard techniques, empirical evaluation is lacking. For this to be achieved, a shift to a research setting may be necessary.

The methodological program on cognitive work analysis complements the seminal monographs by Rasmussen (1986), Rasmussen et al. (1994), and Vicente (1999), which provide a comprehensive conceptual perspective of this framework. This program recognises that the widespread adoption of cognitive work analysis is hampered by the fact that this technique for work analysis is challenging, not only to learn, but also to perform

well. While a substantive start has been made on methodology, much more work is necessary, especially in relation to the dimensions subsequent to work domain analysis.The future program on the subsequent dimensions will echo the historical development of cognitive work analysis by building on the research of a range of communities. Given its complexity, it is improbable that the nature of human work in sociotechnical systems can be properly studied or understood by any one discipline or community. By contributing carefully investigated and detailed insights into diverse aspects of human work, multiple communities can provide valuable leverage points for cognitive work analysis. A significant challenge for researchers will be to build on any insights in a way that remains faithful to the theoretical underpinnings of cognitive work analysis, which appears to offer a powerful approach to design.

The preceding achievements in cognitive work analysis are likely to spark significant interest in this framework over the next decade. An immediate outcome of the growing popularity of this framework will be a proliferation of applications of cognitive work analysis, including many novel applications. This situation will emphasise one of the biggest challenges of cognitive work analysis, specifically, to support an integrated approach to

system design.Designing for adaptation is a complex problem that will not be resolved in a piecemeal fashion. It will not be resolved by just an ecological interface (Vicente, 1999) or just a team design, for instance. Instead, all elements of a system's design must be systematically integrated in a way that explicitly supports this objective, which raises theoretical, methodological, and practical challenges. I believe that cognitive work analysis has the potential to meet these challenges, but the task will not be simple.


Rasmussen, J. (1986).

Information processing and human-machine interaction: An approach to cognitive engineering. New York: North-Holland.Rasmussen, J., Pejtersen, A. M., & Goodstein, L. P. (1994).

Cognitive systems engineering. New York: John Wiley & Sons.Vicente, K. J. (1999).

Cognitive work analysis: Toward safe, productive, and healthy computer-based work. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Key information


Neelam Naikar

Publication number


Publication type

General document

Publish Date

November 2011


Unclassified - public release


Cognitive Work Analysis, Task Analysis, Human Machine Systems, Complex Adaptive Systems