Designing organizations for humans (part 2)

April 29, 2011

In the context of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, I talked about the role of design not only in complex technological systems, but also in organizational processes and how human decision makers can be integrated. The complex nature of a plant constrains our operations to what Herb Simon termed “bounded rationality.” As much as we would like to believe that we possess complete knowledge of the system and the computational brainpower to make optimal decisions, the fact remains that extreme variability persists. This could be variability in the environments in which we operate (e.g. tsunami), the specifications and particular uses of materials and equipment, and most importantly the cognitive powers of the humans turning switches, operating valves, and giving orders.

Advances in technology when applied to material product or equipment design can logically lead to increased ease of use and performance. Don Norman explains a key pitfall can be the loss of human skill for the sake of reduced decision complexity. I believe that designers have become extremely proficient at integrating technological advances into complex systems that are user friendly and of increased utility.

But I also believe that new technologies now provide a window into how we as human decision makers impact the complex human systems or organizations in which we work and live. The migration of the world’s communications and knowledge to digital form allows us to capture the scope of interactions and decisions in a storable, searchable, and malleable form. Much like adding additional and more granular sensor points to a reactor plant, we now have the data to make more informed decisions about how our organizations should be constructed and act. In light of this, designing the tools that enable us to expand the constraints of our bounded rationality in this realm should be mindful of Norman’s warning regarding human skill. In order to take advantage of this new human-to-technology interaction, culture and processes should be established such that the organization is engaged in a continuous iterative process where technology shapes the decision-making processes and decision makers understand and shape the technology. Organizations that embrace and master this new capability will find true competitive advantage in a novel front.

contributors to this post

headshot of Dave Krasik
headshot of Mike Stringer