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HR Tip: Understanding the role of employees in automated systems

While more and more tasks are being automated, which helps to avoid human error, employees still need to monitor how well the automated system is operating. There are usually more than one function to monitor and if a function fails, it usually leads to more system failures, often in rapid succession.

Operators can experience something known as "cognitive lock-up," when they focus too long on the initial failure, if they are lacking in ability or training in working memory and sustained attention. A paper published online in Human Factors: The Journal of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, describes a correlation between an operator's working memory and ability to sustain attention and cognitive lock-up.

The findings showed that to a significant degree, individuals with better working memory not only were able to correct an initial system failure quickly but also could switch their attention to secondary failures more quickly. Furthermore, influences of working memory and sustained attention on the reactions of human monitors increase across failures.

The results assist in developing systems and processes to prevent cognitive lock-up and the sometimes catastrophic failures it can cause. Examples noted include "enabling automation to prioritize failures and communicate such information... improve the task environment ...and modify personnel selection strategies, and establish training procedures for working memory, cognitive flexibility, and sustained attention."