Human factors in complex decision-making

Military decision-making is a complex process that occurs within a highly over-specified network of actors and is managed by a well defined set of procedures - at least, that is what one would be led to believe. The historical development of the apparatus, technology and procedures of command-and-control has largely been an attempt to remove uncertainty from the information used in decision-making. This has created the fa├žade of scientific management in military decision-making. Modern concerns with 'information superiority' or 'information dominance' on the battlefield are grounded in the belief that uncertainty can be surgically removed from the process.

Uncertainty, however, is a natural part of the decision-making process that cannot be removed for a number of reasons; accepting this changes the emphasis of future command-and-control operations. Three aspects of the decision-making process within a complex socio-technical system are worth consideration. These are related to the technology, the information space and the relationship between the command-and-control system and the functions it is expected to perform.

The importance of the human factor

For social and computer scientists, military command-and-control is described as a complex socio-technical system. This description identifies the fact that human and technological elements of the system need to be synergistic to deliver an effective outcome from the information received.

Accepting that human and technological elements are loosely coupled creates the possibility that human participation in the system is ineffective and, as a consequence, the functions of command-and-control are weak. Alternatively, the technology of the command-and-control system may be ineffective and fail to support the thought processes of the commander and his staff in attempting to reach effective decisions. The developers of technology are often quick to associate failure with the human operator for obvious reasons of self-interest. It is also much easier to accept that human actors are active agents in the system and can admit responsibility for failure. However, this argument would ignore the enabling or disabling role that technology can play in managing information.

It has been argued elsewhere1 that human actors are essential in the command-and-control process because they resolve issues that were not foreseen in the original design of the system. It is widely recognised that the exponential increase in sensing capability and the broader bandwidth of the communication systems creates the possibility for completely unfiltered information transmission, where the significant information is harder to locate2. In addition, the filtering, compilation and assimilation activities of the lower echelons that contribute to making sense of the information are lost in the simple-minded attempt to tighten the 'observe-orient-decide-act loop' without regard to the compression of signal and noise in the information used.

Despite the significant improvements in technological capability, there remains a fundamental set of problems in the information available from the battlefield. The information from the battlefield can be inaccurate or wrong. Sometimes it is incorrect due to the passage of time, which can invalidate data in minutes or months (in operations in the former republics of Yugoslavia, for example, where buildings were targeted incorrectly and bridges destroyed with collateral damage).

The accuracy of certain data can also be affected by the attempts of enemy forces to use deception and decoys. Thus, false targets are produced in large numbers to confuse the attacking forces, or actual targets are camouflaged to prevent discovery.

The purpose of information warfare is to reduce the impact of precision in force by preventing its use or by re-directing its effects to prevent the desired outcome development. The information driving decision-making may also be inherently complex because the significance of the information acquired, and the use to which it may be put, is not immediately obvious. Information has certain key attributes, such as complexity, uncertainty and validity, which many command-and-control systems are unable to manage adequately to useful effect.

Thus, command-and-control systems help us to realise what we do and do not know. They do not help us discover what we do not know, acting instead as confirmatory oracles that convince us of the certitude of our existing knowledge.

Lessons from the past

Historically, an analysis of erroneous military judgements contains a large number of flawed assessments and command directives where the root cause of failure is the inability of the commanders to think 'outside the box'. This is a real and present obstruction to technological solutions to future command-and-control problems and the management of complex decision-making, where the effort of managing information in command-and-control systems can easily absorb all of the effort and detract from the process that it is intended to serve.

The fact that human decision-making processes are complicated and subject to contextual influences is actually a strength rather than a weakness, because human operators are flexible. The repeated attempts to exclude the human have diminished the flexibility of the socio-technical system. The failure to accept uncertainty, the role of the human operator, and the vicissitudes of 'real world' data could mean that future command-and-control solutions are increasingly rigid and limited in their capability. If this is the case, the capability and ability to manage unexpected requirements in future scenarios will be reduced. It can be argued that the failure of intelligence organisations and processes to react effectively to the evidence of an impending terrorist attack prior to 11 September 2001 is a prime example of this. On the other hand, there are counter-examples in which the command-and-control system elegantly rises to the occasion, such as the UK Royal Air Force's Fighter Command system during the Battle of Britain.

The critical lesson to absorb from history is to accept that we cannot reconfigure a problem to fit the capability of a given command-and-control system, because problems are adaptive and can change. If one accepts change as a constant in warfare, then flexibility is a key element of command-and-control operations, a large element of which relies on the skill and wit of human operators. One must therefore accept the primary role of operators in making effective decisions and the need for synergistic collaboration between technology and humans. In such a situation, human factors would not be a disadvantage but an all too necessary evil.

Dr Malcolm James Cook is Senior Lecturer at the EPI Centre, University of Abertay, Dundee.

A conference on Human Factors in Complex Decision Making was held in Dunblane Hydro, Dunblane on 8-11th September 2003, organised by Dr Cook and sponsored by the Office of Naval Research (London) and the European Office of Aerospace Research and Development (London). The conference proceedings are available and a book of extended articles will appear shortly via Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

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