Getting into the heads of knowledge workers

Knowledge-based tasks are an increasingly important part of working life, yet it can be hard to evaluate what workers need to know in order to be most effective at their jobs. Cognitive task analysis (CTA) is a process used to identify the important cognitive elements that form the core of good decision-making on the job. Typically, CTA is performed by interviewing subject matter experts (SMEs) to determine how superior performers do what they do.

In this post, I’ll take a look at  applied cognitive task analysis or ACTA, a streamlined  way of figuring out what learners need to know to accomplish a task. Militello and Hutton (1998) describe a three-prong approach to creating meaningful training using ACTA.

1. Create a task diagram

Interview SMEs to identify >3 but no more than 6 steps involved in performing a task. Have them describe which steps involve cognitive processes. Forcing SMEs to keep the number of steps small forces them to identify the most important steps of a task.

task analysis

2. Perform a knowledge audit

Having identified the major steps in performing a task, SMEs are probed to obtain more details about the thought processes involved in each step. Consider asking:

  • What strategies do you use to perform a task?
  • What cues do you use to make decisions? What do you notice about situations/problems before you decide what to do?
  • How do you troubleshoot when unexpected events happen?
  • What are the common missteps that non-experts make?

Militello and Hutton (1998) describe a list of probes or questions to use as part of a knowledge audit, which I’ve modified somewhat here.

  • How do you evaluate how a situation has developed and where it’s heading?
  • Do you find yourself noticing things about situations that others often don’t? What are some of the things you notice?
  • How do you determine what’s most important about a task? What major elements do you keep track of?
  • What tricks help you to be efficient?
  • Can you describe times when you’ve improvised or changed your process to get a job done?
  • Can you describe any unusual circumstances you’ve encountered on a job? How did you adjust your process?

3. Simulation interview

SMEs are challenged with a difficult scenario and asked to articulate what they would do and how they would think  if faced with such a scenario. For example, a SME could be asked:

  • How do you assess the situation?
  • What actions would you take?
  • What cues do you look for?
  • What are the “rookie mistakes” that novices can make in this situation?

Summarizing your analysis

Militello and Hutton (1998) recommend creating a “cognitive demands table” to summarize data and to identify knowledge needed to accomplish a task.The table can take this form:

By breaking a knowledge-based task into chunks, evaluating how experts tackle a problem, and identifying the problems that non-experts are likely to encounter, you can determine what  information and experiences should be included in a training course.

Militello, L.G. & Hutton, R.J.B. (1998). Applied cognitive analysis (ACTA): a practitioner’s toolkit for understanding cognitive task demands. Ergonomics, 1998, 41(11), 1618-1614.

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