The technology of team navigation

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Citation: Edwin Hutchins (1990) The technology of team navigation. Intellectual Teamwork: Social and Technological Foundations of Cooperative Work (RSS)
Internet Archive Scholar (fulltext): The technology of team navigation
Tagged: Computer Science (RSS) CSCW (RSS)

Summary (Abstract)

Hutchins' article is a classic text in computer supportive cooperative work that provides an in-depth description of how a team navigates a large ship. The paper gives a detailed description of the bearing-taking process and the tools that are necessary in order to do it and makes an a number of influential observations about the role of overlapping knowledge, external representations, coordinated work, and distributed cognition within a team working in a highly routinized environment. The essential argument is that a ship bridge represents, "a distribution of knowledge among the members of the navigation team that makes the system very robust in the face of individual component failure."

First, the chapter offers an in-depth description of the navigation process, itself an interesting and informed ethnographic depiction. It then builds on this context to explore the use of technologies of representation, the coordination of work, and production and reproduction.

In discussing technologies of representation, Hutchins argues that individuals on the bridge use tools and technologies that make tasks cognitively easier. In particular, he uses the example of calculating the speed of the ship. He shows that while this can done with a calculator or with algebra on paper, it becomes easier if you use either nautical slide rules of nomograms which are designed to make the problem easier, or if you simply take measurements every 3 minutes and use a simple heuristic called the three minute rule that allows ones to simply take the distance traveled and divide by 100 to get the speed in knots (roughly). Hutchins argues that, "rather than amplifying the cognitive abilities of the task performers, or acting as intelligent agents in interaction with them, these tools transform the task the person has to do by mapping it into a domain where the answer or the path to the solution is apparent."

In discussion coordination of work, he describes the regimented, time-based pattern of work using a metronome as a metaphor, describes the role that mutual constrain plays in framing work, and describes how the "real" division of labor looks very little like the nomial division of labor and how individuals often help each other with their tasks.

In his final section, Hutchins argues that the robustness of this work is made possible by a large overlap in the distribution of knowledge. Because people in a navigation context often work through different positions, individuals have a deep understanding of each others jobs, can see each others work, and can use this information to coordinate more closely. Hutchins describes this deep overlap, argues that there is a horizon of observation that allows team members to see (and intervene) in each others work, and that both interactions and the tools used are open as a way of facilitating these types of interactions.

Theoretical and Practical Relevance

This chapter has been cited more than 500 times in the 20 years since it's publication. The concept of distributed cognition, which is mentioned here but really engaged with deeply as a theoretical construct, was largely expanded on in depth in another influential article by Hollan et al. (2000), Distributed cognition: toward a new foundation for human-computer interaction research.