Build Operator Expertise Faster

Following a few do’s and don’ts can significantly speed learning.

By David A. Strobhar, Beville Engineering, and Danyele Harris-Thompson,

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The Impact Of Automation
Automation can diminish expertise in three ways. First, it can dull the skills of veterans. Second, it can slow the rate of learning, so people take much longer to build up their expertise. And third, it can teach dysfunctional skills that will actively interfere with building expertise in the future.

Information technology can inflict this damage by:

• limiting operators’ abilities to access and interpret trends, understand data interrelationships and identify data shifts;
• reducing operators’ understanding of processes by hiding the workings of systems; and
• obstructing operators’ own assessment of a situation by isolating them from processes and only providing recommendations and alerts, hampering operators’ abilities to spot anomalies and patterns by removing variances from representations.

Here’re some tips for using automation to support operator performance:

Don’t rely on automated systems that prevent operators from noticing changes and making adjustments — that essentially turn them into passive monitors.
Do enable trainees to see the workings of the automation, either directly or through training material. For example, create decision trees that reflect the advanced control program. When the program makes a major adjustment to the process, have trainees follow the decision tree to assess why such a change might have been made (e.g., did cooling water temperature increase and create a constraint on the process?).

A Practical Approach
Most plants with an aging workforce face an increasingly urgent need to build staff expertise. Some are counting on high fidelity simulation, as though mere exposure will create skill. Others are hoping that contact between novices and experts will result in knowledge transfer. A more practical middle ground that involves doing some simple things to enhance learning offers a better prospect for increasing expertise.

David A. Strobhar is principal human factors engineer for Beville Engineering, Dayton, Ohio. Danyele Harris-Thompson is a senior scientist at Klein Associates, Fairborn, Ohio. E-mail them at and

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