Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Five Aspect Taxonomy and Technology in Training

There is a lot of technology out there in the world, the question is, what technologies do a better job and which technologies do not.  Just because automation and technology are available to do just about anything do not necessarily equate to automation and technology that do work better.  Nowhere is this concept truer than in the classroom.  Technology may enable me to zip through a 200 slide presentation in 30 seconds; however, speed does not necessarily mean that objectives have been met.  MIT’s Systems Engineering Advancement Research Initiative (SEAri) has develop a five aspects taxonomy that looks at socio-technical innovation strategies to provide a systems engineering approach and methods to designing and developing complex technology-based systems and associated enterprises (Rhodes & Ross, 2010).  Although the five aspects taxonomy looks primarily at incorporating technology within an organization, the concepts can be applied to incorporating technology into training.
Before training can be executed, it must first be designed and documented.  It is at this point that technology is most effectively integrated with traditional training methods.  However, as stated above, any technology is not necessarily the best technology, and in some cases, the use of technology may not be more effective as a training tool than more traditional methods.  The five constructs within SEAri’s taxonomy: Structural, Behavioral, Contextual, Temporal, and Perceptual aspects provide a structured and focused framework for analyzing socio-technical innovation strategies in more objective terms balancing stakeholder requirements, cultural, political, and financial forces, while maximizing the effectiveness of sometimes highly complex interconnected systems. 

Structural forces

Interconnectivity is the new technology paradigm.  It used to be that “smart” was important when discussing new technologies; however, the standalone “smart” systems of the past were limited by their own architecture.  They could not take advantage of the world of knowledge that is available through extended networks.  Nor can they utilize the power of crowd sourcing and collaboration between peers and/or experts.  The choice to create a networked environment goes far beyond running cable or setting up an ad hoc wireless network, there are considerations that need to account for what is the intent of the network, what kind of information is being exchanged, security, and portability.    

Behavioral forces
Is the technology used complimentary to the training being performed?  In a recent discussion about the use of technology for training, the topic of simulations came up.  Simulations can be a very effective tool to teach skills that require repetition, that would otherwise be too hazardous to accomplish in a realistic training environment, or too expensive.  The key to an effective simulation is to not only simulate the environment, but also simulate the tactile experience that the student would experience in a real-world environment.  This is especially true in situations where motor skills are an important aspect of the training where students not only have to remember the proper steps necessary to accomplish a given task, but also develop muscle memory so that the task can be completed without visual cues.  If the simulation cannot simulate real world stimuli or incorrectly conveys that stimuli, the simulation can teach undesirable or counter-productive behaviors that would lead to serious errors when the task is performed on actual equipment.  In other words, technology may not always be the best answer for all situations in spite of the fact that the majority of learners are multi-modality learners (Pashler, McDaniel, Rohrer, & Bjork, 2008).  Technology works well where the technology used is complimentary to the lesson being taught; otherwise, the focus of the training could very easily turn to how to use the technology rather than the lesson.

Contextual forces
Many lessons are applied on a contextual basis.  If this happens, then do this.  Not only does the learner have to learn the task itself, but also understand under what circumstances the task is to be performed.  Additionally, context can, in of itself, change the way a task is performed; thus, context sensitive lessons should target as many of the most likely scenarios under which the task should be performed and how the task is modified given the contextual differences of the situation.  For instance, in the case of Basic Rifleman (BRM) training in the Army, soldiers are taught to change how targets are acquired and engaged based on the Mission Oriented Protective Posture (MOPP) of the environment.  MOPP involves the wearing of protective gear in Nuclear, Biological, or Chemical (NBC) environments based on contamination levels present.  In a worst-case scenario, the soldier would be in full MOPP wearing a heavy chemical suit, protective gloves, and gas mask.  Therefore, not only would the soldier have to operate his/her weapon in normal conditions, s/he would also have to be able to operate in MOPP gear as well.  There are contextual modifications to the task of operating a weapons system based on the MOPP level environment that the soldier would be required to perform.  While this may be an extreme example of contextual forces that task performance, and thus the associated training of a given task, it quite well illustrates how contextual forces change the task.

From a developer’s perspective, the training developer needs to understand the context of the training to be created; otherwise, technology could be wrongly used as a training tool where the technology is not always available when the task is performed in real life.  Using the example above, one of the factors that makes weapons operation so difficult in MOPP posture (other than wearing a 5 lb rubber mask) is the heat and sweating.  While there is no deliberate steps that can be taken by a soldier to cool down while in full MOPP that can be taught, the experience gained by the soldier who must overcome the difficulties and discomfort of the heat better prepares the soldier for the experience should s/he ever come across a situation where full MOPP and combat occur in the same environment.  As a result, conducting weapons training in an indoor and air conditioned environment is the wrong use of technology because it changes the context of the training in such a way that it does not prepare the soldier to deal with all of the conditions of the environment.
Temporal forces

Temporal forces have a significant impact on training development.  Temporal forces not only determine how much time is available for training, temporal forces must be a consideration with regard to how often and when the task is performed.  Technologies such as Interactive Media Instruction (IMI), web-based training, and social media can be used to reinforce rarely performed critical tasks.  Whatever technology chosen should be available for the lifespan of the product and important consideration should be given to what technologies will remain viable.  For instance, if the anticipated product lifecycle is 10 years, an IMI product that supports the product should not be built on a technological framework that will be obsolete during that period; thus, making the IMI product unusable.  Thus, Macromedia Flash may not be the best development platform as the coming advent of HTML 5 is anticipated to make proprietary animation obsolete.

Perceptual forces

John Robert McCloskey once said, “I know you think you understood what I said, but what you heard isn’t what I meant.”  As mentioned before, technology can very easily become a distraction from the task selected for training.  The choice of what technology is used or not used for training can affect the student’s perception of how the training went.  A poor choice or implementation of technology can result in a perception that the training itself failed to meet its objectives.  Perception becomes reality and the training fails.    The choice of using technology or not using technology comes down to how that technology is perceived.  In an age where video game technology often leads business technologies and the target audience is often in an age group that expects a certain level of sophistication in the application of technology, choices of what technology to employ may very well rest on the perception that the target audience will have of its use.  For target audiences with lower expectations, the same technology can easily become a distraction.  It is very important for the developer to understand who the target audience is and what their expectations and perceptions might be to using a specific technology and apply the technology accordingly.  The use of technology should be as transparent as possible to ensure that the focus is on the lesson and not the tools.
There is a sixth consideration that SEAri’s five aspect taxonomy does not consider, and that is costs associated with technology.  Often the two driving factors with regard to training efforts are time and money.  The temporal considerations of this particular taxonomy was briefly discussed, but did not costs associated with purchasing, learning, and employing the technology.  The costs associated with the choice of technology must balance against the gains associated with employing that technology.  In a business case, this means that the costs associated with using the technology must somehow offset the costs associated with conducting the training without the technology.  In some cases, technology is an enabler that can shorten training times or allow for training to occur in situations where it would be otherwise impossible to use traditional training methods.  Often developers must quantify and justify the use of technology in terms of potential savings rather than using qualitative assessments on the impact of training effectiveness that can often be an elusive figure to capture. 

Many considerations must go into the design and development of training and the use of technology.  While SEAri’s five aspect taxonomy concerns itself with the employment of technology in organizations and enterprises, using SEAri’s five aspect taxonomy can simply the task of identifying the factors necessary to make sound choices on the use and employment of technology in training.  There’s another old saying that says that “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should”, and that assertion certainly applies with the regard of the use of technology in training.  If you cannot justify its use, then you should probably not use it.


Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. (2008, December). Learning styles: Concepts and evidence. Psychology Science in the Public Interest, 13(2), 105-119.

Rhodes, D. H., & Ross, A. M. (2010, April 15). Shaping socio-technical system innovation strategies using a five aspects taxonomy. (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) Retrieved August 31, 2012, from Systems Engineering Advancement Research Initiative:

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