Towards an Improved Understanding of Humans as the Components that Implement Systems Engineering

Keywords human human engineering human-system interaction social engineering system engineering

Towards an Improved Understanding of Humans as the
Components that Implement Systems Engineering

Jakob Axelsson
Volvo Car Corporation, Dept. 94100 PV 32
SE-405 31 Göteborg, SWEDEN

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unpublished technical article
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Successful systems are developed from a
good understanding of two things: the features and functions
desired by the customers, and the features and behaviour of
the available components. A firm developing a complex
technical system is also a complex technical system in itself,
so the same two things need to be understood about the
organisation. Much research on systems engineering focus on
defining the features and functions of the organisation, but
less attention has been given to the prime component used for
implementing it: the human being. In this paper, an initial
attempt is made at describing some of the issues involved,
from a mainly philosophical perspective.


Many firms produce what can be thought of as complex
technical systems. These include such products as aircrafts,
automobiles, power plants, and financial information systems,
just to name a few. Usually, the firms are huge organisations,
employing hundreds or thousands of people. To remain
competitive, it is crucial for them to constantly seek to
improve the effectiveness of their products. Since the
products are the result of the work being done in the
organisation, this amounts to improving the effectiveness of
the firm itself.
There is normally no difficulty in finding things in these
organisations that are candidates for improvement, and there
is also an abundance of general suggestions for tools,
processes, and methods, that are claimed to raise the
effectiveness. The academic researchers, tool vendors, and
consultants who advocate these improvements usually focus
on the benefits in general terms, and rarely state what the
necessary preconditions are for a successful implementation.
This makes it difficult for a firm to objectively assess the
value of the solution in their particular case.
When suggesting ways of improvement there is often a
tendency to disregard the fact that product development is
mainly carried out by humans, and that humans are not
computers (Bollinger, 1997). This is probably the reason why
many attempts to introduce ambitious prescriptive processes
fail, with much disappointment to the people who designed
the processes. It is also common to underestimate the cost of
process changes. Again, the humans are not computers, so it
is not just a question of downloading a new piece of software.
The intention of this paper is to look at the
implementation of systems engineering from the bottom up,
by focusing on the components (i.e. humans) that actually
make systems engineering happen in a firm. By doing so, we
hope to gain a better understanding of the emergent behaviour
of the system that develops systems, and thereby also let us
improve the processes, methods, and tools used.
Understanding the engineers as humans will help not only in
making the processes, methods, and tools more realistic
through a better respect for human limitations. It will also
allow us to better utilise the strengths of people, their
creativity, intuition, and ability to deal with vague,
incomplete and qualitative information. Our research is still at
a very early stage (and therefore somewhat speculative), so
this paper will mainly describe a few of the issues we feel
need to be considered, and only present some preliminary

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