Accelerating Workforce Training: Introducing the CTA in E/Affect Initiative

CTA in Effect: Case studies demonstrating the benefits of Cognitive Task Analysis

Examining Expertise and Enhancing Knowledge Transfer in Petrochemical Engineering

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Primary Submitter:

Julie Gore,


Petrochemical Engineering

Generic description of sponsoring organization or customer:

The participants’ workplace is a global organization in the formulation, manufacture, and marketing of petroleum additives for lubricants and fuels with a long history of innovation in decision-making. The organization has effectively used scenario planning for more than 45 years initially through facilitated dialogue in which managers’ assumptions could safely be shared, questioned, and challenged.

Scenario planning adds value via: (1) an enhanced capacity to perceive change, and to (2) interpret and respond to change, (3) to influence other actors, and (4) enhance the capacity for organizational learning. Scenario planning continues to help shape-related global thinking and has had a huge influence on how businesses, governments, and organizations think about thefuture. (Wilkinson and Kupers 2013, p 121).

Set within this innovative organizational culture, the authors were invited to explore how best expert cognition in engineering expertise could be elicited, documented, and shared, aiming to provide knowledge that would accelerate novice engineers’ complex cognitive decision-making processes.

A key challenge was to ensure the practitioners had the skills to accurately capture individual cognition to maintain continuous knowledge transfer within this highly qualified workforce.

Cognitive Task Analysis Method(s):

Applied Cognitive Task Analysis (Militello and Hutton 1998)

Number of Participants:


After assessing organizational needs via a pilot study:
Stage one: a (7 h) briefing about the use of ACTA techniques was provided for a small group of professionals (N= six male, one female) with different areas of engineering expertise. During a second day, one of the authors/researchers trained three male engineers to use a selection of the ACTA techniques (7 h).

Stage two: a 3-day longitudinal (21 h) training event completed over three months was provided by the authors/researchers for engineering professionals (N = 22, five female, 17 male with a range of engineering expertise in management, manufacturing technology, finance, human resources, information technology, product development, and operation management). Many of the participants were senior research scientists (background in chemistry, physics etc.) educated to doctoral level, all with five–fifteen years of domain-specific experience and were self-identified and identified by the organisation to be experts in their work domain.


Completed over a period of 14 calendar months


The socio-cognitive capabilities of the interviewer as facilitator of cognitive knowledge elicitation were key to the success of the interviews. As a result of these observations, the authors and engineers co-created innovative practice guidance, to maximise the task diagram and knowledge– elicitation phase of ACTA and recognise the importance of socio-cognitive competence/insight. This innovation assisted participants and added to the language and positive social context for knowledge transfer, providing assurance and reference for best practice. This guidance openly acknowledged the perceived difficulty, but also occasional frustration of the ACTA process, which helped to normalise that these are inherent features of a challenging processes, rather than due to deficiencies of the parties involved in the process.


By training a diverse range of employees to complete ACTA, the organization went on to build its own in-house training presentations – examining expertise in, for example, plant management, to support knowledge transfer more effectively. We supported the production of cognitive demands tables and developed a Tips guide for ACTA.

The organization developed a common language to ‘think like an expert’ and enhanced knowledge transfer and communication with early career and novice employees.

Demonstration of value:

Examples of evaluative feedback from participants
“ACTA is a useful technique to elicit knowledge from experts, not only what they did (which is
often captured in a report or database), but how they did it and why they acted the way they

“Seeing the big picture” and ‘tricks of the trade’ are often taken for granted by experts. Eliciting
these aspects adds power to the technique as it is not just applicable to purely technical
challenges, but to most things we do.”

“ACTA is a great tool for understanding the mental leaps made by experts when they engage in
complex tasks. It does require us to think about what we mean by experts and expertise, not just
in terms of what they know, but how they go about applying knowledge. Discipline is needed in
framing the initial question, and staying on-topic — not just asking ‘tell me about your field of
expertise’ but ‘how do you get to an end result.’”

“Very insightful training with plenty of tips and practise. A good way to learn how to effectively
extract knowledge and data from an expert.”

Citations as a result of the project

Gore J, Banks A, McDowall A (2015) Advancing ACTA: developing socio-cognitive competence/insight. In: Proceedings of the 12th International Conference on Naturalistic Decision Making. Washington DC.

Gore, J., Banks, A.P. & McDowall, A. Developing cognitive task analysis and the importance of socio-cognitive competence/insight for professional practice. Cognition Technology & Work 20, 555–563 (2018)