Acting under uncertainty: The core-task analysis in ecological study of work

Leena Norros

Research output: Book/ReportReport


This book describes the emergence of a new method, the Core-Task Analysis (CTA), to analyse complex work in risky environments. The notion "core-task" denotes the objectives and the outcome-critical content of work, which should be taken into account by the actors in everyday task performance. The orientation to the core task characterises work practices and culture. CTA adopts a systemic notion of human activity. Situated actions are conceived from an ecological, human-environment interaction perspective. The CTA methodology integrates several theoretical approaches. It exploits ideas of the cultural-historical theory of activity and the functionally oriented cognitive task analysis tradition, and it also borrows the pragmatist concept of habit for the analysis of practice. These approaches share a systemic notion of human activity and conceive action from an ecological, human-environment interaction perspective. Explaining actions from the point of view of their meanings characterises these approaches and the CTA-methodology. The CTA can be used in analysis, evaluation and development of work practices and culture, and it provides a framework for interdisciplinary studies of high-technology work. The method was developed in studies of work in four technologically highly mediated work domains. These are flexible manufacturing, nuclear power plant operations, anaesthesia and navigation of large ships. Furthermore, the book reports empirical results concerning the nature of decision making and action under dynamic, complex and uncertain environments, and comprehends habits that might explain the observed differences in actual situational courses of action. The interpretativeness or reactiveness of habits of action is the central dimension that characterises the situated appropriateness of actions, while the core-task orientation defines contextual coherence of actions. The book also provides evidence of the deficiency of the notion of a linear development of expertise as a function of experience. It is argued that, rather, depending on peoples' orientation to work and on their habits of action, at least two different development perspectives emerge, which were labelled the trajectory of reflective expertise and that of confirmative expertise. In the final chapter the method is discussed in the context of the pragmatist conceptions of adaptive behaviour and learning. The book winds up by introducing preliminary thoughts of the use of the Core-task Analysis as a tool in managing high-reliability organisations.
Original languageEnglish
Place of PublicationEspoo
PublisherVTT Technical Research Centre of Finland
Number of pages241
ISBN (Electronic)951-38-6411-1
ISBN (Print)951-38-6410-3
Publication statusPublished - 2004
MoE publication typeD4 Published development or research report or study

Publication series

SeriesVTT Publications


  • risky environments
  • complex work
  • activity theory
  • habit of action
  • naturalistic decision-making
  • process control
  • high-reliability organisation
  • anaesthesia
  • flexible operations
  • nuclear safety
  • maritime safety


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