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Engineering the Future

Cognitive Systems Engineering: The Future for a Changing World

Aptima book chapter outlines unique Office of Naval Research program on ‘adaptive organizations’

“No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy.”  -Helmuth von Moltke

This oft-quoted axiom is a truism of modern war: change and adversity are inevitable. But it also begs asking, how then does a military organization respond and adapt in the face of changing conditions?  In fact, the answer to this question was the basis of what became a pioneering 15+ year research program sponsored by the Office of Naval Research. “Adaptive Architectures for Command and Control,” or A2C2 for short, broke new ground in modeling military command and control structures and how they should adapt. It also helped launch a company, Aptima, whose work continues today optimizing human and organizational performance.

So when Aptima was presented the opportunity to contribute a chapter to the exceptional book ‘Cognitive Systems Engineering (CSE): The Future of a Changing World,” we knew it had to be about A2C2.  While the idea of adaptive organizations today is a common concept across the military and industry, when A2C2 kicked off it was on the leading edge of research, exploring how organizations should adapt as missions, adversaries, and technologies change. It was conceived in the mid 1990’s just as new network technologies were unfolding, offering up new possibilities for how organizations could communicate, coordinate, and work.  Seldom do individuals and teams work in isolation, and even less so without using technology.  A2C2 would research how the strict, traditional top-down hierarchies of the military could benefit from emerging concepts like collaboration and agility.  Given this information explosion, what would be the best structure for an organization, its teams and tasks?

A2C2: Adaptive Architectures for Command and Control

Complex Mission Scenarios, leading to Model-Driven, Humans-in-the-Loop Experiments & Computational Experiments, leading to Organization & Network Models, leading back to start

High-level view of the A2C2 program. Complex military campaigns represented in graph format.  Through computational and human-in-the-loop experiments, concepts for organizational structure and process can be developed, tested, and fed back to military decision makers. While no single review can do justice to A2C2’s 16 years of research, the chapter penned by Daniel Serfaty, Jean Macmillan, and Shawn Weil, captures the major breakthroughs and innovations of how military structures best function and adapt to a variety of internal and external factors.

Behavioral science meets engineering

While most research typically lasts a couple of years, and often without the fruits of its labors making it out of the lab, A2C2’s duration was a testament to its findings.  A2C2 also helped kick-start the founding of Aptima by Daniel Serfaty in 1995. His vision was for a company focused on human centered engineering, the novel concept of combining insights into human behavior with engineering approaches to organizational design so as to optimize performance. Star Trek may have told us that space was the final frontier, but here closer to home was a need to better understand the opaque interplay between people, the technology they use, and the work they perform.

Modeling human structures

A2C2 was unique for using computational methods to represent the dynamics of organizations, including cognitive psychological reality. A key insight was that missions have structures, and humans, the tasks they perform, and the resources they control can be characterized mathematically.  A2C2 broke new ground by taking empirical data collection and field observations, and abstracting them into models that could be tested with human-in-the-loop experiments in the lab. For example, in simulated multi-day battle scenarios including ships, aircraft, and other Navy and adversary assets, each of four commanders would control a subset of assets. But which should they control to best defeat an adversary?  Should each commander control all assets in a given area, or was it better to control one type across the battlespace?  We won’t reveal all the findings here, but the ‘model-based’ structures that came out of the experiments indeed outperformed the traditional organizational structures.  And although A2C2 focused on the naval domain, its insights were applicable to the other services, and other large scale missions such as disaster relief.

Premise: High-performing organizations cope with stress through internal mechanisms of decision strategy adaptation, coordination strategy adaptation, and structural reconfiguration, to keep performance at the required level while maintaining stress below an acceptable threshold.

INPUT: Operational Conditions (e.g., Stressors), Individual/Team Characteristics & Team Structure. PROCESS: Team Processes (Teamwork/Taskwork), Structural/Coordination/Decision-Making Adaptations. OUTCOME: Performance, to be Engineered and/or Trained.
Feedback loops of adaptation in high-performing organizations.

Finding the right fit

A2C2 also showed how computational models could predict how much coordination was required to perform a mission effectively. The models took into account interdependencies, for example, a ship must first destroy a missile site before launching airplanes, and coordination, where for example, decision-makers must bring assets to bear simultaneously to prosecute a target.  Again, the models (that were run and optimized) outperformed traditional structures. One way it did this was by allowing team members to act more independently, thus being more efficient by reducing the amount of communications and coordination overhead. While no single structure was found to be best for all missions, A2C2 explored how organizations should adapt and conform based on the demands of a mission. It tested the concept of ‘fit’ or congruence between organization and mission, and by extension incongruence, or how workload imbalance amongst decision-makers could cause bottlenecks, delays, and other indicators of need for change.  When designed for congruence, team members could act and coordinate more independently and effectively, communicating just when necessary and anticipating the needs of others for information and resources before being asked. By extension, A2C2 also looked at the path for change and how one structure should shift to another, along with new roles and responsibilities.  It studied adaptation as a morphing process, the incremental steps that sought to preserve functionality while undergoing transition. In conclusion, the original challenges posed to A2C2, of how to design complex organizations to be more agile and adaptive, resulted in key findings for both military and civilian organizations.  One can see why A2C2 would be so long-lived and productive.

Adapting to today’s environment

Fast forward, and today so much of Aptima’s work for the DoD and the research labs (ONR, AFRL, ARI, DARPA, and others) is related; using optimization methods and finding critical behaviors of interest to help organizations perform better. The networks of the 90’s have given way to an astounding array of new capabilities and platforms, including big data, AI, and automation.  And so the questions continue: How will organizations best incorporate and adopt these advanced and evolving technologies so they can perform optimally? How will adaptability be affected?

The Future of Adaptation

Humans are adaptable; they learn, grow, and change as their surroundings change. But automated technologies have yet to demonstrate that ability to learn that we humans take for granted.  Further research is needed to guide organizational design so that data and automation will make them more flexible and resilient in the face of rapid change. The question will be less a choice between ‘human or machine,’ but rather how our systems and structures can be designed so that humans and machines are better together.  That is the sweet spot of Aptima. “Cognitive Systems Engineering (CSE): The Future of a Changing World” provides a superb perspective on the nature, evolution, and the future of the field by the contributions of an extraordinary group of leaders and pathfinders. We encourage you to read it.


We express deep appreciation for the support and review of the late Willard Vaughan and late Gerald Malecki at the Office of Naval Research, and we are indebted to Professor David Woods of The Ohio State University for his pioneering work in Cognitive Systems Engineering, which helped us examine this work from a new vantage point. David, for whom the book was built around, articulated exactly how systems in aviation, nuclear power, and healthcare fail because they neglect to account for human assumptions, biases, and patterns. While David was not involved in A2C2, this chapter is dedicated to his work given the kinship between his work and ours. Both recognized that the root cause for many failures is incongruity between organizational structure and the work to be done. Both focused on discovering the fit between humans, technology, systems, and the work that they do. And both sought to use new methods to uncover that fit.