Insight from Situated Action Analysis:
The Case of Telephone Operating Company Engineers

Aita Salasoo
Mark Rosenstein
George Collier


We have been studying the worklives of engineers concerned with the outside plant part of the telecommunications network, the part between customer locations and the closest exchange. Outside plant engineers, we suggest, engage in work activities, which are characterized by their situatedness. This makes observation of factors leading to action more accessible. Our analysis, based both on user views expressed in a survey and on a series of field observations, has helped to identify critical aspects of the engineer's task that can be supported by future computer-based support tools. We believe this approach may yield similar benefits in other domains.

Most human mental activity involves conforming the specific and the general: To make sense of the particulars of the world in time and space, the human perceptual and cognitive apparatus strives to abstract meaningful and comfortable general mental structures. Suchman (1987) has recently extended this line of reasoning to a theoretical framework for building interactive machines that can truly support social and communicative behavior. The theory centers on the inherent situatedness of human action. According to Suchman, every human action occurs in a physical and social situation, which is central to interpreting that action. She suggests that a full account of action resides in the emergent properties of interactions between individuals and the environment.

The Cycle of Network Caretaking

Telephone operating company engineers work in larger organizational clusters. This organization maintains the integrity and readiness of the telecommunications network constrained by regulatory, technological, and business needs. Its activities involve a cycle of forecasting needs, planning to meet them, designing engineering solutions, implementing those solutions, meeting unplanned customer needs, and monitoring the network to provide feedback to the process.

The work of outside plant engineers is at the heart of this activity. It is triggered by requests from others in the company for changes to network facilities. In most cases underspecified information is presented for correction and adaptation to the local conditions (including geographic, construction and budget resources, and temporal constraints). This combination of varying job mix, required detailed local knowledge, and informational deficiencies provides the inherent situatedness of the engineer's work.

Analysis of User Views and Observations

In a recent survey conducted in the Bell Operating Companies, outside plant engineers were asked to describe aspects of their work activities in their own words. This yielded a user-based view of their activities. Videotaped sessions were conducted of engineers performing their tasks in the field. The survey-based profile identified social and other situational characteristics of activities. Engineering support of held orders, for example, is a category of situation-demanded, unplanned activity not sufficiently supported by computer-based tools.

Our observation is that computer-based solutions have yet to play a major role in supporting these tasks. Early analyses indicate a number of pitfalls for computer aids designed without consideration of the task environment. We briefly describe two areas. The information flow to and from the engineer is asynchronous and often not under the worker's control. One result, then, is that any data-entry or form-generation system intended for engineers must be flexible or least have overrides for error correction and completeness checking.

A second observation notes the interaction of time-scale and interruptibility of an engineer's tasks. A planning task may extend over weeks, while the need to assign a line to a customer may only require minutes, but can override other tasks. The amount of time available for a given task will vary depending on the situation. A support system at a minimum has to conform by being interruptible and restartable; advanced systems will supply job context as needed.


Suchman, L.A. (1987) Plans and situated actions: The problem of human-machine communication. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.

Contact Information

Mark Rosenstein
MRE 2M-336
445 South Street
Morristown, NJ 07962-1910
(201) 829-4037
fax: (201) 445-1931