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Technology | Transport & Logistics

What does it mean to be ‘technology ready’ in rail – and why does it matter?

24 Apr 2024, by Amy Sarcevic

The global rail technology market is currently valued at 116 billion euros and is expected to reach 126 billion by 2025.

In the face of this growth, the term ‘technology readiness’ has become one of the rail industry’s most prominent buzzwords.

But what exactly does it mean and why is it credited with so much importance?

Make or break operational success

Work Design Strategist, Dr Sara Pazell, has been helping organisations prepare for digital upgrades and manage workplace transformation for more than 25 years.

She says technology is often hailed as a silver bullet, when in reality – without adequate planning or forethought – it can undermine the very business objectives it sets out to achieve.

“Technologies can really make or break an organisation’s success,” she said ahead of the RISSB Rail Safety Conference.

“Some have the capacity to improve how we feel about our day-to-day work, while others can be a real kill joy and cause people to fall out of love with what they do.

“It is important that business leaders give adequate weight to these human factors when planning a digital upgrade.”

In rail, this is especially important, she says, given the rapid pace of technological disruption and its wide-ranging safety implications.

“A new software might seem to serve a business goal, like increased safety – but what about the humans that need to interface with it?” she said.

“If employees aren’t on board, or it’s incomprehensible to them, they might lose engagement – which can defeat your business purpose.

“This is especially likely if people feel the technology has been thrust upon them or if the organisation isn’t technology ready.”

So, what makes an organisation technology ready?

Dr Pazell helps clients understand their level of technology readiness, using a nine-tiered framework, developed by cognitive human factors researchers, and inspired by NASA’s technology-readiness model.

The first three levels are about physical capabilities and anthropometrics, she explained.

“At the most basic level, if you are looking at a headset, you would be checking things like, does it fit properly, is it too heavy, will it cause visual fatigue, for example.

“And then more abstract concepts like, how will it support human performance? Is the image resolution good enough, can it support decision making? Does it enhance situational awareness?”

A more mature level of technology readiness, from level four to six, would involve a deeper dive into the working environment in which the technology is deployed.

“For example, have you done any prototyping, do you have any timing data? Have you explored accuracy in a laboratory environment, or done any simulations? In a mature system (level six or above), you may have tested your technology in a high-fidelity environment, or in an actual, protected environment.

“Then you are looking to see things like, is there an effect of vibration when using a display or will it interface effectively with everything in the cab?”

Companies with the highest levels of technology readiness – level seven to nine – will continuously evaluate their technology in different scenarios.

“They verify, evaluate, and test the real-life contextualised use of their technology, and reconcile what was imagined.

“Just because they have launched, it doesn’t stop them evaluating. They continually look at what good performance is and understand what alerts there are when that performance is eroded.

“They ask whether these alerts go to the right people and help them make the right decision in adequate time. They continually look for system improvements.”

Considering the social and cultural context

Organisations striving for a mature technology readiness level will also need a workforce strategy that considers the social context in which the technology is being applied.

Dr Pazell says a focus on diversity and inclusion will boost technological expertise throughout the business which can, in turn, help meet technology-related KPIs.

“KPIs are important. Too often I see digital upgrades handed to a project manager, who completes the job and sees no ramifications if the technology does not perform well in different contexts.

“Every business unit should be involved when looking at new tech – beyond the safety management teams. On a basic level, this will help with hazard exposures and mapping. But you also want thriving teams who engage with the new working methods.”

Further insight

Sharing more expertise on technology readiness in rail, Dr Sara Pazell will present at the RISSB Rail Safety conference – April 30 – May 1 in Melbourne.

Learn more and register here.

About Dr Sara Pazell

Sara is Founding Director and a Principal Work Design Strategist of ViVA health at work – a human factors and work system design practice. She consults, teaches, and researches on topics of human factors, ergonomics, human centred design, good work design, and human systems integration.

She is affiliated with five Australian Universities for research and teaching in graduate-level business, law, health, and safety students. Sara is a rabble-rouser podcast crew member of the WhyWork Podcast, and is curious about most things related to human performance.

About ViVA Health at Work

ViVA health at work are visionary architects of human-centred business solutions. They solve complex real-world problems though the discipline of design research and practice. Their focus is on how you work best: what do you do; how, why, where do you do it; and how could it work better?

When you want usability, productivity, engagement, health, and safety, this is what they do. Their focus is on the human element, performance, and the design strategy. They advance design literacy, capability, and capacity. This results in improved systems, products, tasks, jobs, environments, and technology adoption.

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