Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW)

, Volume 23, Issue 3, pp 269–298 | Cite as


Conceptualising Sociotechnical Work in Safety-Critical Operations
  • Torgeir K. HaavikEmail author


This article explores the nature of sociotechnical work in safety-critical operations as it unfolds in settings that are characterised by multidisciplinary interpretative work in high-tech environments, where direct access to the phenomena of interest is restricted and the dependence on sensor data and model support is high. The type of work that is described in the article—labelled ‘Integrated Operations’ in the petroleum industry—has some characteristic features that it shares with many other work settings which are becoming increasingly typical for managing complicated, sociotechnical work in our times. Sensework denotes a type of sociotechnical work in safety-critical operations where groups of professionals try to put together pieces of information to create a coherent picture to give meaning to familiar and unfamiliar situations. Although related to, sensework should not be confused with sensemaking; sensework is described as both something more and something less than sensemaking. Sensework is described as unfolding along three axes: a cognitive axis, a strategic axis and an organisational axis. Furthermore, through its fluctuation along these axes, sensework points towards two different views of work: work as imagined and work as done. Epistemologically, these dimensions may be understood as rationalist and constructivist dimensions of safe operations. Future research on sensework will hopefully challenge and develop both the empirical scope and the conceptual descriptions in this paper. The delimitation to safety-critical work in this article and the way in which sensework is conceptualised should not be seen as categorical constraints; these are starting points, not end points.

Key words

Safety-critical operations Sensework Sociotechnical work Work as imagined Work as done 



This research was funded by the Center for Integrated Operations in the Petroleum Industry ( Many thanks to Irene Wærø, who contributed substantially to the empirical study. Ragnar Rosness has also been an important discussion partner. Thanks also to the IO3 research group at the Center for Integrated Operations in the Petroleum Industry for many interesting discussions on the material and the analyses. Many thanks to Petter Almklov, Jens Røyrvik and Thomas Østerlie who has been important discussion partners on the more general idea of sensework. Thanks also to the reviewers for constructive comments.


  1. 1

    As indicated towards the end of the article, future research will show the potential for generalising sensework and making it relevant to other empirical domains. However, as a point of departure and as argued elsewhere in this article, a demarcation such as that made in this study has a value of its own.

  2. 2

    This work includes 50 interviews and extensive observation over a period of 3 months.

  3. 3

    These field cases are described in Section 5.

  4. 4

    For a more detailed review of the agenda, see Section 4.1.

  5. 5

    Contingencies and breakdown in the course of action are relative terms. For an observer, it may be difficult to judge how ‘normal’ a situation is; what one may find dramatic may be everyday situations for the rig team and a potentially dangerous situation does not necessarily stand out as dramatic. It was thus of great help having professional experience from the field. This made it possible to register and make use of much smaller contingencies and less obvious breakdowns in the course of action and to turn these situations into valuable empirical material in a way that would be more difficult for an observer without practical experience in the field. I am not saying that breakdowns are necessary to describe sensework, but that it makes it easier. In addition, the ‘weak’ contingencies and breakdowns registered by the trained eye may be seen as a completely routine situation by an observer with less experience in the field.

  6. 6

    As a general example: trust is an aspect of organisational culture that may take time to develop.

  7. 7

    Although English is the official language, Norwegian may be used when all participants are Norwegian.

  8. 8

    The persons present from the rig team vary from meeting to meeting. There may be fewer, there may be more. The same is the case with the rest of the listed participants in this meeting. Participation in the meeting will depend on the ongoing operations. Generally speaking, when the operations are on track and in non-critical phases, fewer people will attend than when they are approaching and penetrating the reservoir and when contingencies occur.

  9. 9

    This is an unusual progression in the morning meeting, which usually shifts to HSE issues after only a very short comment on the status of operations. This must be understood as flexibility in the meeting plan when special events or issues need to be addressed quickly.

  10. 10

    Both articulation work (Star and Strauss 1999) and efficiency–thoroughness trade-offs (Hollnagel 2009) may throw light on the rationale for such deviations from the plan.

  11. 11

    Connection time is the time it takes to add a new stand of drill pipe to the drill string.

  12. 12

    Pack-off means that the wellbore around the drill string is plugged. This may happen for several reasons, for example congestion of cuttings. In the case of pack-off, the circulation of drilling mud may not be possible, implying the loss of a primary well control barrier.

  13. 13

    Backreaming involves pumping drilling fluid and rotating the drill string while simultaneously pulling out of the hole.

  14. 14

    A wiper trip involves cleaning the hole by pulling the drill string a certain distance upward and then tripping in again.

  15. 15

    ‘Bottoms up’, sometimes written simply as B/U, involves using the mud pumps to circulate the drilling fluids until the fluid at the bottom of the well is transported to the surface. Another way to think of it is that all the drilling fluid in the well is ‘replaced’.

  16. 16

    Swelling is a phenomenon that sometimes appears in clay formations: the clay interacts with the (water-based) drilling fluids and expands so that the size of the hole decreases.

  17. 17

    We may add to this repertoire of formalised resources and practices the following: the operating company’s governing documentation; formal barrier evaluations; ‘drill well on paper’—a formalised process whereby the operation is analysed step by step to generate ideas for improving performance and reducing costs; development of a risk matrix; safety indicators.

  18. 18

    It is tempting to write geological instead of logical. This would prevent the reader from associating the other extreme of this axis with illogical. However, the extremes of the axes should not be understood as opposites. Pragmatic practices and workarounds are by no means illogical; they simply do not arise from calculations using well-known geological and process parameters to produce an ambiguous cause–effect statement. However, the terms ‘geological’, although clearly a useful notation in the present case relating to the petroleum industry, would not be relevant to other domains.

  19. 19

    The leading drilling engineer previously worked at Field A, from where he has a lot of operational experience. Field B is a new field and there is thus little operational experience. However, as it is located at not too great a distance south-east of Field A, the fields may show some analogy and experiences from Field A may also be significant for Field B.

  20. 20

    The drilling programme is a plan produced in accordance with governing documentation, which has been authorised by a range of persons at different levels in the organisation.

  21. 21

    An example of practices where such use of case-based reasoning is made prescriptive is the interpretation of ECD and drilling fluid density trends—using them as kick indicators—in HPHT wells, for example to establish causes of ECD changes, ECD plots are compared to ‘fingerprints’ or ‘signature plots’ from other wells. This is an essential practice in connection with flow checks. It is only a standard practice in HPHT wells, however, as these are more challenging (smaller safety margins) and the risk potential is greater.

  22. 22

    We discussed many issues with the drilling engineers during the observation sessions. When referring to what we were told, we here refer to the more formal interview situations, in which we were sitting in meeting rooms isolated from the atmosphere of the operations room.



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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Studio AperturaNTNU Social ResearchTrondheimNorway

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