Author: Rebecca Cort

New publication about the Human Contribution in Handling Unanticipated Events at Work

Railway tracks with a clearly visible overhead wire provide trains with electricity.

One early morning, a freight train got caught in the overhead electrical wire, causing a large traffic disruption which affected all train traffic in the area and resulted in delays and cancelled trains for almost 24 hours. This is what one of our most recent publications is about: the incident, the effects it caused on the traffic flow, and more specifically, how the situation was handled and solved from within the traffic control room.

The train traffic system, like most infrastructures in society, plays an important role in everyday life by facilitating a continuous flow of people and goods. What is unknown to many is the very large and complex organisation of work that lies behind a functioning train traffic system. In the Swedish context, the organisation of train traffic involves numerous stakeholders and one of the main actors is the traffic controllers. Although much less studied than traffic control for aviation, the tasks and responsibilities are very similar—as are the challenges. These challenges are very much characterised by the fact that the control task is done remotely from a centralised control room, and that the traffic controllers are dependent on train drivers and others situated along the railway to act as the ‘eyes and ears’ of the control room. These people, together with advanced technologies, make it possible for the control room to stretch out and reach through time and space, making coordination the core task of traffic control.

The publication reports on a unique case study in which an unexpected real-time incident is described and analysed as the situation unfolds. Most reports on accidents and incidents are conducted in retrospect, but not this case study as I happened to be present in the control room at the particular time when the incident took place.  Accordingly, this paper provides novel insights into how the incident was handled and with the use of participant observations and informal interviews, a rich understanding of the work practices was captured. The analysis resulted in a detailed description of the work in the control room which can be divided into three phases: grasping what has happened and the severity of the incident, handling the incident and the immediate effects it had on the traffic, and finally mitigating the long-term consequences of the incident as these affected the traffic for almost 24 hours.

The unfolding of the incident repeatedly revealed that the workers had to cope with challenges related to time and space and as a way to describe and understand this aspect of the work, we turned to a concept originally used in the agricultural, landscape, and geographical domains, namely the concept of ‘sense of place’. The concept describes a certain meaning and relationship beyond the mere spatial between humans and places. A place is thus conceptualised as a centre of cognitive, affective, or attitudinal meaning. Although not previously applied to control room research, this study shows that ‘sense of place’ is something the workers actively strive to develop and that supports them in handling the situation although they were 150 kilometres away from the situation they were to handle. In future work, we aim to continue to explore how, and to what extent, the ‘sense of place’ concept can aid a deepened understanding of the control room work.

For those interested in the details, you can find the full paper here.


Cort, R. & Lindblom, J. (2023). Sensing the Breakdown: Managing Complexity at the Railway. Culture and Organisation, DOI: 10.1080/14759551.2023.2266857.

Feedback – the key to success in higher education?

I recently took a pedagogical course in Assessment, grading and feedback in relation to teaching in higher education, and one topic that stood out to me as particularly interesting was the role of feedback for learning. Did you know that research shows that receiving feedback is essential for learning and considered the most powerful means of enhancing student achievements? Still, many teachers experience challenges in their feedback practice such as students not recognizing the value of feedback or students exhibiting defensive responses to feedback. In relation to these challenges, feedback literacy has been introduced by the research arena of higher education studies as a concept describing the ability to interpret and to make productive use of feedback.

A well-cited paper by Carless and Boud describes how many students struggle with understanding, interpreting, and using feedback effectively and the authors emphasize that we as teachers need to help them develop this skill of feedback literacy. To support us in this, they provide a framework suggesting that a set of three interrelated features underpin students’ ability to take action in response to feedback. The three features are:

  • Appreciating feedback: understanding and appreciating that feedback aims at improving the work
  • Making judgments: developing self-evaluative capacities to make sound judgments about one’s own work as well as the work of others
  • Managing affect: avoiding defensiveness when receiving critical feedback and developing habits of striving for continuous improvement based on internal and external feedback.

This leaves the important question of how teachers, such as myself and my colleagues in the HTO group, can support the development of these skills in our students. In the paper, the authors highlight for example the use of peer feedback as a learning activity which explicitly aims towards the development of students’ feedback literacy. The idea is that to provide peer feedback exposes the students to the work of others which helps them compare between their own work and the work of their peers. Which, in turn, benefits the ability to self-evaluate their own production. Providing feedback to peers could also be helpful for students to see that feedback aims to help and suggest solutions and improvements.

Another strategy, and something I believe is important, is to model the uptake of feedback in front of our students. This could be done, for example, by discussing how we as academics are constantly exposed to feedback in the form of peer review. We could also make sure to continuously ask for feedback on our teaching, and then (preferably) handle the comments in an exemplary manner and model how to receive and use feedback as a tool for learning and growth. 

To receive feedback is something I think not only students struggle with from time to time. However, thinking about this in the terms of ‘feedback literacy’ can be helpful as it makes it less static by highlighting this as an ability – and abilities can be improved. So next time you either provide or receive feedback, see it as a possibility for individual skill development.

How do you work with feedback processes and activities? 

Reference: Carless, D. & Boud, D. (2018). The development of student feedback literacy: enabling uptake of feedback. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 43(8), 1315—1325.

Writing retreat with the HTO group

As many of you know, writing is not always easy and it can sometimes be challenging to find the time or space to focus on your writing. That’s where a writing retreat can come in handy. The HTO research group has a long history of arranging writing retreats and this year is no exception. A writing retreat is essentially a dedicated time and place for you to write and last week, people from the HTO research group and people from our networks came together for two full days with the sole purpose to write.

The underlying idea of our writing retreats is that everyone decides for themselves what to write and then we sit together and work on our texts. The key to any writing retreat is that it should take you away from your usual responsibilities and commitments, and it should allow you to focus on your writing. This year, we arranged the retreat in our usual building but booked a room on another floor to help us focus on nothing else but writing. To further increase our potential to be truly productive, we keep to a schedule in which we start by setting writing goals and making plans for the writing we’ll do. This is followed by writing sprints and a few check-ins throughout the day. Of course, this schedule also has plenty of dedicated time for rest and delicious fika.

Besides having time and space to write, the benefits of attending a writing retreat are many. To meet other writers and talk about writing is rewarding in itself and the social pressure of hearing others tap away on their keyboards is quite helpful to get you started with your own writing. The retreat also creates space for reflection on your writing habits and many of us find that it encourages commitment to your writing which hopefully spills over to when you’re not at the retreat. Finally, a writing retreat is really fun and a valuable investment of your time.

Work Engagement in the Era of AI: Opportunities and Challenges

A robot reaching for your hand.

“Have you ever felt like a robot at work? Well, with the rise of AI and automation, this feeling might become even more common. That’s why we’re launching a research project to investigate how AI@work affects work engagement.”


The words above are how the renowned AI tool chatGPT summarises our new research project which aims at investigating how increased AI/automated-supported work influence work engagement. Alarming reports show that negative work-related emotions are climbing and we ask if increased AI and automation has a role in this.

The use of robots, automation, and AI in the workplace has become increasingly common in recent years. While there has been a significant interest in the technical development, the impact of these technologies on work engagement is not well understood. Similarly, we see multiple theories on work engagement in psychological and organisational research, but these say very little about the digital aspects of a workplace. How may technology affect a sustainable and productive state where employees are present and truly engaged in their work tasks? In our newly initiated research project, we intend to address this knowledge gap.

With a human-centred approach and research methods such as ethnographic field studies and interviews, we will conduct studies across three different sectors: the IT sector, the agricultural sector, and the metallic industry sector. These three sectors have been selected to ensure a broad context for our research. At a first glance, the sectors might seem to have nothing in common but they are all currently exposed to automation and AI, although the technology has completely different purposes across the sectors. For example, the use of AI tools in programming, or automated milking systems used in the agricultural sector.

What we learn from studying AI and automated-supported work and its influence on work engagement in different sectors will be used to develop a theoretical framework. This framework aims to be a useful tool for organisations to embrace opportunities while mitigating risks related to increasingly digital work environments and work engagement. Accordingly, we intend for the project to have both scientific, practical, and societal impact and look forward to continuing blogging about updates as the project progresses.