Levels of abstraction in human
supervisory control teams
School of Engineering and Design, Brunel University, Uxbridge, UK
Department of Management, University of Southampton,
Southampton, UK, and
A.D. Roberts and F. Xu
Department of Psychology, University of Southampton, Southampton, UK
Purpose – This paper aims to report a study into the levels of abstraction hierarchy (LOAH) in two
energy distribution teams. The original proposition for the LOAH was that it depicted ﬁve levels of
system representation, working from functional purpose through to physical form to determine causes
of a malfunction, or from physical form to functional purpose to determine the purpose of system
function. The LOAH has been widely used throughout human supervisory control research to explain
individual behaviour. The research seeks to focus on the application the LOAH to human supervisory
control teams in semi-automated “intelligent” systems.
Design/methodology/approach – A series of interviews were conducted in two energy
Findings – The results of the study suggest that people in the teams are predominantly operating at
different levels of system representation, depending on their role. Managerial personnel work at
functional purpose and abstract function levels, whereas operational personnel work at physical
function and physical form levels. It is argued that both types of personnel are part of the wider
distributed problem-solving system, which includes both people and technology.
Originality/value – The research provides useful information on the application of the LOAH to
human supervisory control teams in semi-automated “intelligent” systems.
Keywords Team working, Line managers, Individual behaviour
Paper type Research paper
The research literature has put forward the levels of abstraction hierarchy (LOAH) as a
description of ﬁve different levels of system representation (Rasmussen, 1983, 1986).
Studies have shown that these levels can be used to represent the decision space which
is utilised by individuals in performing aspects of their task, shifting between the
levels where appropriate (Vicente, 1999). The most persuasive arguments have been
made by knowledge theorists (see Goodstein et al., 1988) and empirical researchers (see
Vicente, 1997, 1999). Vicente, in particular, has demonstrated how experimental
participants are able to perform process control tasks more effectively if they are
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available at
This research project was supported by funding made available through the ESRC’s Virtual
Society programme (grant reference: L132251038). The authors would like to thank the two
organizations for allowing access for the study to be conducted and the individuals for
consenting to the interviews.
Journal of Enterprise Information
Vol. 19 No. 6, 2006
q Emerald Group Publishing Limited