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Optimal Hierarchical Command Styles in Dynamic Decision Tasks

Alexander Wearing
Melbourne, Australia

This is work being carried out by Julia Clancy, Glenn Elliot, Tobias Ley, Jim McLennan, Mary Omodei, Peter Taranto, Einar Thorsteinsson and Alexander Wearing.

Tasks involving dynamic decision making, such as fire fighting and medical emergencies, are commonly distributed among a number of people.

The organizational structure is typically hierarchical in nature, with tasks and responsibilities divided in a structured way among incident commanders and subordinates. However, the optimal way to divide the responsibility of decision making among team members is not obvious.

Should commanders make all decisions and communicate actions for the subordinate to carry out? Or is it better for decision making responsibility to be shared, with commanders communicating their intentions and subordinates then deciding on appropriate actions and carrying these out? This is fundamentally an issue of the relative effectiveness of different command styles, which create different distributions of task responsibilities. We have addressed the issue by using computer-simulated fire fighting tasks, typically undertaken with teams of three, one commander and two subordinates. The results indicate that the teams where commanders communicate their intent perform significantly better than the teams whose commanders communicate specific actions. Depending on the experimental condition (action or intent) commanders differ with regard to activities such as predicting the development of fires, monitoring wind direction (current and forecast), fire front prioritization, allocation of appliances, and moving appliances. There is little evidence of consistent individual differences.

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