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Ship Simulator Training and the Link Between Human Error and Tacit Knowledge

Ship Sim Med


A well-used statistic in the maritime industry is ‘about 75-96% of marine accidents are caused, at least in part, by some form of human error’[1].

In a lot of cases we accept this phrase without digging deeper into what we mean by ‘human error’.

The term ‘human error’ can hold a number of meanings. This is unhelpful if we want to train competent seafarers and reduce the number of accidents it is attributed to at sea.

In this article I will attempt to show there is a  link between ‘human error’ and what is recognised as ‘tacit knowledge’.  A better understanding of ‘tacit knowledge’ and how it can be developed through the use of structured simulator training will help focus our training activities and prepare seafarers for the environment they will be facing.

Working Environment v Simulated Environment

Let’s consider two ways in which the ‘transfer of knowledge’ takes place.

The classroom environment through a programme of study and ‘on the job’ training in the workplace. These different forms of knowledge are summarised in the table below.[2]

Explicit Knowledge

Tacit Knowledge

1. Formulated, abstracted and transferrable

Action-orientated personal quality, difficult to communicate

2. Generated through logical deduction and formal study

Gained by practical experience in the relevant context

3. Single location, stored in logical forms.

Acquired through variety of experience and the individual’s involvement.

The challenge for Merchant Navy trainees following an approved programme, is that they only require 12 months seatime to gain the tacit knowledge they require before they can qualify as an Officer of the Watch.
Tacit knowledge can be gained and assessed by exposing candidates to realistic workplace scenarios[3].

The shipping industry is one of a number of ‘high stakes’ sectors which uses simulators and there are a number of  case studies in the medical, legal and fire-fighting sectors which are examples of how simulation can create  a ‘safe rehearsal area’ in which a candidate can practice skills and be assessed by the training institution.

The result is a ‘blurring of the lines’ between assessment in the educational institution and the workplace.

There is more responsibility on the educational institution to not only deliver the formal academic element of the programme but to develop the tacit knowledge which a trainee would previously have constructed through their social and material experiences on board a ship.

This has implications for the safe navigation of ships.

Human Error and Tacit Knowledge

A seafarer in the role of an Officer of the Watch must have a certificate of competency.  Despite this ships have accidents as a result of ‘human errors’ or ‘human factors’ which have been identified to include ‘inadequate knowledge of own ship system, poor decision making, inadequate technical knowledge’ [4]

These factors are largely ‘tacit’ or intuitive and unarticulated knowledge a deck officer develops alongside the formal explicit learning. These skills are time consuming and costly to practice onboard a real vessel. The use of ship simulators therefore has a number of advantages in replicating the workplace.

I believe we will see an increase in the ‘blurring of the lines’ or ‘hybrid activities’ [5] between the training institution and the workplace.

For this to be effective however, we must understand the two parts of the training process which is t
he equipment that is used to deliver the training and the qualities of the instructor.  
Focussing on high fidelity and realistic technological simulator equipment does not result in the candidates learning more[6]. The simulator equipment is the medium through which the teaching takes place.

The learning and transferrable skills are a result of the actions of the instructor and their interaction with the participants. The way the exercise is created with clear learning objectives and the way it is  communicated to participants is important. Not forgetting the most crucial part of the process which is the feedback given to the candidates.  

The Future

Presently simulators are used to allow practice away from the workplace. Deck officers get an opportunity to  develop their decision-making skills in complex situations. Research conducted by the EU funded Maritime Simulator Network linked 9 different simulators crews for a ‘live’ exercise. They created a complex scenario which not only included application of explicit knowledge and the developed  tacit knowledge but built a social learning environment

And this is a key point. If we want to conduct assessment and practice away from the workplace, we need to consider the social aspect of learning as well as the cognitive, known  as ‘situated action’[7]. The ‘material and social circumstances’ we are in play an important role in developing knowledge.

It’s for this reason that there although a simulator can provide a ‘protected area’ to allow participants to practice and master situations, the learning process is complex and time in a simulator cannot directly equate to time spent at sea.’


Shipping is a high stakes industry. Onboard training is costly and logistically challenging. Safe rehearsal spaces are required to allow for the practice and assessment of workplace skills.

As more research is conducted in the area of ship simulator assessment, we will see training that includes all facets of life onboard a ship will result in a greater understanding of the ‘human factors’ which are the cause of so many accidents at sea.


[1] Hanzu-Pazara, R., Barsan, E., Arsenie, P., Chiotoroiu, L. and Raicu, G. (2008). Reducing of Maritime Accidents Caused by Human Factors Using Simulators

[2] Lam, A. (2000). Tacit Knowledge, Organizational Learning and Societal Institutions: An Integrated Framework

[3] Peckham, K., Adams, A., Marler, C. and Alexakis, C. (2018). Can You Practice When You're Not Really There?.

[4] Hanzu-Pazara, R., Barsan, E., Arsenie, P., Chiotoroiu, L. and Raicu, G. (2008). Reducing of Maritime Accidents Caused by Human Factors Using Simulators

[5] Hontvedt, M. and Arnseth, H. (2013). On the bridge to learn: Analysing the social organization of nautical instruction in a ship simulator

[7] Sellberg, C., Lindmark, O. and Rystedt, H. (2018). Learning to navigate: the centrality of instructions and assessments for developing students’ professional competencies in simulator-based training


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