28: The brain as a model

An important part of my intellectual toolkit has been Stafford Beer’s book Brain of the firm, published in 1972. Stafford Beer was a larger than life character who was a major figure in operational research, cybernetics, general systems theory and management science. I have a soft spot for him because of his book and work more widely and because, though I never met him, he wrote to me in 1970 after the publication of my Entropy book saying that it was the best description of ‘entropy’ he had ever read. I see from googling that the book is still in print as a second edition and I think it is also possible to download a pdf. Googling will also fill in more detail on Stafford Beer but beware the entry, which made me think he still had a contemporary supporters’ club, that is ‘Stafford Beer Festival 2015’ which turns out to be the Stafford Beer and Cider Festival!

The core argument of the book is a simple one: that the brain is the most successful system ever to evolve in nature and, therefore, if we explore it, we might learn something. In the Brain, he expounds the neurophysiology to a point at the time – it seemed so good – that I checked the accuracy against some neurophysiology texts and it seemed to pass. What follows is a considerable oversimplification both of the physiology and of Beer’s use of it – so tolerance is in order! The brain has five levels of organisation. Then top – level 5 – is the strategic level. Levels 1-3 represent the autonomous nervous system which govern actions like breathing without us having to think; and also carry instructions to carry out actions at level 1. Occasionally, the autonomous system passes messages upwards if, for example, there is some danger. Level 4 is particularly interesting. It can be seen as an information processor. The brain receives an enormous amount of sense data and would not be able to make sense of this without the filter. Beer’s argument is that there is no equivalent function in organisations – and this is to their fundamental detriment. He cites as an example the Cabinet Office War Room in World War II (now open as part of the Imperial War Museum) which was set up to handle the real time flow of information and to deal with information overload.

Beer translated this into a model of an organisation which he called the VSM – the viable system model. The workings of the organisation were at levels 1, 2 and 3. The top level – the company board or equivalent was level 5. He usually attributes level 4 to the Development Directorate and I can see the case for that, but it doesn’t entirely deal with the filtering operation that any organisation needs. (But this is probably because of an over-rapid rereading on my part.) However, what he did recommend, even in 1972, was ‘a large dynamic electrical display of the organisation’ together with a requirement that all meetings of senior staff took place in that room. The technical feasibility of this is much higher and fits with the display of ‘big data’ such as that which has been built in Glasgow as an Innovate UK demonstrator.

This still leaves open the question of how to make sense of the mass of data – post filtering – and this is where we need an appropriate model. This connects to a big research question which has already been raised in another blog: how to design the architecture of a multi-dimensional information system that can be aggregated and interrogated in a variety of ways. This constitutes an invitation to work on this.

I think we can gain tremendous insights from the Brain if the firm model when we think about organisations we either work in or work for; or are simply interested in. Additionally, can we learn anything about how to approach research? We are certainly aware of information overload and functioning as individual researchers, the scale of this makes it impossible to cope with. Can we build an equivalent of a War Room. Forward-looking Librarians are probably trying to help us by doing this electronically – but we run into the classification problem again (cf. Atlases and ,….). Can we organise any other kind of cooperative effort – crowd sourcing to find the game changers? we might call this the ‘market in research’. The buyers are the researchers who cite other research, and a cumulatively large number of citations usually points to something important. The only problem then is that the information comes too late. We learn about the new fashion; we don’t get in on the ground floor. So an unresolved challenge here!

Alan Wilson

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