James Miller's Living Systems Model

An Interpretation and Application of the Model to Weak Signal® Research by Collaborative Design and Group Genius™ Processes

Bryan S. Coffman

January 15, 1997

Part I: Information and Its Relation to Weak Signal Research

 In 1978 James Miller published the most thorough cross-discipline analysis and synthesis of the functions and behavior of livings systems ever set down in one book (nearly 1100 pages of extremely dense and small text). In a thoughtful and scientific way it spans systems from the individual cell to the supranational system. The book is accessible to laymen but also popular and useful for scientists and researchers.

As Miller moves up the chain of complexity from cell to group to supranational system, he uses 19 generic, critical subsystems to provide structure to the material. Nine subsystems process matter-energy; nine process information, and one processes both matter-energy and information.

In Part I of this paper I'll address only the subsystems that process information. It is clear that these particular subsystems do not operate in isolation from the other ten, however in order to examine the model in light of weak signal research, it will not be necessary to consider them until Part II. The reader may find it of value to first scan the series on Weak Signal Research that begins here.

First I'll list Miller's definitions so the reader will have some understanding of the terms. Then I'll show how the subsystems work together in a typical communication and information processing event. Finally, I'll add comments that illustrate how the model relates to weak signal research, and in particular, the implications for organizational structure and development.

Miller's Definitions
Miller uses the word "information" in the same sense that the word "message" is used in weak signal research. In Miller's model, the value of the message is implied before receipt. In weak signal research, it's important to understand that many messages that reach the organization may not be capable of being transduced, decoded or associated, and therefore will have not information associated with them. A message only becomes information after the receiving system or subsystem assigns value to it by calculating an adjustment of its behavior in state space. In weak signal research, information is used in two senses: Claude Shannon's sense, as a measure of the uncertainty or surprise in the communication event as a whole; and Norbert Wiener's sense, as a measure of the degree of order (or complexity) in the system.

Subsystem Definition Examples in the Enterprise
Input Transducer (IT) "The sensory subsystem which brings markers bearing information into the system, changing them to other matter-energy forms suitable for transmission within it." Mail rooms, servers that receive E-mail and attachments from outside of the organization, telephone systems that may include receptionists, fax machines, individuals who work in and support these functions, also policies governing the use of these elements.
Internal Transducer (NT) "The sensory subsystem which receives, from subsystems or components within the system, markers bearing information about significant alterations in those subsystems or components, changing them to other matter-energy forms of a sort which can be transmitted within it." In-boxes on desks, personal E-mail systems, telephones on desks of individuals in the organization, individuals assigned to perform these tasks, also policies governing the use of these elements.
Channel and Net (CH) "The subsystem composed of a single route in physical space, or multiple interconnected routes, by which markers bearing information are transmitted to all parts of the system." Hallways, fiber optic cable, twisted pair, line of sight for visual reception and transmission of information, the arrangement of space within a building to support the receipt, analysis and transmission of messages, individuals who act as messengers.
Decoder (DC) "The subsystem which alters the code of information input to it through the input transducer or internal transducer into a 'private' code that can be used internally by the system." Display screens, audio speakers in telephones, the function of human minds to understand written language or diagrams, individuals who translate or interpret messages for others.
Associator (AS) "The subsystem which carries out the first stage of the learning process, forming enduring associations among items of information in the system." Filing systems, techniques for deciding which messages go where, skills in analysis, synthesis, and assigning value and meaning to messages, software used in the analysis process, some databases and expert systems, regulated fields of analysis such as accounting, individuals who perform these skills.
Memory (ME) "The subsystem which carries out the second stage of the learning process, storing various sorts of information in the system for different periods of time." Filing cabinets, disk drives and removable cartridges, paper that has words or images printed on it, voice mail systems, libraries, individuals responsible for maintaining these systems.
Decider (DE) "The executive subsystem which receives information inputs from all other subsystems and transmits to them information outputs that control the entire system." Any individual or collection of individuals or devices who receive messages, associate them with past experience based on contents in memory, and then choose a course of action that may alter the behavior or state of the system or its components. This system may be distributed, instead of centralized. Decider functions also use outputs for the purpose of requesting specific inputs from other subsystems or from other systems. Also systems that determine what type of messages to scan for, which to admit,and which to turn away from the system. The Associator, Memory and Decider together play 'Spoze.
Encoder (EC) "The subsystem which alters the code of information input to it from other information processing subsystems, from a 'private' code used internally by the system into a 'public' code which can be interpreted by other systems in its environment." Keyboards, computer mice, microphones, various components of computers, the use of writing instruments to put diagrams or words on various surfaces, individuals assigned to document processes on computer or paper in the form of minutes or journals or notes.
Output Transducer (OT) "The subsystem which puts out markers bearing information from the system, changing markers within the system into other matter-energy forms which can be transmitted over channels in the system's environment." Mail rooms, network servers that send E-mail, telephones, advertising media including television and radio, individuals working in, with or in support of these functions, also policies governing the use of these elements.

For reference, here is a diagram of the interaction of the nine information processing sub-systems.

IT=input transducer; DC=decoder; NT=internal transducer; AS=associator; ME=memory; DE=decider; EC=encoder; OT=output transducer; CH=channel and net

Message Processing Between and Within Systems
The diagram above shows the subsystems that have just been defined in relation to one another. It also shows the subsystems of three systems interacting in a data corrected, error free communication event. The transmitting system composes a message, encodes it for general use and transduces it across its boundary into an external channel and net. The message is received by both a comparator system and the receiving system where it is transduced inside these systems and decoded. The receiver system sends a copy of the message in the form it was received to the comparator system. The comparator system compares the message it received from the transmitting system to the message it received from the receiving system. It then sends a message to the receiving system that indicates any discrepancies in the two messages in the form of an error correction signal. Now, the receiving system is confident enough of the integrity of the message to have it transduced internally and prepared for the Associator.

The Associator fills two roles. First it assembles messages into collections, or "ecosystems". It builds composite models that show how these sets of messages relate to one another to form a whole. Then it compares these messages and message models to those stored in Memory to look for similarities or differences. It looks in particular for discrepancies that may indicate the system is moving away from homeostasis (balance) in the form of internal or external threats. It may also identify opportunities in the same way.

As an example, an accounting department may collect data from many parts of the corporation and assemble these into collections of data based on models. Then it looks at the results in light of past experience to find clues that might help management determine future plans of action. The message collections and the results of the comparison to past collections are forwarded to management for decision-making.

Memory stores previous messages and models or patterns of how these messages have interacted in the past. It also keeps track of what decisions were made based on these models, and the results of the implementation of these decisions--their relative success or failure. This constitutes a library of strategies for success and failure that the system will refer to and modify over and over again. The depth and quality of this library, together with the breadth and quality of the models of message "ecosystems" constitute a measure of the information inherent in the structure of the system--its order and complexity.

The Decider examines the analysis assembled by the Associator and chooses a course of action to take based probably on a fuzzy logic. There are no clear cut decisions to be made by living systems. There are always unexplored options, incomplete perception, and the element of surprise. The Decider determines which state (or behavior, roughly) the system will move into during the next time period. The set of all possible combinations of states that the system could move into is called its fitness landscape. Some states are more fit than others (they usually yield more success), and these are represented by peaks on the landscape. As internal and external conditions change, the landscape may deform: yesterday's peak may be tomorrow's valley. If an organization finds itself cycling among a finite set of states, then it is said to be cycling in an attractor--it's attracted for some reason to habitually pursue this set of behaviors. To continuously improve, organizations must discover and apply algorithms to help them explore their fitness landscape, find efficient attractors that include high fitness peaks and continually learn and evolve as the landscape shifts beneath their feet.

The Decider may include senior management, but it is not and should not be limited to that small group. Network organizations rely upon a distributed Decider function to bring effective action to bear on a local situation in a timely fashion. This becomes more crucial as the rate of change accelerates, or the rate at which the fitness landscape deforms as a result of internal and external adaptation increases.

The Role of the Comparator
The purpose of the comparator is to test and provide messages on the integrity of the transmitted signal. Here is John Pierce's diagram of how this process works in communication and information theory, in particular as it relates to the electronic transmission of data. It is similar to the diagram above, but uses different terminology.

How is this done in practice? Consider a conversation, discussion or dispute. Sometimes there is actually a third party who acts as a "fair witness" in a discussion between two other individuals. The fair witness listens to a statement from one individual and then both he and the receiving individual can indicate what they heard. Of course, this is not really comparing messages--it's comparing the values and meaning assigned by these two systems to a message. Other times, there may be only two individuals and the discussion involves statements followed by replies that begin with the words, "by that, do you mean..." In this way we act as comparators for ourselves. The work of the comparator is a part of the function of the Associator.

Implications for Weak Signal Research and Organizational Structure and Development
There's one interesting twist with respect to information theory and weak signal research: the receiver is almost never the intended target of the weak signal. Instead, the receiver is usually an eavesdropper on some other conversation in a different industry or discipline. Like a sonar operator sorting out friendly and enemy signals. There's nothing covert or clandestine about this, however, it has important implications for the role of the comparator and the internal transducer.

Enterprises that receive weak signals, will usually have difficulty testing their integrity because they are difficult to decode and associate to existing models. A real estate finance company may think that some recent genetic research may have either a direct, or more likely, indirect or possibly metaphorical effect on its work. But chances are that nobody in the company can translate the terms of art in genetic research into something they can understand and apply. Once a layman's book on the subject is published, this becomes less of a problem, but then the signal is also not so weak anymore, and exploiting it is up for grabs among many competitors. The enterprise, therefore must enlist or cultivate special assistance in finding primary research, translating it, and synthesizing it into forms that will be understandable and therefore potentially useful for the organization's Decider function. This means it must seek out alert input transducers so that the messages from other disciplines are not blocked or discarded, knowledgeable decoders to translate the messages into something the associator can handle, competent internal transducers to get these strange messages to the right destinations with the right descriptions, a flexible associator that can build models using outside data, and competent comparators to confirm their interpretation.

This process yields the great side benefit of building a broader and more resilient Associator. Imagine the power of a company that can actually associate real estate knowledge with genetic engineering, and use the resulting synthesis to leverage market supremacy or even dominance in their industry. Or maybe even reshape the industry.

 On another, related note, most information processing subsystems in organizations are tuned to receive and process standard signals--ones that are expected (even though their content and value may be surprising). Research departments scan the environment for these signals and often have standard procedures for procuring them. Such messages may relate to the economy, politics, competitors. Large systems are usually put into place to gather messages from internal and external system components to aid in the manufacture of tangible and intangible products and services.

Because so much of this is routine, enterprises must engage in special efforts to redesign each subsystem to process weak signals--surprising, disturbing, or messages that seem unrelated or irrelevant to the work at hand. The typical response to this need for redesign is to fashion a new department and charge it with the task of handling weak signals. These efforts will fail. They will fail because, even though the new system has remodeled all of its information processing subsystems to handle the new type of messages, the subsystems of the parent organization are still unable to process the information or understand its value. The only true solution is to distribute the capacity and demand for weak signal processing broadly in the organization and allow individual subsystems to adapt to local conditions. Management provides a portion of the stimulus for redesign, but the processing of weak signals must develop an intrinsic worth or value for the organization to continue to lend genuine focus to the activity.


Part II: Matter-Energy Subsystems
Part III: Reproduction Subsystem and Evolution 

The components of the model and its definitions are copyrighted by James Grier Miller in his book Living Systems, copyright 1978, McGraw-Hill. All rights reserved.
interpretative work copyright 1997, MG Taylor Corporation. All rights reserved

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