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Boyd: An Organizational Perspective

In the previous post - I offered a model for a cognitive system in which I attempted to integrate the three dimensions of the Strategic Game described by Boyd (Moral, Mental, and Physical) as nested layers in a polycentric control system. A unique and critical aspect of this model is that each layer functions effectively as an OODA loop closed through the ecology. That is - each layer is involved in directly interacting with the ecology. The difference between layers is the time span over which they are integrating information. The outer layer in the model is integrating across events - to derive general principles that have broad implications for stability. The middle layer is integrating over a specific event - typically taking into account patterns that allow it to recognize possibilities, to apply heuristics, to plan, and to steer activities toward a satisfying outcome. Finally, the inner layer is controlling actions and reacting to stimuli and situations in the context of the beliefs and intentions specified by the outer layers.

However, I think this is difficult for many to grok, because it is difficult to get past conventional assumptions about information processing. Information processing models have typically been formulated as a series of information processing stages with a precedence relation such that later stages in the process only "see" the products of earlier stages. Thus - the deeper stages are required to utilize inference to construct an 'internal model' of the actual ecology from the 'cues' provided by the earlier stages. In other words - there is typically assumed to be a gulf (blanket or filter) that separates our mental experiences from our direct physical interactions with the ecology. Many people can't imagine that abstract principles or beliefs such as "do unto others as they would do unto you" could be actually tested directly as a result of the consequences of actions in the ecology.

However, I hypothesize that this cognitive interplay between moral, mental, and physical dimensions is scale independent and that it applies equally to individuals and to organizations as cognitive systems. Thus, the figure below frames exactly the same model - but in terms of organizational dynamics. The hope is that the organizational perspective will be a little easier for people to grok, because the interplay of the different levels is more observable in an organization than in an individual organism.

In this diagram the inner loop (green) represents the front line workers who are directly acting in the ecology. For example, these might be the first responders (fire, police, and medics) who are directly involved in managing the emergency response.

The next outer layer (orange) represents the incident command center. This includes the incident commanders and managers who are monitoring the situation on the ground, who are managing the logistics, and who are developing plans to allocate responsibility and coordinate the actions of the first responders on the ground. Note that the incident command is getting information from the responders on the ground, but they also have access to information about the ecology (e.g., the availability of external resources) that is not available to the people who are immersed in the details of local situations.

The outer most layer (blue) represents the organizational homes of the various first responders (e.g., the fire department, the police department and the medical system). This outer system is less active in dealing with the specific immediate emergency event - but this loop will be responsible for after action analysis of the event, where it will have information about the ecology that might not have been available to either of the inner layers during the event. This layer is responsible for evaluating the response in relation to other events (e.g., after action reviews and historical analyses of prior events) and to extract the lessons and general principles that will potentially improve responses to future events. These lessons will then be integrated into training processes that will shape how planning and emergency responses will be conducted in future events.

A key aspect of the dynamic is that the (beliefs, intentions, and actions) at the different levels are shaping and being shaped by each of the other layers - though the changes are happening at different time scales. Each layer is operating at a different tempo or bandwidth than the other layers, and most importantly this means that each layer will be able to 'see' or 'pick-up' patterns in the ecology that cannot be seen in the other layers. And it is important to emphasize that these patterns are not 'in the head' but are emergent properties of the direct physical interaction with the ecology. Each layer is an abductive system in that it is forming hypotheses that are then directly tested by future actions in the ecology (not by inferences on a mental model). Every loop is 'tested' against the practical consequences it has toward achieving stable (i.e., satisfying) consequences in the actual ecology.

In sum, I am proposing that the classical partitioning of cognitive systems into a sequence of processing stages is wrong. Yes - information is being processed at multiple different levels - but each level functions much like an OODA loop and the stability of the complete system is dependent on whether the various loops shape interactions with the ecology in productive or satisfying directions.

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