Chris ConwayChris Conway
Chief Architect, Quantiv

Nature can often be a great source of information for engineers. Animals and plants have developed over long periods and have adapted to the conditions around them. And while these changes might have been slow, the results are practical solutions to the problems encountered.

A good example of this is the human body. The systems that make up the body are well defined, and the parts within those systems are themselves well organ-ised (pun intended!).

This design is interesting to a non-biologist because evolution seems to have discovered the human body works best when it’s made up of similarly sized, specialist parts that interact.

What is the key to co-ordination?

Each organ in the body has a specific function that it carries out with clear, but distinct, separation from other organs. ‘Hearing with your eyes’ might make great poetry but it’s a lousy way to conduct a long conversation. And while ‘thinking with your stomach’ might be fun, it perhaps isn’t the best route to a healthy diet.

This separation even extends to the brain. Rather than get involved in the minutiae of each individual organ’s operation (‘pump a bit more blood’, ‘use a bit more oxygen’), those responsibilities are solely the preserve of the organs themselves. The job of the brain is to organise the overall co-ordination of those other functions.

But co-ordination needs information, and that information must be at the correct level of detail. Too much causes brain overload (and underuse of the other organs), while too little results in bad (or late) decisions being made.

From the human body… to computer systems

So, true to evolutionary form, the human body has developed the perfect mechanism of ‘right-sized’ information: the central nervous system. This works across the body, so is independent of any specific organ, including the brain. The nervous system conveys information at just the right level: enough to allow a good decision to be taken but not so much that an action is delayed.

Comparing this pattern with other situations, it’s easy to see such separation doesn’t always apply. Companies – or even countries – that are run by a single person might work well for a while, but usually a mistake (or multiple mistakes) will be made. Sports teams that rely on a small number of people can achieve great things, but long-term success depends on having a system (and even that has its limitations).

And computer systems – perhaps the ultimate artificial brains – often breach the distribution/federation pattern. Either too much information is moved, and decisions are slow – or not enough context is provided, and connections are missed.

IT and the human body

The ideal IT solution architecture often mirrors the human body, in particular the nervous system. As nature suggests, this requires co-operation of all the components involved to achieve the desired result. No single system takes priority over others or takes on multiple roles.

Equally, it’s important to have a supply of good operational information – at the right level and with timely (though not necessarily immediate) availability. And the information must include standardised contextual data to allow the information to be compared and prioritised correctly.

But, just as the brain doesn’t start reflecting when an immediate decision is required, data analysis techniques shouldn’t be used as part of real-time, operational decision-making. Instead, the results of past analyses should already have allowed for identification of operational metrics that can be used to guide real-time decisions.

However, it’s important to stress there’s still a place for analytical information. In the same way the brain slowly reflects over past events to draw conclusions that inform future actions, information architectures should include analytics to allow lessons to be learned from past operations. And those analytical results should certainly be included as part of operational processing.

Your information ‘nervous system’

Quantiv’s NumberWorks method helps with ‘reflection’ by identifying your organisation’s key operational metrics. And by supporting the collection and distribution of these crucial metrics, our NumberCloud platform is at the heart of your information ‘nervous system’.

So, while artificial intelligence may be a big talking point, perhaps we can still learn some valuable lessons from natural intelligence.

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