Skip to content
Skip to main content

About this free course

Become an OU student

Download this course

Share this free course

Managing complexity: A systems approach – introduction
Managing complexity: A systems approach – introduction

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

5.7 Developing a VS method through the viable systems model and Viplan

Anyone familiar with the controversy in the UK about the detention of the former Chilean dictator General Pinochet can make a link with the history of the viable systems model (VS-method) developed by Stafford Beer and with Viplan developed by Raul Espejo. Espejo describes the connection in these terms:

[my] work has focused on improving organisations of all kinds […] In this work […] above all I have been influenced by Stafford Beer.

It all started in the early 1970s when, as a young graduate, I was working at the national Development Corporation of Chile. Those were difficult days for the country. The people's will was for change and to make it happen they had elected Salvadore Allende to the presidency. Stafford Beer was invited to Chile and for two years he supported a very important transformation process [as foreign advisor on the organisation of the public sector of the economy]. Though many of us will know the sad end of Allende's government, naturally [the experience] left many seeds for personal transformation.[…]

When Stafford arrived in Chile he had with him the manuscript of Brain of the Firm, his latest book (Beer, 1972). This was the first of three books in which he developed the viable system model (Beer, 1979; 1985). This is the model underpinning recursive organizations […] I was captivated by this model […] and it has held my interest ever since.[…] It is becoming a most powerful paradigm to support the development of fair and effective organizations.

(Espejo, 1997, p. 1–2)

Stafford Beer is regarded as the founder of management cybernetics. With his books Cybernetics and Management (1959) and Decision and Control (1966) he laid the foundation for management cybernetics, thereby building on earlier works of Ross Ashby, Warren McCulloch, Norbert Wiener, and Heinz von Foerster.

Spend a few moments referring back to Figure 24 and see how I have located management cybernetics in the various Systems traditions. Beer's contribution can be gauged from his obituary (Box 6).

Box 6 An obituary for Stafford Beer

World leader in the development of operational research, who combined management systems with cybernetics

by Dick Martin and Jonathan Rosenhead

Professor Stafford Beer, who has died aged 75, was a remarkable figure of British operational research (OR) – the study of systems that emerged from deploying newly invented radar in the late 1930s, and has since found extensive management applications.

A charismatic, even flamboyant, character, Beer founded two major pioneering OR groups; wrote some of the best books about it; and was a world leader in the development of systems ideas. He is widely acknowledged as the founder of management cybernetics, which he defined as ‘the science of effective organisation’.

His thinking on how decisions about complex social systems could best be made went through several phases. As an operational researcher he pioneered the idea of interdisciplinary teams to tackle problems in business, government and society. As a systems guru, he was concerned with designing appropriate feedback loops within social systems. More recently, he worked on participative methods to enable large groups to solve their own problems. What united these aspects of his work was his early and consistent commitment to a holistic approach.

He began a degree in philosophy and psychology at University College London, but in 1944 left it incomplete to join the army. He saw service as a company commander and in intelligence in India, and stayed there until 1947, leaving the army with the rank of captain in 1949.

He realised that OR, so successful during wartime, also had immense possibilities in peacetime. Appointed to a management position in a steel company, he soon persuaded it to set up an OR group, which he headed. The group grew to over 70 professionals, carrying out studies across United Steel.

In 1961 he left to launch SIGMA (Science in General Management Ltd), which he ran in partnership with Roger Eddison. This was the first substantial operational research consultancy in the UK. Its staff numbered some 50 before Beer left in 1966 to join the International Publishing Corporation (IPC), which had been a SIGMA client. IPC was then the largest publishing company in the world, and Beer was appointed development director. In this role, he pushed IPC into new technologies, many IT-based. He coined the term ‘data highway’, 30 years before ‘information highway’ came into vogue.

From 1970 he operated as an independent consultant. For over two years, until Chile's President Allende was overthrown in 1973, Beer worked on a new cybernetics-based control system to be applied to the entire social economy of Chile. This was to be a real-time computerised system, an extremely ambitious project given the technology then available.

Although the Pinochet coup prevented the full realisation of the system, Beer later undertook commissions for the presidential offices of Mexico, Uruguay and Venezuela, answering directly to the president in the latter two. His recognition was always greater abroad than at home, where the British establishment was uncomfortable with his big vision and radical orientation.

From the publication of his first book, Cybernetics and Management (1959), a systems approach to the management of organisations was his central concern. In this he built on the foundations of cybernetics laid down by Norbert Wiener, Ross Ashby, and his mentor Warren McCulloch. A series of four books based on his Viable System Model were published during the 1970s, of which The Brain Of The Firm is the most celebrated.

In the 1990s he turned his attention to a complementary approach, introduced in his 1994 book Beyond Dispute: The Invention Of Team Syntegrity. Team Syntegrity is a participatory method for enlisting the creativity of substantial groups to develop solutions to shared issues. Non-hierarchical and democratic, it has been widely adopted, with a growing international network.

His impact on the way we think about management and systems was the result both of his magnetic personality, and the power of his writing. His prizewinning 1966 book Decision and Control charms the reader with its style as well as content. In this, as in his other writing, he takes an expansive view of his subject. His approach was always challenging, even subversive to conventional decision-making. Radically then, and unfashionably now, he believed in the benefits of a scientific approach, though he railed against reductionism. Unlike other management writers, he saw science as freeing thought and action, not trapping it in narrow procedures and techniques. It was his constant theme that the greatest possible autonomy of action should be maintained at all levels of the organisation, not just at the top.

Beer was a larger than life character. He was tall, broad, brimful of energy, and, in later years, bearded like an Old Testament prophet. His enthusiasm for life could be over-powering and quite non-Anglo-Saxon. Those who encountered him polarised between the group that was distrustful of what it saw as his showmanship, and those who were converted into permanent admirers. He was deeply loyal and affectionate to his friends.

The Guardian, Wednesday September 4, 2002 and,3604,785671,00.html [accessed 07/11/2007]

Beer was a member of the group of researchers who generated the fields of systems science, as it was then called, and cybernetics. Many of these researchers were interested in what is now often called the theory of information, but more particularly the notion of control (see Box 7).

Of his experience in Chile, Beer had this to say:

We embarked […] upon a programme so ambitious as to have had at least a chance of revolutionizing the form of government on a cybernetic basis that would match the revolutionary political intentions of that democracy. […] I emerged from the experience very much changed. I changed in my awareness of myself, of my fellow men, and of political realities. […] I changed also as a technologist, in terms of confidence. For I now know that it is possible to do what I have advocated for so many years – things which many used to say, and some still do say, are impossible.

(Beer, 1981b).

Beer's full account of his experiences in Chile (1971–73) can be found in the second edition of Brain of the Firm (1981a).

Box 7 An underlying unity between control mechanisms in different disciplines

Biological scientists […] logicians, engineers, psychiatrists – all these and others, too, were finding roads which led to the same basic topic: the notion of control itself. Gradually some of those concerned began to realize, through the terrible barrier constituted by their different professional languages, that they were talking about the same thing.

This group of scientists originally centred around the dynamic figure of the American mathematician, Norbert Weiner. By 1947, they had decided that their work had indeed uncovered a new field of scientific endeavour, and they named the science cybernetics. A story attributed to Weiner describes how this underlying unity existed in various different sciences.

Two members of the group had been designing a machine to enable the blind to read. It was not a new idea that a photo-cell could be used to scan a line of print, and to produce variable audible tones which would in some way represent the letters and words concerned. If a means could be found of combining the sounds produced in this way into patterns, patterns that would be as easily recognized as the visual shapes on the page, blind people who were not deaf could be taught to read ‘with their ears’. The main difficulty in this idea is that the pattern of sound must be substantially the same for a given pattern of letters, whatever the size of the print. The apparatus proposed by these two men involved selective reading by an automatic scanning process. A schematic diagram of the lay-out of the machine, with its banks of photo-cells and oscillators, was prepared. The diagram, quite unexplained, came, according to Weiner, to the attention of an eminent anatomist who belonged to his group. He asked: ‘Is this a diagram of the fourth layer of the visual cortex of the brain?’

That is an early example of the way in which a theory of control began to arise from the merging of established sciences. Who could fail to be excited by the fact that these two men, who knew little of each other's professional fields, had the same formal insight into so deep a question? Nor was this synthesis of ideas to prove a futile coincidence. The scientists, stimulated by the incident, produced a theory about the anatomy of the part of the brain dealing with vision, and its physiology, in terms of a mathematical description of a scanning process.

(Beer, 1959, pp. 2–3)

What Beer proved to himself in his Chilean experience was that it was possible to create designs for self-organising systems. This is something of a paradox because a self-organising system is one upon which, by definition, no organisation is imposed. Beer's detractors, he says, believe his model facilitates the secret manipulation of everything by shadowy figures in high places. He argues this is definitely not the case, and we are too often constrained by our everyday notions of control, which, in cybernetic systems, are very different. Unfortunately, I do not have the space to expand on these ideas here, however see also Ashby's definitions of hierarchical complexity in Appendix C.

Raul Espejo, as outlined above, built on the work of Beer. This includes the development of a software package called Viplan, which is a process for enacting the viable system model in organisational contexts. Espejo describes his concerns as being with a paradigm shift from the goal seeking, black box, functionalist approach of early cybernetics (first-order cybernetics in Figure 24), to the ‘meaning creation’ of soft system methodologies, to methodologies based on self-construction and autonomy (1997, p. 25). He also argues that it is crucial to clarify the way we see purpose in social systems, particularly the capacity for participation and self-construction of purposeful systems. His concern is that most purposes in our social systems are defined from the outside, denying the autonomy of the participants or stakeholders.