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Mastering systems thinking in practice
Mastering systems thinking in practice

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3 Stafford Beer (1926–2002)

Stafford Beer is regarded as the founder of management cybernetics [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] . 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.

Activity 3 Management cybernetics

Timing: Allow approximately 5 minutes for this activity.

Refer back to Figure 1 and, using the free response box, make notes on how Ray Ison has located management cybernetics in the various systems traditions.

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Management cybernetics was influenced by (mainly) first order cybernetics which in turn was influenced by work across a wide range of subject disciplines. It tends to recognise systems as epistemologies.

Beer’s contribution to systems thinking can be gauged from his obituary (Box 1).

Box 1 An obituary for Stafford Beer

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

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.

(Martin and Rosenhead, 2002)

Beer was a member of the group of researchers who generated the fields of systems science, as it was then called, and cybernetics.