Stafford Beer (1926 – 2002) was a management cybernetician who was the first to apply cybernetics to management problems. His longest academic association was with Manchester Business School, and he worked not only as a consultant to many commercial organisations, but also several Latin American nations, most notably Chile.
the important thing for organisations was that they should be adaptive – light on their feet and ready to accommodate themselves to the new modern situations which would arise faster and faster as time passed.
Pickering 2004 cited in Ramage and Shipp 2009
Since the work of William Ross Ashby, a key theme of cybernetics (and later of complexity theory) had been adaptability to change. Beer’s work was vital in showing how adaptability could work in practice for the design of both organisations and society.
Management cybernetics revolved around Beer’s development of the Viable Systems Model (VSM). The purpose of this model is:
to explain how systems are viable – that is, capable of independent existence … [and] to elucidate the laws of viability in order to facilitate the management task.
Beer 1984 p7
The VSM is based on the principle of recursion –
that any viable system contains and is contained in a viable system
(Beer 1984, p8)
– meaning that a system can be viable whatever level (individual, group, organisational, or societal) it exists at. Beer’s concept of a viable system contains five subsystems, with the functions of implementation, coordination, control, planning and policy-making (Espejo 1989 cited in Ramage and Shipp 2009). These five roles do not necessarily belong to different people, but Beer defines a clear set of communication and monitoring channels between the five subsystems. Thus according to the VSM, a system is viable to the extent that it meets the model. The VSM can be seen as a way of designing the organisational adaptability discussed earlier – as Pickering (2004, p511 cited in Ramage and Shipp 2009) argues,
despite the seeming paradoxicality of it, one can indeed construct adaptive systems, systems that adapt to and transform themselves in the face of the unknown, as in Beer’s implementations of the VSM.
In 1971, Beer was invited to use his ideas in Chile by the Allende government. He began developing a cybernetic plan for the regulation of the social economy of the country, which aimed to create:
a primary system of information and regulation for the industrial economy.
Beer 1981 p251
The violent coup that took place in Chile in 1973 had a considerable effect on Beer, who relocated to a small remote cottage in Wales where he lived alone for a decade.
He was an early advocate for Humberto Maturana and his use of the term autopoiesis, a complex term which can loosely be compared with self-generation feedback systems in the living world, such biological cells that regenerate. According to Ramage and Shipp, Beer coined the term ‘pathologically autopoetic’ to refer to organisations (such as hospitals and universities) where:
the staff slides into the error of paying more and more attention to those matters that explicate relationships than to healing or teaching – so that in the end a cured patient or an educated student were only the product of self-help and good luck.
Beer 1987 cited in Ramage and Shipp 2009
As Jackson concludes:
Just as organisation charts embodied mechanistic thinking, the VSM captures what it is like to view organisations as organisms with a brain. This is an extremely powerful way of thinking which managers should treasure and employ as an alternative to the conventional model.
Jackson 2003 p110
References and Beer’s further works
Beer, S 1972 ‘Brain of the Firm’ Allen Lane: London
Beer, S 1974 ‘Designing Freedom’ CBC Publications, Toronto
Beer, S 1979 ‘The Heart of Enterprise’ Wiley: Chichester
Jackson, M 2003 ‘Systems Thinking: Creative Holism for Managers’ Wiley and Sons: Chichester
Ramage M and Shipp K 2009 ‘Systems Thinkers’ Open University: Milton Keynes