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Stafford Beer (1926-2002)

  • contributed by Markus Schwaninger, October 2004

Professor Stafford Beer, the founder of managerial cybernetics, is one of the pioneers and foremost thinkers of the systems approach in general, and management science in particular.

He held managerial positions at every level - including those of Production Controller, Director of Management Science, Director of Development, Managing Director, Company President, and Chairman of the Board, in various companies. He founded Team Syntegrity Inc. (Canada) and he was an international consultant. He worked at the governmental level in twenty-five countries, and for many international agencies.

Stafford Beer was a visiting professor in approximately 30 universities in Britain, Europe and North America, including Manchester (where he lectured for 24 years) and Durham Business Schools, the Open University, the Wharton School in the University of Pennsylvania, University College Swansea, The University of Stockholm and the University of Toronto. Liverpool John Moores University nominated him life Honorary Professor of Organizational Transformation. He held a Master of Business Administration (University of Manchester) and a Dr. of Science (University of Sunderland). For his pathbreaking achievements, honorary doctorates were awarded to him by Concordia University, Montreal, the University of St. Gallen, Switzerland, the University of Valladolid, Spain, and the University of Glamorgan, Wales, U.K. (Doctor of Letters).

Beer was President of the Operational Research Society, and of the International Society for Social Systems Sciences. He received the Mc Culloch Award of the American Society for Cybernetics, of which he also became a Trustee. He also was awarded the Lanchester Prize of the Operations Research Society of America, for the outstanding contribution to the literature of management science in the world (Decision and Control, Wiley, 1966), as the first non-American. Furthermore, Stafford Beer held the Silver Medal of the Royal Swedish Academy for Engineering Sciences, the Gold Medal of the United Kingdom Systems Society, and the Freedom of the City of London. He was President of the World Organization of Systems and Cybernetics, of which he held the Norbert Wiener Gold Medal.

As an adolescent, Beer fought a conflict between his aims of becoming a philosopher or a mathematician, until, at the age of 18, he suddenly had the insight that both aims were about the same thing. With his books Cybernetics and Management (London: English Universities Press, 1959) and Decision and Control (Chichester: Wiley, 1965) he laid the foundation for Management Cybernetics thereby building on earlier works of Ross Ashby, Warren Mc Culloch, Norbert Wiener, and Heinz von Foerster.

Beer's work offers concepts and tools for dealing with high complexity, an ubiquitous issue in organizational life. A set-theoretic model, in which he defined the organizational prerequisites for the viability of systems, was later operationalized in a topological model, known as the VSM – Viable Systems Model (Beer, S.: Heart of Enterprise, Wiley, 1979; Brain of the Firm, 2nd ed., Wiley, 1981; Diagnosing the System for Organizations, Wiley, 1985). In this model, a set of functions is distinguished, which provide the 'necessary and sufficient conditions' (Beer, passim) for the viability of any human or social system.

These functions and their interrelationships are specified in a comprehensive theory, the propositions of which can be summarized as follows:

  1. An enterprise is viable if and only if it disposes of a set of management functions with a specific set of the interrelationships, identified and formalized in the model:

    - System 1: Regulatory capacity of the basic units, autonomous adaptation to their environment, optimization of ongoing activities

    - System 2: Attenuation and amplification to damp oscillations and coordinate activities via information and communication

    - System 3: Establishing overall optimum among basic units, resource allocation, providing for synergies

    - System 3*: Investigation and validation of information flowing between Systems 1-3 and 1-2-3 via auditing/ monitoring activities

    - System 4: Dealing with long term and overall outside environment, diagnosis and modeling of the organization in its environment

    - System 5: Balance the interaction of �3� and �4�, embodiment of supreme values, rules and norms, - the ethos of the system.
  2. Any deficiencies in this system, such as missing functions, insufficient capacity of the functions or faulty interaction between them impair or endanger the viability of the organization.
  3. The viability, cohesion and self-organization of an enterprise depend upon these functions being recursively present at all levels of the organization. A recursive structure comprises autonomous units within autonomous units. Moreover, a viable organization is made up of viable units and it is itself embedded in more comprehensive viable units. Each unit, inasmuch as it is producing the organization's task, rather than servicing or supporting this producing, replicates - in structural terms - the totality in which it is embedded: It has all the functions outlined under (1.), to be able to manage, from start to finish, the processes for the purpose of which it exists. If we take such a viable organization as a 'system-in-focus', depending on the perspective adopted, it �may have more than one next higher and next lower recursion� (Beer, Diagnosing, 6; for a pertinent application, see Allenna Leonard's paper on commercial broadcasting, in: Espejo/Harnden, eds., The Viable System Model).

The VSM has been transduced into the language of business and also been widely applied, as documented in several books (e.g. Espejo, R./Harnden, R., eds.: The Viable System Model, Wiley, 1989; Espejo, R./Schwaninger, M., eds: Organisational Fitness, Frankfurt/New York: Campus, 1996; Espejo, R./Schuhmann, W./Schwaninger, M.: Corporate Transformation and Learning, Wiley, 1996).

In the nineteen-nineties, Stafford Beer completed a new model for the design of communication processes, and management processes in particular - the Team Syntegrity Model. This is complementary to the Viable System Model, and meant to be a concrete approach to the design of the System 3 - System 4 relationship (Beer, S.: Beyond Dispute, Wiley, 1994). Moreover, it is a model for democratic management.

Team Syntegrity builds on Buckminster Fuller's proposition, that all systems are polyhedra. Beer proposes a formal model for an infoset to deal with complex challenges or problems, establishing a protocol based on the structure of polyhedra, the icosahedron (convex polyhedron of 30 edges, 20 triangles and 12 vertices), in particular.

An infoset is a set of people who have a common concern, are in possession of pertinent knowledge connected with the subject, and are motivated to tackle the shared issue. Thirty members of the infoset work on the issue, embodying the edges of the icosahedron, each person being a member of two teams of five, represented by the vertices. Each member of the infoset is also a critic to two other teams, and also an observer of all the teams of which he or she is not a member.

The protocol, which is also applicable to numbers other than 30, provides a mechanism for a heterarchical generation of the agenda, and a precise structure for the sequence of discussions of teams with their critics. As experiments have demonstrated, the discussion in groups of changing compositions creates a reverberative effect, which fosters group cohesion, and shared mental models. Although the model is highly formalized, it has been applied by many corporations with results that corroborate the experimental evidence.

Author of over two hundred publications, including eleven books variously translated into thirteen languages, Stafford Beer also published poems, and held several exhibitions of paintings.

Beer himself constructed numerous one-off cybernetic models of such disparate areas as societal triage, health, the dynamics of band development, city planning, education, particular organizations and several models of the integral human personality. Some of theses are described in his book Platform for Change, others are written up in How Many Grapes Went into the Wine, and in late publications in journals, e.g. Systems Practice and Kybernetes, and some have not been written up at all.

For the established science of management and administration, Beer's work is highly innovative, and even revolutionary. Therefore, it has only been assimilated to a small extent. However, as the application literature demonstrates, its potential for dealing with the complexities of today's world is enormous. This explains the vigorously growing interest in Beers work among practitioners and academics.

Markus Schwaninger Professor of Management University of St. Gallen, Switzerland October 2004 (update; first version published in 1996)

Books by Stafford Beer:

Beer, S. (1959). Cybernetics and Management, London: The English Universities Press. Also published in Spanish and German.
Beer, S. (1966). Decision and Control. The Meaning of Operational Research and Management Cybernetics, Chichester etc: Wiley.
Beer, S. (1967). Management Science. The Business Use of Operations Research, London: Aldus Books. Also published in Spanish and German.
Beer, S. (1975). Platform for Change, Chichester etc.: Wiley.
Beer, S. (1979). The Heart of Enterprise. Chichester etc.: Wiley.
Beer, S. (1975) Designing Freedom, Chichester etc.: Wiley.
Beer, S. (1981). Brain of the Firm. 2nd edition, reprint, Chichester etc.: Wiley (First edition: 1972, London: Penguin Press). Also published in German, Spanish and Japanese.
Beer, S. (1983). Transit (Poems), Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island: Mitchell Communications (First edition: 1977, Dyfed, Wales: CWRW Press).
Beer, S. (1985). Diagnosing the System for Organizations. Chichester etc.: Wiley.
Beer, S. & Blohm, H. (1986). Pebbles to Computers, Toronto: Oxford University Press.
Beer, S. (1994). Beyond Dispute. The Invention of Team Syntegrity, Chichester etc.: Wiley.
Beer, S. (1994). How Many Grapes Went into the Wine. Stafford Beer on the Art and Science of Holistic Management, Harnden, R. & Leonard, A., eds., Chichester etc.: Wiley.

Note: The Classical Stafford Beer Library is an edition in paperback of Decision and Control, The Heart of Enterprise, Designing Freedom, Platform for Change, Diagnosing the System for Organizations and Brain of the Firm. This series of books is available from Wiley, Chichester, at a special price.

Selected Books on Stafford Beer's Oeuvre

Espejo, R. & Harnden, R., eds. (1989) The Viable System Model. Interpretations and Applications of Stafford Beer's VSM, Chichester etc.: Wiley.
Espejo, R. & Schwaninger, M., eds. (1993). Organisational Fitness - Corporate Effectiveness through Management Cybernetics (with contributions by Stafford Beer and others) Frankfurt/New York: Campus.
Espejo, R. & Schuhmann, W. & Schwaninger, M. & Bilello, U. (1996). Organizational Transformation and Learning. A Cybernetic Approach to Management, Chichester etc.: Wiley.
Espejo, R. & Schwaninger, M. & Associates (1998). To Be and Not to Be, that is the System. A Tribute to Stafford Beer, CD-ROM, Wiesbaden, Germany: Carl-Auer-Systeme-Verlag, ISBN 3-89670-063-4.

stafford_beer_by_markus_schwaninger.txt · Last modified: 2020/07/27 15:38 (external edit)