||This article possibly contains original research. (April 2015)|
Management cybernetics is the application of cybernetics to management and organizations. "Management cybernetics" was first introduced by Stafford Beer in the late 1950s. Beer developed the theory through a combination of practical applications and a series of influential books. The practical applications involved steel production, publishing, operations research in a large variety of different industries, and a large scale experiment in managing a national economy.
Beer's major contributions include:
- a general approach or methodology for doing practical research into operations within organizations, which can be termed "research into operations"
- the Viable System Model
Research into Operations
As practiced by Beer, research into operations involved multidisciplinary teams seeking practical assistance for difficult managerial issues. It often involved the development of models borrowed from basic sciences and put into an isomorphic relationships with an organizational situation. Beer initially called this "Operations Research" but, along with Russell Ackoff, became increasingly disenchanted with that term as the field transitioned into one in which a predefined set of mathematical tools was applied to well-formulated problems. Beer's critique of traditional OR, in part, was that it became a matter of experts in mathematics looking for situations that could be conformed to their methods. Beer insisted that what was needed for effective research into operations was to first understand the key dynamics within the situation and only then to select the theory or methods that would allow one to understand that situation in detail. Beer's "Decision and Control", especially chapter six, discusses the methodology in some detail.
Viable System Model
Viable means capable of independent existence and implies both maintaining internal stability and adaptation to a changing environment. "Internal stability" and "adaptation" can be in conflict, particularly if the relevant environment is changing rapidly, so the viable system model (VSM) is about maintaining a balance between the two such that the system is able to survive.
The VSM is a model of the structures and functions that are both necessary and sufficient for the long term survival of a system in a changing environment. Allenna Leonard, Beer's long time partner, suggested that the most useful way to think about the VSM is as a language. The VSM is a language of viability. The VSM is a language for diagnosing organizations and managerial teams in terms of their viability or lack thereof. The VSM is also a language for designing organizations and managerial teams that will be viable. One of the advantages of the VSM is that, in the hands of a competent practitioner, it is very fast. Patrick Hoverstadt of Fractal Consulting is one of many consultants who report that a consulting intervention that would normally take weeks can usually be done with the VSM in a few days.
One of the great difficulties in managing the modern large organization is that many of the issues are far too complex for even small groups. The critical knowledge is often dispersed among a substantial number of people. Organizations are often faced with choosing between 1) very costly and time consuming meetings of large groups or 2) making bad decisions based on an inadequate grasp of the relevant factors. Syntegration is a group method designed to solve this conundrum.
Syntegration melds a number of cybernetic principles with Bucky Fuller's ideas on tensegrity. The initial "team syntegrity" format involved 30 people divided into 12 overlapping teams to deal with some broad and initially ill-defined issue. The teams and roles within the teams are arranged to achieve the mathematically optimum degree of resonance of information throughout the entire group. In practice, syntegration achieves a remarkable degree of shared understanding of the initial issue. In syntegrations iintended to develop a plan of action, the implementation phase is usually very quick and effective, probably because of the shared understanding developed among the participants. Team Syntegrity International is the leading consulting firm for syntegrations in North America, In Europe, Fredmund Malik of Malik Managment is the leading practitioner for management cybernetics generally and specifically for syntegrations.
Learning Management Cybernetics
The literature on management cybernetics is extensive. Beer himself wrote hundreds of papers and about ten books. Others have written perhaps an equal volume of papers and books. Unfortunately, reading extensively is not the best way to learn management cybernetics. For instance, Barry Clemson reports that his students who early on in their studies attempted to apply the Viable System Model invariably succeeded and quickly gained a good understanding of the model. Those who studied the books without making concrete applications seldom gained a good understanding of the VSM.
Trying to understand syntegration from reading is like trying to understand dance without ever dancing or even seeing a performance or dancing oneself. Syntegration is a group process method and really needs to be experienced to be understood. The same is true of the research into operations methods.
Nevertheless, most people need a starting point that involves reading. Barry Clemson, at Beer's urging, wrote a 1968 introduction to management cybernetics that is still a good starting point (Cybernetics: A new management tool). Patrick Hoverstadt wrote an excellent introduction that is full of practical, real-life examples (The Fractal Organization:Creating sustainable organizations with the Viable System Model).
Organizational cybernetics is distinguished from management cybernetics. Both use many of the same terms but interpret them according to another philosophy of systems thinking. The full flowering of management cybernetics is represented in Beer's books
Organizational Cybernetics (OC) studies organizational design, and the regulation and self-regulation of organizations from a systems theory perspective that also takes the social dimension into consideration. Researchers in economics, public administration and political science focus on the changes in institutions, organisation and mechanisms of social steering at various levels (sub-national, national, European, international) and in different sectors (including the private, semi-private and public sectors; the latter sector is emphasised).
- Fredmund Malik
- Gregory Bateson
- Heinz von Foerster
- New cybernetics
- Norbert Wiener
- Institut für Unternehmenskybernetik
- Team Syntegrity
- Warren McCulloch
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- Cwarel Isaf Institute
- The Cybernetics Society
- Web Dictionary of Cybernetics and Systems
- Fractal Consulting