Academic journal article Informing Science: the International Journal of an Emerging Transdiscipline

Insights from Managerial Cybernetics

Academic journal article Informing Science: the International Journal of an Emerging Transdiscipline

Insights from Managerial Cybernetics

Article excerpt

The Viable System Model

In this section, we will introduce some parallels of our research with that of Stafford Beer, who was acknowledged as 'the father of managerial cybernetics' by Norbert Wiener ('the father of cybernetics') (1948) himself.

Over the course of 30 years, Beer developed a rigorous model for Organizational behaviour based on an assumption that the biological structure of the human and his social behaviour were intrinsically linked. Starting with observations as a psychologist in the army, and then during several decades in management of the steel industry he dedicated his time to diagnosing Organizational behaviour and understanding long-term growth. To pass on his insights, he started with a mathematical (set-theoretical) model of the brain as the template for organizational growth, but quickly realized that peers preferred to understand his concepts with more concrete information. Thus he combined the maths with what he considered everyone knew about their bodies, in particular, about the central nervous system and general brain structure. In other words, he considered that the organization of the living and the mechanisms of perception were linked (cf. issue discussed in 'The need for Maps and Methods'). What is more, he believed that 'the organization of the living' referred not only to the individual, but also to society. He assumed that whatever patterns existed in the nervous system of the human would determine their behaviour and patterns of working in the physical and/or pre-given world.

The most important point for this paper is that Beer (1984, 1985) realized that a well-functioning and independent or 'viable' social system invariably included five distinct (necessary and sufficient) types of behaviours and sub-systems. In a trilogy of three books developing this idea, he proposed their integration in a 'Viable System Model' or VSM. In these books, Beer describes how functional decentralization and inherent cohesion of any system is possible once it is built on solid foundations. His model offers a way of providing autonomy in the design of adaptable and flexible organizations. Organizations built on his principles are apparently better able to balance both external and internal perspectives, and long- and short-term thinking, than others who do not use them (Leonard, 1997).

Beer never actually provided an explicit list of the five behaviours in any of his case studies or in any theoretical chapters of 'The Brain of the Firm' (1972) or 'The Heart of Enterprise' (1979). As he explained many years later, in response to others trying to create such a list, his rationale for leaving it out was that, 'the five sub-systems work recursively and cannot be isolated from each other, so attempts in the literature to identify them separately with managerial names are ill-conceived' (Beer, 2000).

However we propose that he was being over-cautious. The fact that a system includes interdependently arising and recursive behaviours should not stop us from identifying what these behaviours actually are. Thus we now provide an interpretation of the stages, qualities and functions, which the VSM sub-systems exhibit. This list is distilled from many different parts of his work, and of course, as Beer (2000) also said, does not imply a definitive order of manifestation:

(1) structural physical elements which provide the elements to be controlled and the initial direction in which movement takes place (e.g. the body or environment);

(2) the information systems, which coordinate relationships between elements in (1);

(3) the autonomic command centre, for operation and distribution of the internal functions of (1) and (2);

(4) the centre for planning and foresight and integration of (1) and (2) and (3) with the outside world;

(5) the overall command or control centre, which balances all other functions and demands (and is the so-called 'heart' or brain of the firm). …

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