Lessons of Stafford Beer

( Lecciones de Stafford Beer)


Leonid Ototskyhttp://ototsky.mgn.ru

(Corrected by Raul Espejo )

This is an updated version of paper published in the Computerra weekly of Russia



I have explored in two earlier short papers, published in the Computerra Weekly (#36 and #44 2003), Stafford Beer’s work and his contribution as the “father” of organizational cybernetics (management cybernetics) http://ototsky.mgn.ru/it/beer_in_computerra.html , http://ototsky.mgn.ru/it/beer_in_computerra2.html Those were only very short accounts of his enormous contribution. Today, after his death in 2002, many around the world are actively developing his heritage. Beyond those mentioned in the previous papers, institutions/projects like for example the Cwarel Isaf Institute in Switzerland (www.managementkybernetik.com/en/fs_inst.html ) and the British project “Real Time Government” ( www.nickgreen.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk/control.htm), can be mentioned. The list of the organizations developing Beer’s work are placed in a site of the UK Cybernetics Society (www.cybsoc.org/contacts/people-Beer.htm ).

For Russia Beer’s approach is very relevant in order to overcome the first stage of “wild capitalism”. If we don’t use Beer’s ideas current attempts to struggle against bureaucracy and desires to downsize personnel will inevitably lead to increase in staff and more bureaucracy (cf. Parkinson's Laws). Beer’s approach and related technology were originally developed for the steel industry in the UK and then implemented for the Chilean government in 1971-1973. The main aim of the Cybersyn project, which included the Cyberstride suite of computer programs, was “to do away” with bureaucracy in Chile. This technology helped compressing and filtering “vertical” information. An in depth analysis of Cybersyn/Cyberstride should permit comparing the Beer’s VSM model to current approaches such as the BSC of Norton and Kaplan. What follows is a brief list of factors that made possible the Cybersyn project in Chile that could be very relevant for Russia now.

First there where people in the Allende’s government who knew well Beer’s works and were aware of its use by SIGMA (Beer’s consultancy company) in the Chilean metallurgy industry ( Fernando Flores and Raul Espejo ). This knowledge triggered the invitation to Beer to become adviser of a nation-wide project.

Secondly, to their surprise, Beer practically at once agreed to it, having postponed many other projects. We thought, “Stafford has gone mad again “ — his son Simon recollects. http://www.guardian.co.uk/chile/story/0,13755,1037547,00.html . However this was not a casual act; Beer considered that “the world of the rich” had never recognized cybernetics as a management tool and consequently had dismissed it. In this invitation he saw an opportunity to put in practice fundamental cybernetics ideas.

Thirdly, Allende himself thought that the Soviet bureaucratic system was flawed in principle and recognized in Beer’s ideas an alternative. Indeed he actively promoted the project. “It was required about half an hour and a sheet of a paper” wrote Beer in “Brain of the firm” to explain Allende the VSM. “I could not know whether the President was prepared for this, but I precisely knew that he was a qualified physician“ wrote Beer and “he very quickly grasped the model as the ‘brain’ of the firm”. These were unique conditions to organize a nation-wide project in Chile. Its outline was produced in eight days. “Our group worked without interruptions for eight days up to exhaustion“ – wrote Beer.

Fourthly, Beer organized an international project involving leading experts from many countries in it. He became the scientific director of the project. Experts in Great Britain, using the Harrison-Stevens Bayesian statistical model for short-term forecasting, designed the Cyberstride suite of computer programs for the management of the economy in real time. The modeling of the Chilean economy (Checo program) made use of Jay Forrester’s system dynamics and was implemented in collaboration with Ron Atherton from Lancaster University in the UK. For the multilevel “algedonic” control of social structures Beer used experiments of his son Simon in Great Britain in collaboration with CEREN, home of highly regarded sociologists in Chile. Theoretical questions of auto stability of viable system were discussed with the outstanding Chilean scientist Humberto Maturana — the author of the famous model of self-reproducing systems (Autopoietic Systems). “The heart” of Cybersyn – the Operations Room for the management of the industrial economy, was made in Great Britain using designs of Gui Bonsiepe a German designer working in Chile at the time of the project.

The above list makes apparent the multidisciplinary requirements necessary to create a system to manage a complex economy in real time. It would be useful for Russian authorities to scrutinize this experience in depth, since some of Beer’s colleagues have expressed interest to take part in a similar project in Russia. For example contacts between the Systems Integration and Management Chair ( http://sim.ol.ru/index_e.htm ) of the famous MIPT ( http://www.phystech.edu ) and Raul Espejo one of Cybersyn’s leaders are in progress now. Of course Russia’s priority is solving today’s problems but problems of the future must not be neglected. In his paper the “World in Torment” (http://www.staffordbeer.com/papers/World%20in%20Torment.pdf) Beer looks at the world’s present situation with deep pessimism. He writes “Soviet communism accepted its own demise; Western capitalism has not accepted it yet”.