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6th Metaphorum Conference – 9-10 of March 2007

 St.Gallen - Switzerland

 

New Developments of Organizational Cybernetics

after Stafford Beer

( a report of  Dr Allena Leonard and Dr Angela Espinosa )

 

 

The St. Gallen Conference was held with the support and sponsorship of St. Gallen University and Malik Magangement Centre. This Conference featured about twenty-five presenters with four keynote addresses.

 

After a welcome by Professor Alfredo Moscardini, Professor Marcus Schwaninger of St. Gallen University opened with a eulogy for peace researcher and game theory pioneer Anatol Rapoport who was another of the pioneers in systems theory and a founder of the Society for General Systems Research. He then presented his work on a theory of optimal organization and the discoveries he has made about ratios that are associated with appropriate scales of response and adaptation.

 

The next event was an introduction and poster session where between forty and fifty participants gave a brief account of who they were and what they would talk about if they were making a presentation or talking from a poster.  The poster session provided an opportunity for some of the presenters and several others who were proposing topics for one of the self-organizing sessions to introduce their ideas.

 

The next presentation was by Steve Brewis, who (along with Vydia Rajaram) reported on work to make the vast amounts of data collected by British Telecom useful for senior management strategic choices in BT’s 21st Century Network Initiative.  They presented a prototype of a cybernetic model that rationalizes data for management decision-making.  

 

Steve Morlidge and Lucely Vargas presented work on rethinking financial management.  Steve presented his reflections after several years working in financial management at Unilever and finding Beer’s work.  He summarized his current research aimed at rethinking financial management, based on the Beyond Budgeting initiative and cybernetic principles. Lucely introduced her research on Corporate Social and Environmental Responsibility; she is also exploring furthering the understanding of these issues using organizational cybernetics as an analytical framework.

 

Alfredo Moscardini from Sunderland University gave a short piece for discussion on the concepts of identity and recursion and how identity is maintained as units of a collective are replaced.  He reported on some interesting findings from the experiences of organ transplant recipients.  Among them was the appearance of new interests and preferences in food that had been a part of the life of the donee but had not until after the transplant been in the universe of the recipient.

 

Allenna Leonard gave another discussion piece on her interest in extending the application of the viable system model to situations where the entity might not be viable, or whose viability would be uncertain.  She proposed looking at the biological phenomena of symbiosis where cooperation or resource sharing enhanced viability for some, like the clownfish and the sea anemone and where some new organisms could arise such as the lichen (a symbiosis of fungi and algae) which would not have been viable before.

 

Angela Espinosa presented her current research on invariance in self-regulatory processes in social and natural systems from a perspective of emergence and complexity. She commented on some differences and complementarities between complexity sciences and cybernetics, in relation to the understanding and handling of complexity as well as to the idea of self-organization in social organisations. She then issued some seed theoretical questions that will be central in the research project, as well as the sort of implications that it will have for the organizations introduced.

 

In a session devoted to dissemination of the Viable System Model, Susan Jones presented the report on her research on using a multi-media presentation she prepared to introduce the VSM to a group of managers.  She was able to report that they had retained many of the concepts when interviewed six months later and that they had appeared to enjoy the experience.  The multi-media programme could be used as a teaching tool, but it would need some revision to match current production standards. In the same session, Luc Hoebeke gave a flip chart demonstration of how he worked with managers and engineers to present the VSM to them in the context of their own work environment and experiences.  He drew upon his extensive experience consulting to a wide variety of organizations.

 

Robert Woog, from the University of Western Sydney in Australia, explored the comparison of systems thinking with complexity theory, suggesting that concepts from the latter would enrich interpretations by stressing a methodology of harnessing intuition for an intervention using improvisation for situations where there is considerable imprecision.  He discussed metaphoric narrative, attractor analysis, fractal characterizations and fuzzy logic to see what they could add to understanding and potentially intervening in the operations of systems.

 

In a parallel session, Jan Achterbergh and Dirk Vriens from Radboud University in the Netherlands discussed other regulatory principles that might be added to the VSM in order to address organizations as social systems, conducting ongoing risky experiments with their viability through their setting and resetting of goals.  In particular they looked at viability in a broader sense covering not just survival but the capacity for positive impact on their environments.  Adding to the VSM’s treatment of organizational functions, the authors propose infrastructural considerations, including division of labour, information technology and human resources. They further suggest that, since systems theory and cybernetics are generalizable across many fields that for social systems other approaches such as those of Luhmann’s be used.

 

Clive Holtham of City University presented ten management aphorisms taken from systems thinking based on the numbers one to ten to promote a radical change in management education.  He observed that many of the problems Beer identified are still causing problems today, especially the pressing problem of information overload.  Managers and other practitioners in the social sciences prefer incremental change to radical reconsideration and this leads to a failure to progress by accumulating knowledge and to forgetting insights that had been helpful before.

 

Jan Jacobs presented his research on the International Knowledge Network for Sustainability, an informal group that works across several countries and languages to advance projects, especially in information and communications technology as they relate to sustainability.  The difficulty of working with only sporadic funding for specific projects and the need for face-to-face communication to bind dispersed working groups has proven to be a barrier to effectiveness, but the group continues to look for solutions.

 

Czeslaw Mesjasz of Krakow University in Poland posed the question “Do we know what we do not know?”  He is concerned with the wholesale and indiscriminate use of metaphors and analogies, such as ‘complexity of social systems’, ‘organizations on the edge of chaos’, ‘fractal organizations’ ‘turbulence’ and ‘organizational knowledge’. Concepts that have clear definitions and rigorous methodologies in the fields of physics. Engineering and biology cannot be carried over to social situations with the same definitions.  Their limitations as metaphors and analogies must be recognized and used with caution to avoid confusion.

 

At the end of the afternoon, a bus took us out to the St. Gallen offices of the Malik Management Centre where we divided into two groups to take turns in the operations room that they have developed. It is a successor to the operations room that Stafford designed for the Cybersyn project in Chile, which was aborted in the coup that overthrew President Salvadore Allende and replaced him with Dictator Augusto Pinochet.  One group heard a description of work being in Mozambique by Ralf Eckhart-Turke in one of the autonomous villages.  The project has been working with the administrative officers, the leadership of the local sugar industry and the hereditary kings to move toward participative community decision-making.  They are being introduced to the VSM through an analogy to the family, wherein they can see the VSM’s five functions operating in familiar territory. 

 

The other group went to the operations room where Carl Heinz Oeller gave us a demonstration of the real time tracking of performance indicators of a chocolate producing company.  The operations room had four screens: one for pictures of the site and its activities; the other three for a VSM, graphs of progress on specific indicators and other real time monitoring results.  He recounted several instances where the use of the real time data had enabled an organization to be aware more quickly of change and hence to take more effective action.

 

Next morning we had another set of parallel sessions.  In one, Inga  Krattli discussed the potential role of the systems sciences in the context of globalization and participation.  She explained how by focusing on certain values and developing shared understandings we could facilitate the process towards a more peaceful global society.  She opened questions on how cybernetics in particular may help advance this purpose.

 

Stig Holmberg from the Mid-Sweden University reported on an ongoing experiment in e-government community participation which is moving into a trial of the Team Syntegrity process, called Wikitegrity, which brings participants together on line to discuss their community’s future.  It is hoped that this process might be found to fulfill Bela Banathy’s prescription for a third generation ‘designing within’ wherein all stakeholders would have their say. The standard Team Syntegrity process is performed with up to about forty-two people who meet face to face.  Very few experiments have been done with larger numbers or a totally electronic format.

 

Astrid Erbson and Ralf Eckhart-Turke conducted a session to reflect on the use of VSM from a second order cybernetics perspective.  They showed a summary of criticisms from the literature regarding uses of VSM that do not stand on a phenomenological position, and hold a debate on alternative methodologies and tools. To progress in this direction of combined use of VSM and second order cybernetics.

 

Viveca Asproth of Mid-Sweden University discussed work she and colleagues had been doing in inter-organizational environments that do not operate by the same criteria as do traditional organizations.  She described three cases: a visually based simulation of how to respond to flooding (which operates on a case-by-case basis), the study of records management in situations such as building permits where records from disparate agencies must be coordinated to provide one-stop shopping for citizens using e-government services and a model for collaboration and sustainable development between 400 small and medium size businesses in Sweden. Models of flat organizations, network management, spiral management and virtual organizations were used.  She also utilized James Grier Miller’s Living Systems theory with its eight levels and twenty functions as a comparison.

 

Fredmund Malik offered a plenary session on the background, development and projections of Malik Management Centre, (MZSG), the company he leads that holds the copyrights to Stafford’s academic publications.  Over more than thirty years they have been utilizing the work of Stafford and other systems practitioners in consulting and training and have issued books and other materials on management education. More recently, the company has been offering Syntegrations and the use of an operations room to its clients as well as VSM consultancy and Vester’s Sensitivity Analysis.  A bionics initiative is the latest service. The company now has more than 250 employees and is progressing the use of Stafford’s work, mostly in Europe.

 

In the afternoon we had a plenary session from Javier Livas. Javier worked closely with Stafford in Mexico in the eighties, aiming to reform political and governmental issues at the national level. He spoke about the efforts he has been making in Mexico to introduce systems thinking in government and in the business community.  He also related how Stafford worked with him to promote fairness in elections in Mexico.  Since then he has continued to develop Staffords’s work and its application to the State.  Javier offered a summary also of his own philosophical and political views emerging from his study of cybernetics.

 

Stefan Grosser then coordinated a video conference with Jose Perez-Rios in Spain.  Jose explained the new version of his VSMod software that he has developed to support diagnosis and design using the VSM.  He gave a demonstration of its features and answered questions posed from the audience. He announced it is now available in both Spanish and English. We had hoped to be able to connect with Leonid and Peter Ototsky but that did not turn out to be possible.  They submitted abstracts that will be available on the website with all the presentations - http://www.ototsky.mgn.ru/it/papers/stafford_heritage21.pdf, http://www.ototsky.mgn.ru/it/papers/nis-metaphorum2007.pdf .

 

David Beatty invited the group to participate in a game that would eventually involve Syntegrations or other group meetings between people who had experienced the 1960’s (who are now in their own sixties) and the young people who will form tomorrow’s leadership with respect to sustainability and related problems.

 

The Conference finished with a plenary guided by Alfredo Moscardini, Angela Espinosa, Roger Harnden and Paul Stokes, where they presented a summary of Metaphorum’s last Conferences and activities.  This led to a group discussion on possibilities for further development, improved organization for the next conference.  It was agreed to try to  make it a 2.5 day Syntegration.

 

The current officers (Alfredo Moscardini, Chairman, Angela Espinosa, General Secretary and Paul Stokes, Treasurer) were given a vote of thanks and approved to carry on in office for another year. It was decided to provide members with an opportunity to revisit the organizational structure of Metaphorum and propose new arrangements before holding elections next year.  Information about this should be issued a couple of months before next year’s conference.