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A presentation  at the  Metaphorum – 2005 Conference

 

Stafford Beer’s work in Russia and beyond

 

Leonid Ototskyhttp://ototsky.mgn.ru/

IT Department of the MMK - http://www.mmk.ru/eng/index.wbp

 

To my knowledge Stafford Beer’s ideas were first disseminated in Russia in 1965 with the translation into Russian of his book “Cybernetics and Management”. His book “Management science” was translated in 1967 as were some of his papers describing enterprises as living organisms with 5-levels of interconnected systems. But the most significant breakthrough in the dissemination of his ideas took place in 1993 with the translation and publication of “Brain of the Firm”. This book triggered many discussions and related publications. Several centers emerged to study the VSM, which led to projects  implementing the VSM and more specifically to the implementation of operation rooms following Beer’s work in Chile. Unfortunately, in spite of the efforts made, the principles used in building these rooms were not always consistent with those of the VSM. For example attempts to filter and compress information from System 1 to System 5, simulation models of “technological transformations” , the “recursive” structure of the model and the implementation of “algedonic” control chains were rather poor.

 

“Study centres” for Beer’s ideas were organized in Novosibirsk and in Moscow. The Novosibirsk Centre was headed by Vladimir Khtsenko ( khits@ait.cs.nstu.ru ) who has included a chapter about the VSM in his book  “Self-organization” . The Moscow Centre, at the System Integration and Management chair

(SIM- http://sim-mfti.ru/it/  -   the prestigious Russian Technical University – the MIPT (http://www.phystech.edu/ ), has been headed by Vadim Shishov (vvshishov@yandex.ru). As a result of this interest Andrey Sergeev was sent to the University of Sunderland, under the TACIS Programme, where Stafford Beer and Alfredo Moscardini supervised his doctoral dissertation, focused on an implementation of the VSM.

 

A new wave of interest  in Stafford Beer’s ideas arose after his death in 2002 and the 30th anniversary of the Pinochet’s  coup in Chile. Four papers were published with an analysis of Beer’s heritage during 2003-2004: “Stafford Beer and the Future of IT” (http://www.ototsky.mgn.ru/it/beer_in_computerra.html ), “To the Cybercommunism question” (http://www.ototsky.mgn.ru/it/beer_in_computerra2.html ), “Lessons of Stafford Beer” (http://ototsky.mgn.ru/it/lessons.htm ) and “Stafford Beer and viable systems in the XXI Century” (http://old.sim-mfti.ru/content/-fl=182&doc=1012.htm ).

Also a website was developed in memory of Stafford Beer (http://www.ototsky.mgn.ru/it/beer_menu.html ) , and a new series to publish his books was set up by the URSS Editorial in Moscow ( http://www.urss.ru/ ). There is a special interest in the relevance of organizational cybernetics to the study of the growing  bureaucratic structures in the new Russia. This interest is manifest in the already referred paper “Lessons of Stafford Beer”. An updated version of  this paper has been published in the SIM Project website, under the title “Stafford Beer as Guru for the Electronic Russia”.

 

Another source of interest is the increasing number of analytical reports about Enterprise-architecture and  Enterprise Resources Planning.  New tools such as OLAP, Business Intelligence and Alert are improving the old style performance indices reports. New directions to solve this problem such as the Balanced Score Card (BSC) and the Theory Of Constrains (TOC) have empirical foundations and lack the deep theoretical approach of the VSM. The TOC community is starting to see their  connection with the VSM ( http://www.ototsky.mgn.ru/it/t_times2001.htm ). The BSC community (as it has become clear in correspondence with Kaplan) is not acquainted with the Beer’s work and has invented “their wheel” independently.

 

Another reason for the interest in Beer’s  ideas goes far beyond Russia’s boundaries. It is connected with the growing complexity of human made systems (artifacts) in different social domains. For example IBM regards “complexity” as the main obstacle to the growth of IT and their new Autonomic Computing approach has many features of the VSM (http://www.zurich.ibm.com/pdf/ebizz/idd-ac.pdf ). Charles Herring’s “The Viable Software” uses the VSM as one of its theoretical foundations (http://charles-herring.com/Thesis/ViableSoftware.pdf ). Of course further developments of the VSM are necessary, but this model offers a solid theoretical ground. Some features of such developments are highlighted in the paper “To keep abreast of the 21st Century” http://www.ototsky.mgn.ru/it/21abreast.htm ). Main challenges are the integration of the VSM with Maturana and Varela’s autopoiesis and Alexei Sharov’s biosemiotics.

 

Finally, and most fundamentally, is the relevance of Beer’s ideas to the viability of our modern civilization and the need for social changes in the globalised world of  the 21st Century (following the concerns of Norbert Wiener’s in “Cybernetics and society”).  As I  stress in the paper “Lessons of Stafford Beer”, in his “World in Torment” paper Beer looks at the present situation with deep pessimism: “Soviet communism has accepted its own demise; Western capitalism has not accepted it yet” ( http://ototsky.mgn.ru/vsm/  ).