Stafford Beer (1926 – 2002)

Stafford BeerI was fortunate enough to be introduced to the work of Stafford Beer on a recommendation back in 2005 but I don’t think Beer is that well known about. This is my small attempt to adjust the balance.

Professor Stafford Beer was one of the key figures in the field of Operational Research (OR). He wrote a number of highly regarded books; was a world leader in the development of systems ideas; and founded the field of ‘Management Cybernetics’ (or in his words “the science of effective organisations”).

Born in London, he studied Philosophy and Psychology before joining the British army in 1944. After service as a company commander and in intelligence in India, he left the army and realised that the wartime learnings in respect of OR could be applied to business and its management.

Over the next 20 or so years he set up and ran a number of OR groups, carrying out organisational studies and interventions. He was at the leading edge of new technologies (many IT based).

So to 1971 when Beer put all his thinking together and took on, what is in today’s world, a somewhat amazing role: He went over to Chile to work with the socialist President Salvador Allende, to apply his cybernetics-based control systems thinking to Chile’s entire social economy via real-time computerised systems!

The aim was to use computers and telex communications (this was the early ’70s) to allow the government to maximise production while preserving the autonomy of workers and lower management. You can read all about it in a section at the back of his book called ‘The Brain of the Firm’.

Clarification: For those of you reading the ‘socialist’ word, this was not an experiment in communism. Far from it – the aim was to create a regulated system that learns, adapts and evolves.

Cybersyn roomHere’s an amazing photo of his Cybersyn operations room for Chile in 1972:

This was the stuff of the future…until General Pinochet’s (US CIA sponsored) coup in 1973, resulting in the death of President Allande and all his close colleagues. Pinchot’s subsequent military junta abandoned Beer’s work.

Beer went on to advise no less than 22 governments (incl. the presidential offices of Mexico, Uruguay and Venezuela). We might not know too much about Stafford Beer but Central and South America certainly do.

In mid-1970, being deeply affected by what had happened to those that had become his close friends in Chile, Beer renounced material possessions and developed a strong interest in poetry and art. He grew what has been termed a ‘pantomime beard’ (as per picture above) and become a virtual hermit.

Important works

POSIWID: Beer is famous for coining the insightful ‘the purpose of the system is what it does’ acronym. I wrote an earlier post to explain it here.

The Viable Systems Model: Beer wrote many books but his most famous is probably ‘The Brain of the Firm’*. In it he examines the human body as a complex and dynamic system. In order to be viable, it needs to stand up on its own right. To achieve this (be ‘survival-worthy’) it is regulated, learns, adapts and evolves. Beer sets out and explains five inter-related systems that allow the body to do this…and then goes on to apply this to organisations.

* Note: It is quite hard work to read but fascinating.

Beer saw hierarchical organisation charts as ‘devices for apportioning blame’. Instead, he saw that organisations must allow as much autonomy as possible whist maintaining the integrity of the whole. This is very similar logic to Deming’s famous ‘figure 1’ diagram of a system which found its way onto the walls of many a Japanese company.

Team Syntegrity: Beer understood that large team meetings are notoriously poor environments for generating diverse thought and good decision making. He derived a ‘systems thinking’ meeting protocol (a ‘Team syntegration’) to support the encounter of about 30 people in a non-hierarchical set-up that supports a strong exchange of personal knowledge and experience, giving all participants the chance to contribute to the best of their abilities towards the purpose of the problem under consideration. Today, Syntegration facilitates this method for organisations around the world.

…and finally:

The measure of the man:

He has been described as being a ‘larger than life’ character with boundless energy, with one newspaper obituary titled ‘Subversive Showman’. He brought an often unwelcome message to those who would listen – about complexity and change.

Here’s a couple of favourite ‘Beer’ sayings, recalled by those that hugely respected him:

“Don’t bite my finger: Look where it is pointing.”

“You accuse me of using big words that you find hard to understand. But you need big words for big ideas. And you should find it hard to understand.”

He was a visiting professor at nearly 30 Universities across the world and received many awards for his work.

In short, he was “a charming and unusual man” who “simply wasn’t harnessed to the system.”


Sources/ reference material:

Wikipedia page:

openDemocracy obituary: ‘Stafford Beer; the man who could have run the world.’

Robert Flood: ‘Rethinking the fifth discipline’