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Anthony Stafford Beer (25 September 1926 – 23 August 2002) was a British theorist, consultant and professor at the Manchester Business School. He is best known for his work in the fields of operational research and management cybernetics.
Beer was born in London in 1926. He started a degree in philosophy at University College London, but left in 1944 to join the army. He saw service in India and stayed there until 1947. In 1949, he was demobilized, having reached the rank of captain.
He joined United Steel and persuaded the management to found an operational research group, the Department of Operations Research and Cybernetics, which he headed. In 1961 he left United Steel to start an operational research consultancy in partnership with Roger Eddison called SIGMA (Science in General Management). Beer left SIGMA in 1966 to work for a SIGMA client, the International Publishing Corporation (IPC). He was appointed development director at IPC and pushed for the adoption of new computer technologies. Beer left IPC in 1970 to work as an independent consultant, focusing on his growing interest in social systems.
In mid-1971, Beer was approached by Fernando Flores, then a high-ranking member of the Chilean Production Development Corporation (CORFO) in the newly elected socialist government of Salvador Allende, for advice on applying his cybernetic theories to the management of the state-run sector of the Chilean economy. This led to Beer's involvement in the never-completed Cybersyn project, which aimed to use computers and a telex-based communication network to allow the government to maximize production while preserving the autonomy of workers and lower management. Although Cybersyn was abandoned after Allende was removed from power by the Pinochet coup in 1973, Beer continued to work in the Americas, consulting for the governments of Mexico, Uruguay and Venezuela.
In the mid 1970s, Beer renounced material possessions and moved to mid-Wales where he lived in an almost austere style, developing strong interests in poetry and art. In the 1980s he established a second home on the west side of downtown Toronto and lived part of the year in both residences. Beer kept active with work in his field.
Beer was a visiting professor at almost 30 universities and received honorary doctorates from the University of Leeds, the University of St. Gallen, the University of Sunderland and the University of Valladolid. He was president of the World Organization of Systems and Cybernetics. And he received awards from the Royal Swedish Academy for Engineering Sciences in 1958, from the United Kingdom Systems Society, the Cybernetics Society, the American Society for Cybernetics, and the Operations Research Society of America.
He was married twice, in 1947 to Cynthia Hannaway and in 1968 to Sallie Steadman. His partner for the last twenty years of his life was Dr Allenna Leonard, a fellow cybernetician. Beer had five sons and three daughters, one of whom is Vanilla Beer, an artist and essayist. Stafford Beer died in Toronto in 2002 at the age of 75 years after a considerable period of ill-health.
Stafford Beer worked in the fields of operational research, cybernetics and management science. He had become aware of operational research while being in the army, and he was quick to identify the advantages it could bring to business.
In the late 1950s, he published his first book about cybernetics and management, building on the ideas of Norbert Wiener, Warren McCulloch, and especially William Ross Ashby for a systems approach to the management of organisations.
In the 1970s, he also wrote a series of books (the last three focussing upon his own Viable System Model for organisation modelling):
In the 1990s, he published one of his last books about Team Syntegrity: a formal model, built on the polyhedra idea of systems for non-hierarchical problem solving.
According to Jackson (2000) "Beer was the first to apply cybernetics to management, defining cybernetics as the science of effective organization". In the 1960s and early 1970s "Beer was a prolific writer and an influential practitioner" in management cybernetics. It was during that period that he developed the viable system model, to diagnose the faults in any existing organizational system. In that time Forrester invented systems dynamics, which "held out the promise that the behavior of whole systems could be represented and understood through modeling the dynamical feedback process going on within them".
Management cybernetics is the application of cybernetic laws to all types of organizations and institutions created by human beings, and to the interactions within them and between them. It is a theory based on natural laws. It addresses the issues that every individual who wants to influence an organization in any way must learn to resolve. This theory is not restricted to the actions of top managers. Every member of an organization and every person who, to a greater or lesser extent, communicates or interacts with it is involved in the considerations.
During the administration of Salvador Allende in Chile, in the early 1970s, Beer was closely involved with a visionary project, Cybersyn, to apply his cybernetic theories in government. The project's ultimate goal was to create a network of computers and communications equipment that would support the management of the state-run sector of Chile's economy; at its core would be an operations room where government managers could view important information about economic processes in real time, formulate plans of action, and transmit advice and directives to managers at plants and enterprises in the field. However, consistent with cybernetic principles and the ideals of the Allende government, its designers aimed to preserve worker and lower-management autonomy instead of implementing a top-down system of centralized control.
The system used a network of about 500 telex machines located at enterprises throughout the country and in government offices in Santiago, some of which were connected to a government-operated mainframe computer that would receive information on production operations, feed that information into economic modeling software, and report on variables (such as raw material supplies) that were outside normal parameters and might require attention. The project, implemented by a multidisciplinary group of both Chileans and foreigners, reached an advanced prototype stage, but was interrupted by the 1973 coup d'état.
The Viable System Model (VSM) is a model of the organisational structure of any viable or autonomous system. A viable system is any system organised in such a way as to meet the demands of surviving in the changing environment. One of the prime features of systems that survive is that they are adaptable. The VSM expresses a model for a viable system, which is an abstracted cybernetic description that is applicable to any organisation that is a viable system and capable of autonomy.
Syntegrity is a formal model presented by Beer in the 1990s and now is a registered trademark. It is a form of non-hierarchical problem solving that can be used in a small team of 10 to 42 people. It is a business consultation product that is licensed out to consulting firms as a basis model for solving problems in a team environment.
Stafford Beer coined and frequently used the term POSIWID (the purpose of a system is what it does) to refer to the commonly observed phenomenon that the de facto purpose of a system is often at odds with its official purpose. Beer coined the term POSIWID and used it many times in public addresses. Perhaps most forcefully in his address to the University of Valladolid, Spain in October 2001, he said "According to the cybernetician the purpose of a system is what it does. This is a basic dictum. It stands for bald fact, which makes a better starting point in seeking understanding than the familiar attributions of good intention, prejudices about expectations, moral judgment or sheer ignorance of circumstances."
Stafford Beer wrote several books and articles:
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