+44 (0)1737 822153
Contact Details

Library and Information

Cybernetics (the 'science of control and communication in man and machine') is one of the most ambitious attempts to apply rigorous scientific - systems based - thinking to the structuring and functioning of organisations, whether they be mechanical, biological or social.  

In recent years cybernetics has fallen somewhat out of fashion, but it is waiting to be rediscovered by contemporary systems scientists, and that when it is we may well witness the first successful attempt to put the practice of management on a proper scientific footing.

The major important figure in management cybernetics is Stafford Beer; his major contribution being the Viable System Model. Beer was an old style polymath but he had extensive experience as senior manager in business before he gave it up to concentrate on developing and promoting his ideas. His work is rich and dense and consequently sometimes difficult for the uninitiated but once mastered it is incredibly rewarding. Contrary to the claims of some of his critics, Beer's insights promote a sophisticated humanistic approach to social organisation, while being firmly grounded in practical reality.


The attached link is to the Wikipedia entry for the Viable Systems Model, but Beer's own entry is worth a read. Ultimately, though there is no substitute for his own words. Try 'Diagnosing the System' and 'Designing Freedom' as a starting point.
W Edwards Deming being one of the most important figures in one of the most impactful intellectual forces in business history - the Quality Movement - and the inspiration for the most successful management model of recent times - the Toyota Management System.  For this reason, Deming should rightfully be regarded as one of the most influential thinkers in the history of management, but a surprising number of managers have never heard of him.

A major reason why his ideas have had such a profound impact over a long period is that they are based on sound science, but are allied to a practical methodology. In particular, Deming placed particular emphasis on variation and the need to understand its impact as a prerequisite for any kind of intelligent action.  

Starting with scientific insight and proceeding through practical method Deming, like Beer, concluded that the business of management can only be successfully accomplished by respecting and enlisting the talents and energies of all workers rather than by treating them as components in an organisational machine. Both Beer and Deming believed that the job of management is to work on the organisational system to create the conditions whereby human beings can be effective and fulfilled in their work.

Click here to link to Deming's Wikipedia entry
This article - written by a leading member of the second generation of western quality gurus, Myron Tribus - is an engaging and accessible explanation of the phenomenon of variation and how it affects our ability to 'know' and therefore to manage.
Beer’s ideas were a development of the pioneering work of W Ross Ashby, an early system theorist. Originally a clinical psychologist, Ashby's first major work 'Design for a Brain' published in 1952, was an attempt to explain how the workings of the brain could be explained by the application of a rigorous rational methodology without recourse to metaphysics. He went on to develop a number of fundamental systems 'theories', the most well known being Ashby's 'Law of Requisite Variety', which sets out the conditions for the effective regulation of any kind of system. It therefore is one of the theoretical building blocks not only for management but also for an understanding of how biological entities can sustain themselves – that is the existence of life. Beer complained that the fact that Ashby's Law - which he considered as fundamental as the Second Law of Thermodynamics - was not better known was 'a cosmic joke'.
The presence of John Boyd in this parade of systems scientists might at first appear incongruous. Boyd was a remarkable man; the archetypal maverick, aggressive, uncouth and arrogant. He started as a fighter pilot in the Korean War and graduated to be a legendary instructor at the Nellis Airbase of 'Top Gun' fame (he was known as 'forty second Boyd' because of his boast that he could beat any other pilot in a simulated dogfight within forty seconds. He never lost). On his own initiative, (using 'stolen' computer time) he developed the Energy/Maneuverability Theory, the first scientific formulation of aerial combat. During a spell at the Pentagon, Boyd subsequently used the E/M Theory (which as the name suggests was predicated on the merits of maneuverability - the ability to change course quickly) to help develop what became the F-16 and F/A 18 aircraft, in the face of opposition from the defense establishment. After studying military strategists going back to Sun Tzu, (author of 'The Art of War') he went on to craft this into a comprehensive theory of warfare, built on the concept of the OODA Loop. OODA stands for Observe-Orient-Decide-Act.

It was Boyd's contention that the combatant (whether they are a single soldier or a whole army) that was able to move around the OODA loop the fastest would emerge victorious. His thinking lay behind the decision by the US Marines to redefine their military doctrine based on the concept of 'maneuverability warfare'. Boyd has been credited with helping to draw up the plan of attack that proved so successful in the first Gulf War.

The dominant parameter in Boyd's thinking was the use of time. In combat, this involves speed - speeding up the OODA loop by reducing lead times, and it is interesting that he regarded the men that helped develop the Toyota Management System as kindred thinkers. The concept of eliminating waste ('muda') is one of the founding principles of the TMS, and one sort of waste is time. By eliminating wasted time the production process is speeded up and becomes more responsive to consumer demand – thereby creating a supply chain based on customer 'pull' rather than producer. The importance of time has been not been properly appreciated by management thinkers and Boyd's ideas (which are a lot more profound that they appear at first sight) merit serious study.