- Management cybernetics
Cybernetics and Complexity
Complexity is inherent in dynamic systems because their processes are often non-linear and therefore hard to observe and control. However, the only way to overcome complexity is to realise its existence in the first place. Knowledge about how regulation, control and communication function in every form of system needs to be applied – this knowledge is known as cybernetics. Norbert Wiener defines cybernetics as the study of regulation, control and communications in life forms and the machine. In a business context, such an approach can help managers understand complex situations and therefore deal with them better.
Cybernetic approach to business
The following are a set of features specific to management cybernetics and the way in which it can be applied to a business context.
- Management cybernetics involves the study of what things do and how they interact with one another, not just what they are.
- It is a field of knowledge which can help us to gain further knowledge in situations where we cannot obtain any concrete knowledge
- It helps us achieve the right approach to complexity
- It is the realisation of one’s own responsibility, with which one can make others aware of their own responsibilities
- It is an approach that does not completely eradicate complexity, but shows the ways in which it can be best handled
- It provides the chance to maintain long-term acceptance
- It is an approach that everyone understands when they apply it to their own situation
- It is an approach that everyone has already practised, whether they realise it or not
Cybernetics of the First and Second Order
Heinz von Foerster, one of the more prominent academics in the field of cybernetics, cited two forms of cybernetics. In the context of business, these forms are fundamentally different with regard to the way in which a system is observed.
- First-order cybernetics: Views the system as being completely independent to the observer. ‘The observed system’
- Second-order cybernetics: Refers to systems that observe themselves. ‘The observing system’
It is important to note that neither approach is better than the other, they are merely different.
A Particular Way of Thinking
The following model describes the most popular and commonly used approach to understanding how things interact with one another.
When A does something with B, C is created, and through C, D is created as a result etc.
This way of thinking typically asks and answers how something is. It states what a specific factor is or does without having to consider its circumstances through individual relationships.
The following model describes a way of thinking typical of management cybernetics:
When A does something with B, what does B then do with A?
This includes the question of individual relationships. When managers ask themselves ‘what will something or someone do to me, if I do something with someone or something?’ they are using cybernetic theory – often without even realising it!
Management Cybernetics in Practice
Many managers fail to realise that they are actually using methods derived from cybernetics in everyday business activity. The idea of control loops and feedback are well known but many fail to realise that they originate from a cybernetic standpoint.
Stafford Beer is known as the father of management cybernetics, focusing on the application of the natural laws of cybernetics in organisations, enterprises and institutes. One of the most unique features of his work is that he did not try to simplify reality in any way. William Ross Ashby’s Law of Requisite Variety essentially reinforces the fact that complex situations can only be dealt with at least the same amount of complexity. The influences of this theory can be clearly seen in Beer’s work. By viewing reality “from a level that is high enough to allow all the factors that operate in complex systems to be separated out and presented in a form in which they are clearly recognizable and comprehensible to anyone who is curious” (Cwarel Isaf Institute, 2002), his models automatically encompass the right way to approach complexity.
Another distinguishing feature of Stafford Beer’s work is that he endeavours to make all processes that occur within systems closed. This is achieved by viewing processes as being circular, i.e. recursive. Viewed from this perspective, processes are ongoing, individual entities because when they end, they are taken back to the beginning. For managers this helps processes to become more visible and clearly defined – thus enabling them to be dealt with more efficiently.
Although Beer’s models are relatively few in number, they provide managers with interesting insights into the ways in which they can tackle complexity. As a result, their organisations (and they themselves) may become more able to react effectively and appropriately when faced with complexity. This in turn makes for a more stable, sustainable and flexible business. The following list compiles Stafford Beer’s most influential models:
- Stafford Beer
- Heinz von Foerster
- Gregory Bateson
- Warren McCulloch
- Norbert Wiener
- Fredmund Malik
- Entrepreneurial cybernetics
- ^ Jonathan Rosenhead (2006) "IFORS' Operational Research Hall of Fame Stafford Beer", in International Transactions in Operational Research Vol 13, nr.6, pp. 577–578.
Cwarel Isaf Institute (2002), Methods and Models, Retrieved 26 July 2007 from http://www.stafford-beer.com/en/fs_methmod.html
Pruckner, Maria (2002), Ich wusste gar nicht, dass ich Prosa sprechen kann! Ein Essay über die Management-Kybernetik, Retrieved 26 July 2007, from http://www.stafford-beer.com/dwn/Ich_wusste_gar_nicht.pdf
Dr.-Ing. Giuseppe Strina, M. A. (2005), Zur Messbarkeit nicht-quantitativer Größen im Rahmen unternehmenskybernetischer Prozesse. Aachen
Institut für Unternehmenskybernetik e.V. (2007), Unternehmenskybernetik: Was ist eigentlich Unternehmenskybernetik, Retrieved 26 July 2007, from http://www.ifu.rwth-aachen.de/zugangswege/kybernetik/index.php?lang=de
Cwarel Isaf Institute – http://www.google.com
The Cybernetics Society – http://www.cybsoc.org
Web Dictionary of Cybernetics and Systems - http://pespmc1.vub.ac.be/ASC/indexASC.html
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