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Stafford Beer . . . unsung hero of organisational cybernetics

The following essay was read at The Athenaeum's St. Cecilia Eve’s Concert, in November 2002, to commemorate one of its most distinguished members in the field of organisational science.

Athene and Cecilia, each in their different ways, symbolise a love of wisdom. Tonight we once again call on harmonies of music, song, verse and prose to celebrate human creativity, before enjoying a fine supper! This therefore is an appropriate moment in the proceedings, while anticipating the interval, to put aside our thoughts about a glass of Club wine and, instead, consider Beer - not the refreshing English draft, but Stafford Beer, member of this place from 1971, who died in Toronto earlier this year, aged 75. 

Stafford Beer was from childhood a polymath. At Whitgift he wanted to study philosophy and mathematics but was told this was not a suitable combination for a schoolboy. However, in consequence he contrived to get a place at University College to read for a degree in Philosophy and Psychology. A year later the war intervened and he duly found himself posted to India as Staff Captain of Intelligence for the whole of the Punjab, no less. 

Returning to England in 1949 with his draft thesis on philosophy he sought a PhD for his efforts but lacking a first degree he appealed to the Dean of the Arts Faculty of his old college for support, only to discover that the Dean, knowing that Stafford had attended lectures in the Science Faculty before the war, there and then rejected his request on grounds of insubordination! Stafford stood up, saluted and uttering, in his phase, “just two words” left for industry. 

At Samuel Fox’s steel mills outside Sheffield he applied his wartime experience of operational research to devise a better way to run the production line. The factory manager said his scheme was mad and he should be sacked but, fortunately, the plant director saw the vision in Stafford’s scheme and appointed him to the post of Production Controller. He increased factory output by some 30%. 

At this time Stafford, serendipitously, came across Norbert Weiner’s book "Control and Communication in Animals and the Machine”. Weiner, at MIT, had coined the word ‘cybernetics’ in 1948 (from the Greek word for a "steersman") to describe his theory derived from his wartime work - on radar directed anti-aircraft systems - and which, he maintained, would be equally suitable for general application in the wider-world.

Stafford was impressed - for here was the essence of his work in print. He wrote to Weiner who was in turn also impressed - for here was his theory in use. By 1959 Stafford, encouraged by Weiner, had written “Cybernetics and Management” which was promptly translated into 26 languages. He then entered the world of consultancy and in the early seventies was invited by President Allende to apply his principles of viable systems to the Chilean economy, a project sadly frustrated by the CIA supported coup of 1973. 

Throughout his professional life Stafford was more interested in the organisation of connectivities within entities than the entities themselves. His viable systems approach was thus well suited to explain the emergence of behaviour of an entity that was not present in any part other than the whole. To appreciate the significance of Stafford’s approach consider some everyday examples of viable systems: no amount of detail searching will locate the human voice in a televison set; no dismantling of a car will reveal its gift of comfortable transport; no counting of grapes will explain the essential quality of a fine wine; no single part of an aeroplane can fly on its own; no laboratory dissection will explain the source of gracious rotation of a cat’s body in freefall. Failure by top managment to recognise the importance of designing viable systems capable of delivering the required ‘emergence’ will readily come to mind for travellers, investors and customers present here this evening who have suffered endless delays; lost benefits or suffered defective service. 

Some 250 years ago Thomas Gray, contemplating Eton college, wrote that "where ignorance is bliss, 'tis folly to be wise". Stafford noted that government and business are both only too often guilty of an ignorance of the consequences of their actions and for which there can be no legitimate excuses. No excuses because those who lead and govern have no way to justify their failure to employ systemic - or inter-connected - thinking in place of fragmented guesswork. 

Beer coined a word to highlight this condition: ‘culpabliss’ - the state of being CULPAble of Benignly Lacking In Systemic Sensibility. It was chilling on Radio 4 the other evening to hear Robert McNamara say that the biggest learning experience from the 1962 Missile Crisis was to realise how no one in authority, himself included, had clearly thought through the consequences of their proposed actions! To which Stafford would have said: 

"Where ignorance is culpabliss, ‘tis folly to be less than wise.
or you may end up in jail - or, worse still, destroy the planet!"

But enough - let us now recall Stafford, resplendent with flowing overcoat and bushy beard, arriving at this Club with a good friend; in this case David Whittaker, who described events thus:  “Consider that afternoon in the Athenaeum, where we quaffed and gnashed our way through the wine list and menu (Oh! Yes! Double helpings of that sherry trifle - how splendid!). Then we stood in perfect accord in the gentlemen’s powder room, inspecting the exquisite marble (none of your common porcelain here) as you held forth (in a manner of speaking) on negative entropy . . . or was it the reverberations of icosohedral space? And how many grapes went into the void; and by the way how did they ever know if you were wearing a tie?” 

Stafford was more than a restless visionary on the move. He was also a singer, a musician, a poet and a bon viveur. His path through life is well described by the lines of one of his favourite poems, Caminante no hay Camino by Antonio Machado

Walker, the only road
is your footsteps, there is no other.
Walker, there is no road,
you make the road as you go.

As you go, you make the road
and stopping, to look behind,
you see the path that your feet
will never travel again.

Walker, there is no road
only foam trails in the sea. 

David Howard