Organisational Cybernetics and Practices

Cybernetics is a discipline founded in 1943 through the discussions of a group of scientists about the common themes of their different disciplines (McCulloch, 1974).  This led to a series of meetings in the US – the Macy Conferences on Cybernetics [1946-53] (Umpleby, 2005) and in the UK – the Ratio Club: 1949-58] (Holland & Husbands, 2011). Norbert Weiner’s publication of ‘Cybernetics’ in 1948, provided a definition:
The science of communication and control in man and machine

Leading Cyberneticians include:
Norbert Weiner
1894 – 1964

Warren McCulloch
1898 – 1969

Arturo Rosenblueth
1900 – 1970

Ross Ashby
1903 -  1972

John von Neumann
1903 – 1957

Gregory Bateson
Anthropologist / Social scientist
1904 – 1980

Heinz von Foerster
1911 – 2002

Claude Shannon
1916 – 2001

Stafford Beer
Management theorist
1926 – 2002

Gordon Pask
1928 – 1996

Humberto Maturana
1928 -

Francisco Varela
1946 – 2001

Raul Espejo
Management theorist
? - 

Stafford explains cybernetics in these seminars: history1history2

One controversial stream of Cybernetics is that developed by Stafford Beer. Stafford developed the Viable System Model (VSM) which he applied in Chile in the early 1970s. Since then the model has been applied by a large number of people in a wide range of contexts. In particular, Dr Allenna Leonard (Stafford’s partner) has provided her own insights []. Professor Raul Espejo has provided significant methodological contributions relating to how the model is used [ ]. Dr Angela Espinosa [profile] has used the model in the context of sustainability (references below). Jon Walker has provided online guidelines explaining the VSM [ ]. Professor Andrew Pickering has provided an observer's ontological and epistemological interpretation of the development of cybernetics. Moreover, there are many others who have made a contribution to the understanding of the VSM as illustrated in the list of selected references below. 

The VSM offers a conceptual device to understand the complexity of the organization of adaptive entities that are viable, irrespective of the nature of that which has organization. It offers the possibility to diagnose organizational dysfunctionality. Moreover, the VSM can serve as a boundary object to facilitate organisational change. 


The Metaphorum Group
The World Organisation of Systems and Cybernetics
American Society for Cybernetics


Ashby, W.R. (1956), An Introduction to Cybernetics. London: Chapman & Hall.
Bateson, G (1972) Steps to an Ecology of Mind. New York: Ballantine Books.
Beer, S. (1966) Decision and Control. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons.
Beer, S. (1972) Brain of the Firm. Harmondsworth: Allen Lane, The Penguin Press.
Beer, S. (1975) Fanfare for Effective Freedom: cybernetic praxis in government. The 3rd Richard Goodman Memorial Lecture, delivered, Brighton Polytechnic, Brighton, 14th February ,1973 in Beer, S “Platform for Change”, Chichester: John Wiley & Sons
Beer, S. (1979) The Heart of Enterprise. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons.
Beer, S. (1981) Brain of the Firm, [2nd edition], Chichester: John Wiley & Sons
Beer, S. (1984) The Viable System Model: its provenance, development, methodology and pathology. Journal of the Operational Research Society, 35(1): 7-25.
Beer, S. (1985) Diagnosing the System for Organisations. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons.
Espejo, R (1990) “Complexity and Change: reflections upon the cybernetic intervention in Chile, 1970-1973”, Systems Practice 3 (3) pp303-313
Espejo, R. (1992) Management of Complexity in Problem Solving. Transactions of the Institute of Measurement and Control, 14(1): 8-16.
Espejo, R., Bowling, D. & Hoverstadt, P. (1999) The Viable System Model and the Viplan software. Kybernetes, 28(6/7): 661-678.
Espejo, R. & Harnden, R.J. (eds.) (1989) The Viable System Model: interpretation and applications of Stafford Beer’s VSM. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons.
Espinosa, A., Harnden, R. (2007) Complexity Management, Democracy and Social Consciousness: Challenges for a learning evolutionary society. Invited paper. Special issue. Systemic Practice and Action Research. 20(5): 401-412.
Espinosa,A., Harnden, R., & Walker, J. (2007). Beyond Hierarchy: Stafford Beer revisited. Invited paper. Special issue. Kybernetes, 36 (3/4): 333-347.
Espinosa, A., Harnden, R., & Walker, J.  (2008). A Complexity Approach to Sustainability: Stafford Beer revisited. European Journal of Operational Research, 187: 636-651.
Espinosa, A. & Walker, J (2012) A Complexity Approach to Sustainability: theory and application. London: Imperial College Press.
Harwood, S. (2009) The changing structural dynamics of the Scottish tourism industry examined using Stafford Beer’s VSM. Systemic Practice and Action Research, (special issue: Action Research in Organisational Cybernetics), 22(4) 313-334.
Harwood, S. (2011) Can a Cybernetics Lens Contribute to the Business Strategy Domain? Kybernetes, (special issue: Progress in Organisational Cybernetics) 40(3/4), 507-527.
Harwood, S. (2012) The Management of Change and the Viplan Methodology in Practice. Journal of the OperationalResearch Society, 63, 748-761.
Holland, O. & Husbands, P. (2011) The origins of British cybernetics: the Ratio Club.  Kybernetes, 40(1/2), 110 – 123. 
Jackson, M.C. (1988) An appreciation of Stafford Beer’s ‘viable system’ viewpoint on managerial practices. Journal of Management Studies, 25(6). 557–573.
Maturana, H R. & Varela, F.J. (1988) The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding. Boston: Shambhala.
Pickering, A. (2002) Cybernetics and the Mangle: Ashby, Beer and Pask. Social Studies of Science, 32(3): 413-437.
Von Foerster, H. (1979), Cybernetics of cybernetics, in Krippendorff, K. (Ed.), Communications and Control in Society. New York, NY: Gordon and Breach.
Von Foerster, H. (1979) Observing Systems. Seaside, CA: Intersystems Publications.
Weiner, N. (1948) Cybernetics. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.


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