Stafford Beer has died - August 23, 2002




The Guardian
Wednesday September 4, 2002
Dick Martin and Jonathan Rosenhead

Stafford Beer

World leader in the development of operational research, who combined management systems with cybernetics

Professor Stafford Beer, who has died aged 75, was a remarkable figure of British operational research (OR) - the study of systems that emerged from deploying newly invented radar in the late 1930s, and has since found extensive management applications.

A charismatic, even flamboyant, character, Beer founded two major pioneering OR groups; wrote some of the best books about it; and was a world leader in the development of systems ideas. He is widely acknowledged as the founder of management cybernetics, which he defined as "the science of effective organisation".

His thinking on how decisions about complex social systems could best be made went through several phases. As an operational researcher he pioneered the idea of interdisciplinary teams to tackle problems in business, government and society. As a systems guru, he was concerned with designing appropriate feedback loops within social systems. More recently, he worked on participative methods to enable large groups to solve their own problems. What united these aspects of his work was his early and consistent commitment to a holistic approach.

Beer was born in London, where his father was chief statistician at Lloyd's Register of Shipping. He began a degree in philosophy and psychology at University College London, but in 1944 left it incomplete to join the army. He saw service as a company commander and in intelligence in India, and stayed there until 1947, leaving the army with the rank of captain in 1949.

He realised that OR, so successful during wartime, also had immense possibilities in peacetime. Appointed to a management position in a steel company, he soon persuaded it to set up an OR group, which he headed. The group grew to over 70 professionals, carrying out studies across United Steel.

In 1961 he left to launch SIGMA (Science in General Management Ltd), which he ran in partnership with Roger Eddison. This was the first substantial operational research consultancy in the UK. Its staff numbered some 50 before Beer left in 1966 to join the International Pub lishing Corporation (IPC), which had been a SIGMA client. IPC was then the largest publishing company in the world, and Beer was appointed development director. In this role, he pushed IPC into new technologies, many IT-based. He coined the term "data highway", 30 years before "information highway" came into vogue.

From 1970 he operated as an independent consultant. For over two years, until Chile's President Allende was overthrown in 1973, Beer worked on a new cybernetics-based control system to be applied to the entire social economy of Chile. This was to be a real-time computerised system, an extremely ambitious project given the technology then available.

Although the Pinochet coup prevented the full realisation of the system, Beer later undertook commissions for the presidential offices of Mexico, Uruguay and Venezuela, answering directly to the president in the latter two. His recognition was always greater abroad than at home, where the British establishment was uncomfortable with his big vision and radical orientation.

From the publication of his first book, Cybernetics And Management (1959), a systems approach to the management of organisations was his central concern. In this he built on the foundations of cybernetics laid down by Norbert Wiener, Ross Ashby, and his mentor Warren McCulloch. A series of four books based on his Viable System Model were published during the 1970s, of which The Brain Of The Firm is the most celebrated.

In the 1990s he turned his attention to a complementary approach, introduced in his 1994 book Beyond Dispute: The Invention Of Team Syntegrity. Team Syntegrity is a participatory method for enlisting the creativity of substantial groups to develop solutions to shared issues. Non-hierarchical and democratic, it has been widely adopted, with a growing international network.

Professional recognition was indicated by Beer's many visiting chairs, presidencies and honorary degrees, remarkable achievements for someone with no first degree. This distinctive lack was ended by the award to him in 2000, when he was 73, of a higher doctorate, a DSc from the University of Sunderland, in recognition of his published work.

His impact on the way we think about management and systems was the result both of his magnetic personality, and the power of his writing. His prizewinning 1966 book Decision And Control charms the reader with its style as well as content. In this, as in his other writing, he takes an expansive view of his subject. His approach was always challenging, even subversive to conventional decision-making. Radically then, and unfashionably now, he believed in the benefits of a scientific approach, though he railed against reductionism. Unlike other management writers, he saw science as freeing thought and action, not trapping it in narrow procedures and techniques. It was his constant theme that the greatest possible autonomy of action should be maintained at all levels of the organisation, not just at the top.

Beer was a larger than life character. He was tall, broad, brimful of energy, and, in later years, bearded like an Old Testament prophet. His enthusiasm for life could be over-powering and quite non-Anglo-Saxon. Those who encountered him polarised between the group that was distrustful of what it saw as his showmanship, and those who were converted into permanent admirers. He was deeply loyal and affectionate to his friends.

In 1974 Beer renounced material possessions and moved from the London suburbs to live in very simple style in a small stone cottage in the remote hills of Ceredigion, mid-Wales. From the mid-1980s he divided his time between there and an alternative base in Toronto, which has become a centre of interest in his work. He published books of his poems, and his paintings were exhibited, most notably in an apse of the Roman Catholic cathedral in Liverpool in 1992 and 1993.

He was married twice, in 1947 to Cynthia Hannaway and in 1968 to Sallie Steadman. He had five sons and three daughters. His partner of 21 years, Allenna Leonard, was a colleague in his work.

(Anthony) Stafford Beer, management systems expert, born September 25 1926; died August 23 2002

Also see- The World Organisation of Systems and Cybernetics



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