Cybernetics, according to Stafford Beer, is the science of effective organization.
Clear as mud, you say!
For example, a bacterium that was not effectively organized would quickly die. An ecosystem that was not effectively organized would very shortly be something else. A poorly organized human nervous system would not be able to regulate breathing, heart rate, speech, vision, etc. etc. etc. A poorly organized computer operating system would frequently crash and might have lots of security issues (sounds sort of like Windows, doesn’t it … sorry, as a devoted Mac user I couldn’t resist that one. I’ll try to behave from now on).
Effective organization is the basic requirement for the survival of a complex system.
What makes something a “complex system”?
“Complex system” is hard to define precisely but a common sense definition will do for now. A complex system has many parts which interact in ways that produce results that none of the parts alone can produce. Examples of complex systems include personal computers, a dog, a human being, an organization, and an eco-system.
Restating our original definition we might say that cybernetics is the science of effective organization for complex systems. When you apply the laws of cybernetics to the management of organizations you get management cybernetics. Stafford Beer spent about 60 years working out the implications of cybernetics for management. He wrote about eight books and hundreds of papers on the subject.
In my 1984 introductory book on management cybernetics I said that most books with the words “science” and “management” in the title are neither scientific nor good management. I claimed that management cybernetics, on the other hand, is good science and teaches us how to co-operate with the natural order of things rather than continuously bloodying our heads on stone walls. In that 1984 book, Allenna Leonard and I listed 22 laws, principles, and theorems of management cybernetics. Ern Reynolds then suggested a very useful exercise: paste the name of your organization in place of the word “system” in the 22 laws, principles and theorems. You will then have a useful cybernetic description of your organization.
Here are the 22 laws, principles and theorems.
1. System Holism Principle: A system has holistic properties possessed by none of its parts. Each of the system parts has properties not possessed by the system as a whole.
2. Darkness Principle: no system can be known completely.
3. Eighty-Twenty Principle: In any large, complex system, eighty percent of the output will be produced by only twenty percent of the system.
4. Complementarity Law: Any two different perspectives (or models) about a system will reveal truths about that system that are neither entirely independent nor entirely compatible.
5. Hierarchy Principle: Complex natural phenomena are organized in hierarchies with each level made up of several integral systems.
6. Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem: All consistent axiomatic foundations of number theory include undecidable propositions.
7. Entropy – the Second Law of Thermodynamics: In any closed system the differences in energy can only stay the same or decrease over time; or, in any closed system the amount of order (or organization) can never increase and must eventually decrease.
8. Redundancy of Information Theorem: Errors in information transmission can be protected against (to any level of confidence required) by increasing the redundancy in the messages.
9. Redundancy of Resources Principle: Maintenance of stability under conditions of disturbance requires redundancy of critical resources.
10. Redundancy of Potential Command Principle: In any complex decision network, the potential to act effectively is conferred by an adequate concatenation of information.
11. Relaxation time Principle: System stability is possible only if the system’s relaxation time is shorter than the mean time between disturbances.
12. Circular Causality Principle One: Given positive feedback (i.e., a two-part system in which each stimulates any initial change in the other), radically different end states are possible from the same initial conditions.
13. Circular Causality Principle Two: Given negative feedback (i.e., a two-part system in which each part tends to offset any change in the other), the equiibrial state is invariant over a wide range of initial conditions.
14. Feedback dominance theorem: For high gain amplifiers, the feedback dominates the output over wide variations in input.
15. Homeostasis Principle: A system survives only so long as all essential variables are maintained within their physiological limits.
16. Steady State Principle: If a system is in a state of equilibrium (a steady state), then all sub-systems must be in equilibrium. If all sub-systems are in a state of equilibrium, then the system must be in equilibrium.
17. Requisite Variety Law: The control achievable by a given regulatory sub-system over a given system is limited by 1) the variety of the regulator, and 2) the channel capacity between the regulator and the system.
18. Conant-Ashby theorem: Every good regulator of a system must be a model of that system.
19. Self-Organizing Systems Principle: Complex systems organize themselves; the characteristic structural and behavioral patterns in a complex system are primarily a result of the interactions among the system parts.
20. Basins of Stability Principle: Complex systems have basins of stability separated by thresholds of instability. A system “parked” on a ridge will “roll downhill”.
21. Viability Principle: Viability is a function of the balance maintained along two dimensions: 1) autonomy of sub-systems versus integration of the system as a whole, and 2) stability versus adaptation.
22. Recursive System Theorem: If a viable system contains a viable system, then the organizational structure must be recursive; or, in a recursive organizational structure, any viable system contains, and is contained in, a viable system.
Allenna Leonard and I articulated these 22 “laws” in 1982 or 1983. I hope we can think about this again in the near future and perhaps add a few more.
Chapter eight of my cybernetics book elaborates on these laws and provides lots of examples. My short essay on “Systems Thinking” is a companion piece to this one.