Posts Tagged ‘complexity theory’

Real-time web and management cybernetics

Sunday, October 4th, 2009

On 1st of October I gave a presentation at MindTrek entitled “Collaborative Edge: Real-time Social Technologies in the Enterprise” at the “Social Media: Now What?!” track and later on 7th of October I spoke briefly about it also at the 5th World Conference on Mass-Customization.

My presentation is built around the ideas of Stafford Beer, who was the founding father of management cybernetics. His ideas are now more timely than ever, because of the advent of the real-time web. Stafford along with his team built the first real-time computer controlled planned economy at the government of Chile in the beginning of 1970′s. I’m very interested in this because I was part of a team that created Real-Time Economy Community.

Stafford Beer’s project was called Cybersyn. It aimed to create an electronic nervous system for the Chilean economy. As progressive as they were, they included machine learning with a Bayesian filtering (cool in email spam prevention in the early 2000) and social features by letting every citizen and factory worker to influence the decision making. He also included some social innovations too, like having a diverse cross-disciplinary team (rather than a group of generalists) working in a futuristic Opsroom: the ultimate combination of man and the machine.

250px Cybersyn control room Real time web and management cybernetics

Cybersyn Opsroom inspired by Tulip Chair design by Eero Saarinen from Finland.

Recently I’ve been thinking about how to implement the real-time web in the enterprise. If there is one guy who really knows how to do it, he is definitely Stafford Beer with his Viable System Model (VSM). The aim of such a system was to remain viable to its users by involving the ability to adapt to changing conditions. This requires real-time data to be generated, reflected and interpreted by every employee (and customer) to lesser or greater extent.

This is very close to what I’ve said in the past that learning is not a separate process to be managed in organizations through training, but rather an inseparable part of all such activity that seeks to avoid stagnation and remain useful over time.

His ideas were more bottom-up than top-down: due to limitations of single or small groups of individuals to comprehend everything what is going on (=top management), one needs communication and conversation with employees, partners and customers – The very ideas that concepts like crowdsourcing or open innovation aim to address.

Stafford’s contribution was also to emphasize the importance of increasing the amount of variety in highly fluctuating systems, where you cannot predict the possible states of the system beforehand. This is exactly what companies like Apple do: by not knowing what applications to run on the phone, keep the number of features (apps) to the minimum and let users innovate and personalize through an App Store. In comparison, Nokia thinks they know their users and load the phones with apps that in general are underused by typical users. The same logic goes with most user-friendly web services (e.g. anything that comes from 37Signals): if you do not know what features your users need, release a limited version, open up the APIs and listen to your customers.

This is exactly how you achieve collaborative edge to provide best services to your customers: in case of doubt, tear down the firewalls and listen. Turn your organization into a complex adaptive system.

On September 11, 1973 (notice the date), Stafford’s dreams came to an end as Salvador Allende’s government was overthrown in a military coup with the support of the United States government. Along with Allende, the project went into grave. How unfortunate, how typical.

My question is, why haven’t we done it yet?

See my presentation here:

Browse the slides:

See also Stafford Beer’s lecture about Cybersyn (vintage, 1974). Memorable quote about the opsroom chairs:

No paper – there is an ashtray. There is room for a drink and there is a place for a creative session.