Why Cybernetics Still Matters

(Originally presented as a short address to a forum hosted by the Cybernetics Society on 15th July 2020)

There is a continuing crisis in the governance of our public, private and 3rd sector organisations which, looked at coldly, exhibit reluctance to change and inability to invest (either because they don’t have the money or can’t acquire the money) all rooted in a poor comprehension of the alternative ways of being available to them. The traditional and conventional approaches to organisation and governance are unable to resolve contemporary challenges which remain rooted in bureaucratic stability and the application of positionally based power structures.  Using tools built for an earlier, slower age they lack the agility necessary for the dynamic environment in which they now exist. Significant numbers of organisations (and their leaders) pursue short term internal efficiencies rather than long term customer effectiveness. They are production led, functionally oriented and dysfunctionally over-centralised, with their ability to anticipate or react to customer demand stifled by layers of administrative inaction.

Meanwhile, for most organisations, there is potential for a digital transformation that exploits the power of ‘big data’ and ‘data science’ to understand their customers. This would enable the design of products and services with genuine appeal and support that understanding with a structure of radically distributed decision making that renders organisations agile at the customer interface. However, such distributed decision making needs to be grounded in a coherent organisational model or framework.

Attempting this grounding creates a control-autonomy paradox that cannot be resolved within the constraints of the dominant paradigm, hence the mess! An understanding of governance which offers ‘tight-loose’ control is needed, one which distributes those decisions which can be made away from the centre – away from the centre, holding to the core only those decisions which demand an understanding of the whole or insight into emerging opportunities and challenges. These emerging challenges are not visible to the distributed decision maker, existing, and addressed, according to a different comprehension of the organisational environment.

Cybernetics, and specifically management or organisational cybernetics, commence with the proposition that organisations are dynamic and complex systems which exist in dynamic and complex environments. As such neither the organisation nor its environment can be fully known; their behaviour will, necessarily, be probabilistic and, for practical purposes, able to be regarded as black or opaque boxes. This inability to fully know the organisation means that we must govern or manage it by way of heuristic methods, using feedback about its responses to re-inform that management and information to generate feedforward (anticipatory) actions which help it prepare for an emerging future. This is by any measure a step change from traditional management and the delusion of command and control.

Cybernetics matters because it offers insight, models and methods which help us to comprehend and explain organisations as complex adaptive systems, insights not available in the dominant approaches. It provides tools and language through which we can redesign organisations to be outcome focused, to enable (near) real-time rectification of error and to design in agility such that any organisation can be adaptive, learning, dynamically stable.

That means an approach to governance which is rooted in the idea that we continually solve and re-solve problems, that hierarchy emerges from information not from positional power and that the organisation and its human actors are enabled to be self-regulating with control distributed throughout. Understanding, measurement and evaluation of performance must be integral to such an organisation because they are the means and methods of that self-regulation, of control, of adaptation.

Ultimately, cybernetics matters because it provides us with the tools to understand the three dimensions of governance that are key to adaptation, survival, sustainability and those are:

          Doing Things Right: goal seeking

          Doing Right Things: goal choosing

          Defining Rightness: goal defining