Literature/1975/Beer

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Beer, Stafford (1975). Platform for Change: A Message from Stafford Beer. New York: Wiley, 1975.

Authors[edit]

  • Graduate of UCL

Excerpts[edit]

READER'S GUIDE TO PLATFORM FOR CHANGE 
Jon Li

TABLE OF CONTENTS OF THE READER'S GUIDE

  • How to read Platform for Change
  • Introduction
  • Table of platforms
  • Key concepts
  • Keywords index
  • Platform as a context for Beer's Viable Systems Model
  • Why Jon Li is the author of this Reader's Guide
  • Conclusion

HOW TO READ PLATFORM FOR CHANGE

  1. The author's own statement in the prelims is the most straightforward version of what this book is about.
  2. Read the Thesis (pp. 379-91), and then grapple with the graphic of the Thesis (390-1). Now you will be able to see Staford's big picture, and as you fill in the pieces reconstruct it into your own way of thinking.
  3. Take a look at the table of platforms below, and see if there are any that seem particularly interesting. Each platform has a different tone, because it has a different audience and context. They vary so much that any two will give you completely different views on how to do systems analysis.
  4. If you want to skip around, then it will help to start with the narrative before a particular platform. It will help you to understand Stafford's attitude and expectations for that piece.

INTRODUCTION

Problems. You have problems on your mind.

The world used to work. Things that used to work most of the time are going wring more and more.

Like a paved road with pot holes, institutions are falling apart, especially our public institutions -- the structures that are supposed to hold our society together. Change seems to continue, and not for the better. Money is a real problem. It is more expensive all the time. For organizations, how to maintain the status quo is enough to break the bank. Did we not use all the tricks we could in last year's budget? Where can we get more money? How are we ever going to do even as much as we did last year? The parts of the puzzle no longer seem to fit together.

Platform for Change argues that we need to rethink all of our social institutions. It provides an intellectual context for re-creating society.

But the book asks a lot of the reader -- to follow a new logic, to create a new model using as a metaphor anything that is organic rather than anything that is mechanical, to think meta rather than higher like a hierarchy, dynamic rather than static, and evolving, learning and adapting rather than locked in concrete.

Whether you work in a large firm, or a public institution, you should find Platform's insights apply to a wide variety of settings. It was written from the perspective of a management scientist who knows a lot about viable organizations.

Platform says: call it a system, and then look at a dynamic synthesis model that is present-future oriented.

Platform asks you to expand your thinking. Do not give up your analytical tools, but pleas take a look at the bigger picture. Synthesize your idea about the problem you are dealing with. Create a model of the world surrounding your problem. Make the model big enough that your problem is small. Identify what impacts on your problem. Can you change an impact so that your problem disappears?

Platform has many observations about management and organizations that will challenge your thinking. Although it is over two decades old, most of the concerns still ring true. And the call to use science to help reformulate our social institutions has its own logic.

At the heart of Platform is the idea that computers offer citizens and managers profound new power to deal with information. The biggest change since the book was first published is the astronomical increase in computer number crunching.

But are the public policy judgments any better as a consequence? The results are grim.

Platform builds a logic for using science to create new tools for managing large, complex social institutions -- especially the firm, and the larger economy. The goal is to design viable systems. The most difficult idea in Platform is about money: that it deals with cost but not benefit (see Key concept No. 10 below).

Platform concludes with the tension of an explosive, real-life political tragedy -- a report of work in progress for the Allende administration, to use modern science to manage the economy of Chile. The Chile experience empirically confirmed the power of the tools. The world has changed a lot since Platform was published 20 years ago. The Berlin Wall is down, and the Soviet empire has vanished. And the world has grown even more complex, complicated and confusing. But the book is even more timely and relevant today because it is about today's choices and how they can affect the future.

TABLE OF PLATFORMS

Each of these statements was developed by Stafford to address a particular audience, in a particular setting. Each has a unique tone appropriate to the context. Usually they include the basic components of the message" the megathreats, overwhelming complexity, systems and metalanguage, using science to examine issues of organization and society, and using computers to manage information.

[..................] (pp. 21-452)

KEY CONCEPTS

  1. The world in in trouble. It is not just the threat of the bomb or plutonium terrorists, or pollution or over-population. It is all of those and more. The world seems to be growing ever more complex, and society's institutions (our governments and economies) seem less and less able to cope with the problems. Increasing complexity means more variety and increasing uncertainty -- especially about how the larger social environment will respond in the future. Stafford calls the larger problem 'complexification', a word he got from Teilhard de Chardin.
  2. We need to learn to use science. We need to invoke science -- defined as the organized body of human knowledge about the world and its workings. Science offers the means:
    (a) to measure and manipulate complexity through mathematics;
    (b) to design complex systems through general systems theory;
    (c) to devise viable organizations through cybernetics;
    (d) to work effectively with people through behavioral science;
    (e) to apply all this to practical affairs through operations research.
    The problem must be looked at in a new way that is not limited by the blinders of particular scientific disciplines, but which encourages interdisciplinary capabilities from the depositories of knowledge of physical, biological and social system. Cybernetics is the name of the science of how organizations can effectively manage information, using biological criteria for the question of viability.
  3. Arguments of change, not for change. While this book was written a decade before Future Shock by Alvin Toffler, it starts with the fundamental idea that society is now in a state of continuous change. This does not mean that any particular outcome is inevitable. It does mean that current inst6itutions were designed to adapt to a different set of problems than we are now confronting, and the risk of organizational failure, even species extinction, is great.
  4. Esoteric boxes. Modern organizations are self-defined structures which have survived in part because they adapt as little as [possible to outside influences. Each has its own ru8les, and procedures for allocating and using resources for some purpose. Each esoteric box is locked into its own particular established course of action.
  5. Data vs. information. Part of the problem is endless data. It has become pollution -- swamping out whatever might be important. The issue has become: what data is actually useful, and how can it be identified? Stafford's idea is that information is what changes us: information is a new fact that is so significant that it forces an organization to rethink its current course of action, and then divert its course based on re-evaluate options.
  6. Requisite variety. Variety is a measure of complexity. Additional choices multiply current options, often exponentially, which means exploding complexity. An organization is a structural device for a large number of people to work together and reduce proliferating variety. Ross Ashby developed the Law of Requisite Variety: in order to manage complexity, and an individual or an organization must meet or preferably exceed the variety it must confront in its environment, if it is to survive and accomplish its purpose.
  7. Metalanguage. The current language of organizations (hierarchy, data) needs to be reconceptualized, because many issues in the current language have become undecidable. A higher level of logic allows discussion of systemic problems, unaddressable in an organization's daily optional language. The language of general systems theory was specifically designed to allow communication about organizational adaptation, restructuring and evolution. An organization is a system with identifiable boundaries and subsystems which have defined roles, and which is attempting to survive in a dynamic, unstable environment. One of the interesting things about general systems theory (there are many interesting things) is that it is inherently decentralizing because the logic and the language encourage individuals to synthesize and integrate their own experience and points of view as legitimate and useful.
  8. Synthesis vs. analysis. A key idea of the metalanguage concept is that the world has spent too much time in dissection, division and analysis. One way to tie together the above seven ideas is to create a metalanguage to string together esoteric boxes, and then re-create them to accommodate exploding complexity.
  9. Computers. The biggest real change in tow decades since Stafford first published Platform is the astronomical increase in computing power. Chips miniaturization has led to the inexpensive personal computer, local networks to tie them together, and the Internet to give people access to computer information around the world. Evolving applications, such as modelling and graphics, have made new uses possible. But what is useful? If there were a thousand pieces of data to choose from, it will not be easier to find the important data if the situation has evolved and there are now a million peces of data.

    Platform is about figuring out what is important, and so is even more relevant as the world grows more complex and the noise of insignificant data grows louder.

  10. Eudemony (u' de mo ne). This is an old English word from the Greek. It means well-being, closer to prosperity than ecstasy. Actually, the purpose of Platform is to introduce eudemony into our vocabulary, as a unit of measure which is a metalanguage into our vocabulary, as a unit of measure which is a metalanguage to the metric of money, which is a constraint. Money is a useful tool but it is inadequate as a mechanism for evaluating relative social worth. Maybe money worked when life was not no dynamic, but the issues around us have grown so large in scale (like planetary destruction and species extinction) that monetary statements no longer translate into terms that most people can wrestle with. If you think of the concept of eudemony as a system, and Platform as its environment, then eudemony becomes the throbbing heart of Platform's living, dynamic ideas.

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The shade of the bar looks invariant in isolation but variant in context, in (favor of) sharp contrast with the color gradient background, hence an innate illusion we have to reasonably interpret and overcome as well as the mirage. Such variance appearing seasonably from context to context may not only be the case with our vision but worldview in general in practice indeed, whether a priori or a posteriori. Perhaps no worldview from nowhere, without any point of view or prejudice at all!

Ogden & Richards (1923) said, "All experience ... is either enjoyed or interpreted ... or both, and very little of it escapes some degree of interpretation."

H. G. Wells (1938) said, "The human individual is born now to live in a society for which his fundamental instincts are altogether inadequate."