Systems and Organizational Cybernetics

Systems and Organizational Cybernetics


From  System Dynamics and the Evolution of Systems Movement A Historical Perspective


The systems movement has many roots and facets, with some of its concepts going back as far as ancient Greece. What we call ”the systems approach” today materialized in the first half of the twentieth century. At least, two important components should be mentioned, those proposed by von Bertalanffy and by Wiener.

Ludwig von Bertalanffy, an American biologist of Austrian origin, developed the idea that organized wholes of any kind should be describable, and to a certain extent explainable, by means of the same categories, and ultimately by one and the same formal apparatus. His General Systems Theory triggered a whole movement, which has tried to identify invariant structures and mechanisms across different kinds of organized wholes (for example, hierarchy, teleology, purposefulness, differentiation, morphogenesis, stability, ultrastability, emergence, and evolution). 

Norbert Wiener, an American mathematician at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, building on interdisciplinary work, accomplished in cooperation with Bigelow, an IBM engineer, and Rosenblueth, a physiologist, published his seminal book on Cybernetics. His work became the trans-disciplinary foundation for a new science of capturing, as well as designing control and communication mechanisms in all kinds of dynamical systems. Cyberneticians have been interested in concepts such as information, communication, complexity, autonomy, interdependence, cooperation and conflict, self-production (”autopoiesis”), self-organization, (self-) control, self-reference, and (self-) transformation of complex dynamical systems.

From System Dynamics and the Evolution of Systems Movement A Historical Perspective


Along the tradition which led to the evolution of General Systems Theory (Bertalannfy, Boulding, Gerard, Miller, Rapoport) and Cybernetics (Wiener, McCulloch, Ashby, Powers, Pask, Beer), a number of roots can be identified, in particular:

  • Mathematics (for example, Newton, Poincaré, Lyapunov, Lotka, Volterra, Rashevsky);
  • Logic (for example, Epimenides, Leibniz, Boole, Russell and Whitehead, Goedel, Spencer-Brown);
  • Biology, including general physiology and neurophysiology (for example, Hippocrates, Cannon, Rosenblueth, McCulloch, Rosen);
  • Engineering, including its physical and mathematical foundations (for example, Heron, Kepler, Watt, Euler, Fourier, Maxwell, Hertz, Turing, Shannon and Weaver, von Neumann, Walsh); and
  • Social and human sciences, including economics (for example, Hume, Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson, John Stuart Mill, Dewey, Bateson, Merton, Simon, Piaget).


From System Dynamics and the Evolution of Systems Movement A Historical Perspective

Levels of Organizations 

In this strand of the systems movement, one focus of inquiry is on the role of feedback in communication and control in (and between) organizations and society, as well as in technical systems. The other focal interest is on the multidimensional nature and the multilevel structures of complex systems. Specific theory building, methodological developments and pertinent applications have occurred at the following levels:

  • Individual and family levels (for example, systemic psychotherapy, family therapy, holistic medicine, cognitivist therapy, reality therapy);
  • Organizational and societal levels (for example, managerial cybernetics, organizational cybernetics, sociocybernetics, social systems design, social ecology, learning organizations); and
  • The level of complex technical systems (systems engineering).


From System Dynamics and the Evolution of Systems Movement A Historical Perspective

Mathematical/Quantitative Strand


As can be noted from these preliminaries, different kinds of system theory and methodology have evolved over time. One of these is Jay W. Forrester’s theory of dynamical systems, which is a basis for the methodology of System Dynamics. In SD, the main emphasis is on the role of structure, and its relationship with the dynamic behavior of systems, modeled as networks of informationally closed feedback loops between stock and flow variables. Several other mathematical systems theories, for example, mathematical general systems theory (Klir, Pestel, Mesarovic & Takahara), as well as a whole stream of theoretical developments, which can be subsumed under the terms ”dynamical systems theory” or ”theories of non-linear dynamics,” for example, catastrophe theory, chaos theory, complexity theory have been elaborated. Under the latter, branches such as the theory of fractals (Mandelbrot), geometry of behavior (Abraham) and self- organized criticality (Bak) are subsumed. In this context, the term ”sciences of complexity” has also been used. In addition, a number of essentially mathematical theories, which can be called ”system theories,” have emerged in different application contexts, examples of which are discernible in such fields as:

  • Engineering, namely information and communication theory and technology (for example, Kalman filters, Walsh functions, hypercube architectures, automata, cellular automata, artificial intelligence, cybernetic machines, neural nets);
  • Operations research (for example, modeling theory and simulation methodologies, Markov chains, genetic algorithms, fuzzy control, orthogonal sets, rough sets);
  • Social sciences, economics in particular (for example, game theory, decision theory); and
  • Ecology (for example, H. Odum’s systems ecology).

Qualitative System Theories

Examples of essentially non-mathematical system theories can be found in many different areas of study, for example:

  • Economics, namely its institutional/evolutionist strand (Veblen, Myrdal, Boulding);
  • Sociology (for example, Parsons’ and Luhmann’s social system theories, Hall’s cultural systems theory);
  • Political sciences (for example, Easton, Deutsch, Wallerstein);
  • Anthropology (for example, Levi Strauss’s structuralist-functionalist anthropology);
  • Semiotics (for example, general semantics (Korzybski, Hayakawa, Rapoport)); and
  • Psychology and psychotherapy (for example, systemic intervention (Bateson, Watzlawick, F. Simon), fractal affect logic (Ciompi)).

Quantitative and Qualitative

Several system-theoretic contributions have merged the quantitative and the qualitative in new ways. This is the case for example in Rapoport’s works in game theory as well as General Systems Theory, Pask’s Conversation Theory, von Foerster’s Cybernetics of Cybernetics (second order cybernetics), and Stafford Beer’s opus in Managerial Cybernetics. In all four cases, mathematical expression is virtuously connected to ethical, philosophical, and epistemological reflection. Further examples are Prigogine’s theory of dissipative structures, Mandelbrot’s theory of fractals, Kauffman’s complexity theory, and Haken’s Synergetics, all of which combine mathematical analysis and a strong component of qualitative interpretation.

System Dynamics vs Managerial Cybernetics

At this point, it is worth elaborating on the specific differences between two major threads of the systems movement: the cybernetic thread, from which Managerial Cybernetics has emanated, and the servomechanic thread in which SD is grounded [Richardson 1999]. As Richardson’s detailed study shows, the strongest influence on cybernetics came from biologists and physiologists, while the thinking of economists and engineers essentially shaped the servomechanic thread. Consequently, the concepts of the former are more focused on the adaptation and control of complex systems for the purpose of maintaining stability under exogenous disturbances. Servomechanics, on the other hand, and SD in particular, take an endogenous view, being mainly interested in understanding circular causality as a source of a system’s behavior. Cybernetics is more connected with communication theory, the general concern of which can be summarized as how to deal with randomly varying input. SD, on the other hand, shows a stronger link with engineering control theory, which is primarily concerned with behavior generated by the control system itself, and the role of nonlinearities. Managerial cybernetics and SD both share the concern of contributing to management science, but with different emphases and with instruments that are, in principle, complementary. Finally, the quantitative foundations are generally more evident in the basic literature on SD, than in the writings on Managerial Cybernetics, in which the mathematical apparatus underlying model formulation is confined to a small number of publications [e.g., Beer 1962, 1981], which are less known than the qualitative treatises.

Positivistic Tradition

A positivistic methodological position is tendentially objectivistic, conceptual–instrumental, quantitative, and structuralist–functionalist in its approach. An interpretive position, on the other hand, tendentially emphasizes the subjectivist, communicational, cultural, political, ethical, and esthetic: the qualitative, and the discursive aspects. It would be too simplistic to classify a specific methodology in itself as ”positivistic” or as ”interpretative.” Despite the traditions they have grown out of, several methodologies have evolved and been reinterpreted or opened to new aspects (see below).

In the following, a sample of systems methodologies will be characterized and positioned in relation to these two traditions:

  • ”Hard” OR methods. Operations research (OR) uses a wide variety of mathematical and statistical methods and techniques––for example of optimization, queuing, dynamic programming, graph theory, time series analysis––to provide solutions for organizational problems, mainly in the domains of operations, such as production and logistics, and finance.
  • Living Systems Theory. In his LST, James Grier Miller [1978], identifies a set of 20 necessary components that can be discerned in living systems of any kind. These structural features are specified on the basis of a huge empirical study and proposed as the ”critical subsystems” that ”make up a living system.” LST has been used as a device for diagnosis and design in the domains of engineering and the social sciences.
  • Viable System Model. Stafford Beer’s VSM specifies a set of control functions and their interrelationships as the sufficient conditions for the viability of any human or social system [cf. Beer, 1981]. These are applicable in a recursive mode, for example, to the different levels of an organization. The VSM has been widely applied in the diagnostic mode, but also to support the design of all kinds of social systems. Specific methodologies for these purposes have been developed, for instance, for use in consultancy. The term viable system diagnosis (VSD) is also widely used.

Interpretative Tradition

The methodologies addressed up to this point have by and large been created in the positivistic tradition of science. However, they have not altogether been excluded from fertile contacts with the interpretivist strand of inquiry. In principle, all of them can be considered as instruments to support discourses about different interpretations of an organizational reality or alternative futures studied in concrete cases.

  • Interactive Planning. IP is a methodology, designed by Russell Ackoff [1981], and developed further by Jamshid Gharajedaghi, for the purpose of dealing with ”messes” and enabling actors to design their desired futures, as well as bring them about. It is grounded in theoretical work on purposeful systems, reverts to the principles of continuous, participative, and holistic planning, and centers on the idea of an ”idealized design.”
  • Soft Systems Methodology. SSM is a heuristic designed by Peter Checkland [1981] for dealing with complex situations. Checkland suggests a process of inquiry constituted by two aspects: a conceptual one, which is logic based, and a sociopolitical one, which is concerned with the cultural feasibility, desirability, and the implementation of change.
  • Critical Systems Heuristics. CSH is a methodology, which Werner Ulrich [1996] proposed for the purpose of scientifically informing planning and design in order to lead to an improvement in the human condition. The process aims to uncover the interests that the system under study serves. The legitimacy and expertise of actors, and particularly the impacts of decisions and behaviors of the system on others – the ”affected” – are elicited by means of a set of boundary questions.

All of these three methodologies (IP, SSM, and CSH) are positioned in the interpretive tradition. They were designed to deal with the qualitative aspects in the analysis and design of complex systems, emphasizing the communicational, social, political, and ethical dimensions of problem solving. Several of them mention explicitly that they do not preclude the use of quantitative techniques.


Key People:

  • Markus Schwaninger
  • Stafford Beer
  • Werner Ulrich
  • Raul Espejo
  • Peter Checkland
  • John Mingers
  • M C Jackson 
  • Peter Senge
  • Russell Ackoff
  • C. West Churchman
  • R L Flood
  • J Rosenhead
  • Gregory Bateson
  • Fritjof Capra
  • D C Lane 
  • Ralph Stacey
  • James Grier Miller
  • Hans Ulrich


Key Sources of Research:


System theory and cybernetics

A solid basis for transdisciplinarity in management education and research

Markus Schwaninger


Intelligent Organizations: An Integrative Framework

Markus Schwaninger


System Dynamics and the Evolution of the Systems Movement

Markus Schwaninger


Methodologies in Conflict: Achieving Synergies Between System Dynamics and Organizational Cybernetics

Markus Schwaninger


System dynamics and cybernetics: a synergetic pair


Markus Schwaningera and José Pérez Ríos


Managing Complexity—The Path Toward Intelligent Organizations

Markus Schwaninger


Design for viable organizations: The diagnostic power of the viable system model


Markus Schwaninger


Contributions to model validation: hierarchy, process, and cessation

Stefan N. Groesser and Markus Schwaninger,%202012.pdf





System Dynamics and Cybernetics: A Necessary Synergy

Schwaninger, Markus; Ambroz, Kristjan & Ríos, José Pérez


System Dynamics and the Evolution of Systems Movement

A Historical Perspective

Markus Schwaninger


System Dynamics in the evolution of Systems Approach

Markus Schwaninger


The Evolution of Organizational Cybernetics

Markus Schwinger


Operational Closure and Self-Reference: On the Logic of Organizational Change

Markus Schwaninger and Stefan N. Groesser



Model-based Management: A Cybernetic Concept

Markus Schwaninger





Raul Espejo 2003



A complexity approach to sustainability – Stafford Beer revisited


A. Espinosa *, R. Harnden, J. Walker





Allenna Leonard with Stafford Beer


Stafford Beer

The Viable System Model:

its provenance, development, methodology and pathology



Cybernetics and the Mangle: Ashby, Beer and Pask

Andrew Pickering


What Can Cybernetics Contribute to the Conscious Evolution of Organizations and Society?

Markus Schwaninger….pdf


Fifty years of systems thinking for management

MC Jackson



Introducing Systems Approaches

Martin Reynolds and Sue Holwell


A review of the recent contribution of systems thinking to operational research and management science

John Mingers
Leroy White


Managing Complexity by Recursion

by Bernd Schiemenz


Hard OR, Soft OR, Problem Structuring Methods, Critical Systems Thinking: A Primer

Hans G. Daellenbach


Anticipatory Viable Systems

Maurice Yolles

Daniel Dubois


Second-order cybernetics: an historical introduction

Bernard Scott


Glanville R. (2003)

Second-Order Cybernetics.


Systems Theory, Systems Thinking

S White


Theoretical approaches to managing complexity in organizations: A comparative analysis

Estudios Gerenciales
Volume 31, Issue 134, January–March 2015, Pages 20–29


Helping business schools engage with real problems: The contribution of critical realism and systems thinking

John Mingers


Author: Mayank Chaturvedi

You can contact me using this email mchatur at the rate of AOL.COM. My professional profile is on

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