Stafford Beer: the man who could have run the world
7 November 2002
Stafford Beer achieved the hardest of all pedagogic tasks: he changed the way people think. His protean influence stretches from generations of inspired students, through Salvador Allende’s Chile, to the collective brain of openDemocracy. A huge, life-affirming figure has passed, but his work will long survive, says our international editor.
Stafford Beer, scientist, poet, painter, founder of Management Cybernetics and world leader in operational research, who has died at the age of 75, was much larger than life. The handsome photograph that one accompanied the Guardian obituary is entitled ‘Subversive Showman’. If he fitted neatly into neither the British establishment, nor the academic nor indeed the business world, it was partly because of the sheer impact of the man – but also because of what he had to say.
His self-appointed task was to bring an often unwelcome message to whoever would listen, including the twenty-two governments who hired him as a consultant over the years, about the need for ‘effective organisation’ in companies, social services, great institutions, whole countries, and international communities, if they were not to be left behind by technological advance, threats to economic survival, and loss of faith in established authority – by, in short, complexity and change.
Some people ‘got it’: they joined the band of friends and followers from around the world, and were rewarded by Stafford’s patient and loyal interest in their own efforts to apply what they had learnt. They were inspired by his various favourite dicta, such as ‘Don’t bite my finger: look where it’s pointing’, or ‘You accuse me of using big words that you find hard to understand. But you need big words for big ideas. And you should find it hard to understand.’
Many more, who were nevertheless profoundly influenced by his work, found these admonitions unfashionable and irritating, and his many books unreadable. They often failed to see the indefatigable energy which he devoted to trying to make himself better understood: Stafford’s ideas in Latin, in thirteen languages, in poetry, in a summary for business schools, as applied to car engines, hospitals, prisoners or stars.
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