The Cybernetic Organisation

15 11 2010

Still with Kevin Kelly and Out of Control, I have been reflecting on Norbert Weiner, author of the 1948 book Cybernetics. Weiner provided a simple but profound insight that changed the face of engineering for ever.

One specific problem Weiner addressed was that of producing uniform sheet steel when doing so was notoriously difficult. Rolling mill operators had to contend with at least half a dozen factors, any one of which could affect the thickness of the finished coil of steel: temperature, quality of the raw steel, contamination of the rollers, pressure and so on. What made it harder was that these factors tended to be interconnected: for example, a change to the setting that regulated the pressure of the rollers would tend to raise or lower the temperature of the steel as well.

Weiner’s brilliant insight was that if you placed a sensor (to measure thickness of the steel very accurately) immediately after the final roller, and allowed the data from that sensor to control just the final factor in the chain of causality (in this case the pressure of the rollers), then whatever the other factors were doing, the steel would come out at the right thickness. The adjustements to the pressure setting were automatically taking account of the sum of all the other factors (since they all played a part in the final thickness). Brilliant and counter -intuitive. It changed how tightly connected systems are controlled ever since.

As Kelly points out, this insight had actually already surfaced in the field of economics a quarter century earlier (suggesting that centrally controlled command economies such as Lenin’s Russia would never be as efficient as an economy in which price was allowed to control all other economic decisons).

Has the Cybernetic insight reached your Organisation yet? I don’t mean in the way you roll steel necessarily; fewer and fewer of us are engaged in steel rolling. (And I speak as one who did a project once in a Chinese Steel Mill with 440,000 employees! Those were the days…)

What I mean is that in running your organisation (whether business or government department or not-for-profit), you are probably juggling all kinds of factors and – let’s be honest – experiencing the law of unintended consequences more often than you care to admit. You make a brilliant change to factor x, suddenly factors y and z are killing you. What to do? Smile and wave and carry on?

Here is a thought experiment to follow on from last week’s one: what is the output sensor for the product or service you deliver to your customers or clients? Probably the experience of those customers or clients. (How you capture, accurately, that experience is a whole other discussion).

What if you coupled that sensor to the last factor in the “production line” – what would that be? Probably the people who deliver your product or service to your customers – whether they are consultants or coffee baristas. What would happen if you allowed customer feedback to determine how your customer service was set? That might mean moderating the type of person delivering that service, and how they behave, scripts they use, the manner in which they deploy or deliver the product or service and so on.

We aren’t rolling steel here, so it may be a bit more involved than customer service mitigating the effects of bits of slag on the steel coil. Customer service people might actually need to inform how your product or service is designed and built. What the customer wants might need to flow right back up through the organisation. It would also be important that you didn’t chunk that information off into projects which would proceed outside the real-time feedback web, because those would then tend to act as increased input errors rather than real-time error correction. In such a Cybernetic Organisation, what Customers are telling us about our Customer Service today would need to be the most important thing anyone in the organisation could hear – because it would determine what we do today. Too crazy for you?




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