20-20 vision for the Nineties Syntegrity's all you need

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The Independent Online
"Delayering" is all the rage. For companies desperately seeking to cut costs, it provides a logical answer. After all, if you reduce the number of levels in an organisation, you surely make it more efficient as well as less costly, don't you? Well, not necessarily.

There are plenty of people who will suggest that the downfall of Barings was due at least in part to the lack of supervision of some of its traders. Of course, just having somebody in charge of someone else does not guarantee the operation of checks and balances. But it probably increases the chances of it happening. Meanwhile, experts in the field believe that the ethical problems of many companies may be attributable to the "lack of grey hairs" around the place. And then there are those organisations - notably banks - that have found it difficult to do what is expected of them in an increasingly service-oriented business environment with the numbers of staff they now have.

One person who is frankly not surprised by all these difficulties is Stafford Beer. A man with something of the look of a mad professor rather than a slick US-style management guru, he nevertheless has acquired his share of adherents in three decades of opining on the ways in which organisations are run. Among his followers are the publishers John Wiley & Sons, who have kept his rather heavy-going books in print and have recently issued another. Somewhat typically entitled Beyond Dispute: the Invention of Team Syntegrity, the latest tome comes packed with maths, diagrams and discussion of such concepts as cybernetics, or the science of communications and controls.

The aim of the book, apparently, is to "provide managers and their advisers with a new planning method that captures the native genius of the organisation in a non-political and non-hierarchical way".

The model for this is a regular icosahedron - a 20-sided object which Mr Beer is fond of encouraging lecture audiences to make for themselves using jellybeans and toothpicks.

An object that has "fascinated everybody from Plato to Buckminster Fuller", it is applicable for this purpose, says Mr Beer, because being composed of 20 equilateral triangles makes it completely free of hierarchy.

Each of the 30 edges represents a person - itself convenient because Mr Beer's own experience of organisations such as IPC suggests that 30 is a good number for a group of similarly inclined individuals - say, some directors and their "preferred subordinates".

If this is divided into six groups of five, a situation is created whereby each person has contact along predetermined lines - the edges of the triangles - with others. Furthermore, the things they discuss are determined by themselves rather than outside. That way, he maintains, meetings break free from the traditional format in which routine dominates and useful items are rushed through at the end.

For all Mr Beer's insistence that this is "a model of ultimate democracy because you can throw it around and it will land in the same place and it's robust", managers are unlikely to swallow the whole message. But if success in the future is all about fresh and innovative approaches to problems, they might do well to give it the odd sideways glance.

`Beyond Dispute: the Invention of Team Syntegrity' by Stafford Beer (John Wiley & Sons, £24.95).

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