Every two years, we are fascinated by the athleticism, level of competition, and the human stories in the Olympics. The latest installment of the games did not disappoint. The opening ceremony in London was spectacular and, during the last two weeks, we witnessed and celebrated the accomplishments of so many athletes.
If you have been watching the Olympics this year, your attention would have been on the actual competitions and the back stories of the athletes. You probably did pay much attention to the dynamics of the organizations behind the Olympics.
The overall organizational container for the games is the International Olympic Committee (or IOC), which started its operations in Switzerland in 1894. The entities that organize each of the events are the Organizing Committees of the Olympic Games (or OCOGs). They work with the many International Olympic Sports Federations (or IFs), which represent each of the sports at a worldwide level, and the National Olympic Committees (or NOCs) from each country. Revenues from the games are shared to fund the activities of each sport via their IFs and the athletes themselves through each nation’s NOC. For the less popular sports, Olympic funding is their sole financial support. Also, without Olympic funding, some countries would not be able to participate in the games at all.
By all accounts, the IOC is an adaptable organization having survived world wars, several scandals, and the evolution of each of the sports it has featured for the 118 years of its existence. In this evolutionary journey we have seen remarkable changes, like the equal participation of women. We have also seen small countries, like Jamaica, developing their capabilities and producing world class athletes.
From our bi-annual experience with the games, we can easily conclude that the “Olympics” is a social system accessible to all nations. This system is able to bring the planet together for the common goal of friendly competition and the advancement of each of the sports we have invented. It is apparent that the body-mind connection of the athletes has also noticeable evolved across the years. No other organization provides this truly evolutionary experience.
Reading the title of this blog you are probably wondering what cybernetics has to do with the Olympics. Let’s first provide a definition and then connect this field of study with the Olympics.
The word cybernetics comes from the Greek word kybernetes, which means “steer-man.” It was first introduced in the time of the Greek philosopher Plato and referenced by French physicist Ampère in the 19th century, both seeing it as the science of effective governance. Cybernetics was revived and elaborated by the mathematician Norbert Wiener in his 1948 book of the same title. In it, he defined cybernetics as “the study of control and communication in the animal and the machine.” The field of cybernetics has developed to be the study of goal-seeking systems with built-in controls. It has given us the concept of feedback loops which emerged from studying controls inside systems.
The dynamics of all organizations fall nicely under the definition of cybernetics. All organizations are goal-oriented systems and with many controls. The IOC and all of the organizations involved with the Olympics are great case studies for the field of cybernetics, particularly because of their evolutionary trajectory.
One of the main contributors to the field of cybernetics is Strafford Beer. In 1975, he introduced the concept of the viable system model (or VSM). This is a model in which a viable (sustainable) organization interacts with its environment and is composed of five internal systems. These systems are recursive in nature and should manifest at multiple levels in the organization. In the case of the Olympics, the IOC, the OCOGs, the IFs, and ultimately the NOCs all would have to have sustainable systems in place to achieve 118 years of evolution.
What are these five systems that an organization should have in place to be sustainable according to Beer?
The first is operations. This is an obvious one. Every organization needs to be engaged in purposeful activities whether delivering products, services or the Olympics games. In order for a system to be sustainable, the environment needs to want what the organization offers. We want Olympic games and we would find it inconceivable not having them. The second system in VSM is support. It is comprised of all of the people, processes and tools supporting the operations. Without this support, the viability of the operations would be compromised and over time make the organization unsustainable. The Olympics and its interconnected organizations have become stronger in their support systems. From an idea in 1894, the IOC has become the enabler for many of the sports we enjoy today.
The third system in VSM is management. This is also an obvious one since all organizations need structures, leadership and day-to-day guidance to achieve their goals. The OCOGs and each of the IFs and NOCs have capabilities in place to manage their activities from concept to full delivery of the Olympic experience. Planning and development constitutes the fourth system in VSM. Its primary function is to understand the changing needs of the environment and develop strategies and plans to best address them in the context of the organization’s goals. We can see across time that the IOC has responded to the changing needs of countries, sports and the public. We may not agree with every position they have taken but we can see this fourth system in action.
The last system in a sustainable organization deals with its vision and policies. The vision of the IOC established by its founder Pierre, Baron de Coubertin in 1894 is alive and well and has endured large transformation. Policies allow all of the IFs and NOCs to coexist and unequivocally understand what they need to do to be part of the overall Olympic program. These policies have changed and evolved but they have always been in place.
I am already nostalgic as the Olympic games of 2012 come to an end. However, I take comfort in the sustainability of the systems within the organizations associated with the Olympics. The cybernetics lens provides us with the assurance that the winter games will be played in another two years and that two years after that we will be watching the next generation of swimmers, gymnasts and soccer players that continue to evolve our sports while they delight us with their talent and drive.