The intention is to set the scene, to give you an overview, to sketch out the outline. So don't try and thoroughly understand it all. If you get an idea of how it developed, what it's about and why it's different from most other models, then it's done its job. Consider this chapter as a quick journey through a country you may decide to visit and study at a later date.
In some ways this is the most difficult task. The VSM is very different from anything else I've come across, and the tendency is to miss the whole point and re-interpret it as just another way of looking at the same old ideas of how organisations work.
The difference is that the VSM is a "whole systems" theory. Almost all other theories of organisation think in the billiard-balls mode of A leads to B leads to C, and therefore miss the essence of what's really going on. They forget that A, B and C are inextricably linked with a myriad other factors, and that for any model to work it must take all of this complexity into account.
The VSM is more in tune with other whole systems ideas like acupuncture, the Gaia hypothesis, most of modern physics and many aspects of Eastern religions. The trouble is that most of us see the world in different terms which have their perspectives set by the world-view of Newton and Descartes.
So the job is to provide you with a new way of thinking about organisations which is radically different from traditional, often hierarchical, models ...
The reward of this leap to new ways of thinking is the ability to think about organisations using a rich new language, and actually to be able to do something about problems which may be concerning you.
For this to happen, you have to learn to see the world through cybernetic eyes.
|"We will seek the source of effective organisation in the cybernetics of natural processes - the brain itself."|
We can study the extraordinary beauty of the human form, and
base an organisational model on the methods used by the central and
autonomic nervous systems to manage the workings of the organs and
Beer's studies of the human form, the muscles and organs and all the various nervous systems were the inspiration for the Viable Systems Model.
It may be considered as a generalisation of the way that we all "manage" ourselves in response to a changing environment.
These are generalised in the Viable Systems Model as follows:
|First||The Operation. The muscles and organs. The bits which do all the basic work. The primary activities.|
|Second||The Metasystem. The brain and nervous systems. The parts which ensure that the various Operational units work together in an integrated, harmonious fashion. The job of the Metasystem is to hold the whole thing together.|
|Third||The Environment. All those parts of the outside world which are of direct relevance to the system in focus.|
Here is a basic VSM diagramThe Environment is drawn as an amoeboid shape. The Operation and Metasystem are drawn as an ellipse and diamond respectively. (This is taken from Beer's conventions, although I have stretched his Operational circle into an ellipse.) The arrows indicate some of the many and various ways the three elements interact. Each arrow may have several aspects: information (by phone, computer, conversation), movement of trucks, people, money or goods.
|[Note the approximation involved in drawing these three elements as separate. The Environment should really go all the way around both the Operation and its Metasystem. And the Metasystem should really be embedded in the Operation. The teasing apart is necessary to show the way the three elements interact .. ]|
This balance is the essence of VSM diagnosis. It's comparable to
the approach taken by acupuncture which considers illness as an
imbalance in the bodily functions diagnosed by an imbalance in
the 12 pulses. Restore the balance - the illness goes away. And
just as acupuncture will look at any imbalance between a patient
and that patient's environment, so the VSM considers as
fundamental the study of an organisation in its environment.
So, although it may be useful to take a limited view of some part of the VSM for a particular purpose, the emphasis will always be on the ecology of an organisation interacting with its environment.
This balanced whole-system approach resolves many of the dilemmas
with which traditional models struggle. Should we centralise or
decentralise?? Should we devolve power or appoint authoritarian
All these questions will be dealt with as we build up the model. The design of the Metasystem depends upon the particular conditions within the Operation. They must be in balance. As the environment changes, the organisation must respond. This will usually require a change in the Operation to balance the environmental changes and then it's inevitable that the Metasystem will also have to adapt as it has to be in balance with its Operation.
Consider the following diagram of the central and autonomic nervous systems, shown interacting with both an external environment and (for this example) four muscles and organs.
These five systems form the basis of the Viable Systems Model.
Their functions are general enough to make the model applicable
to any and all systems which are viable in that they can maintain
a separate existence.
Much of what follows will be discussed in terms of these five systems.
The next step is to turn these ideas into a diagram.
|The five systems have their origins in the functioning of the Central Nervous System, and both their arrangement in space and their interconnections are firmly based on the physiology of the brain/body complex.|
The comparisons with the physiological diagram are clear. A
couple of minutes reflection comparing the two diagrams should
give you a good grounding in the basic form of the model:
In VSM diagnosis you will re-think your organisation in terms of these five systems, and the most powerful approach is to visualise your understanding as a diagram something like the pictures on this page.
The job of the metasystem is to provide a service to the
It ensures they work together in an integrated, harmonious fashion.
It holds the Operational units (System 1) together.
Its job is cohesion.
The Metasystem is there to answer the question "What rules are
needed to decide how to design a system which takes a number of
interacting sub-units and integrates them into a harmonious,
The answer is stability, optimisation, future planning to ensure adaptation to a changing environment, and a way of rounding off the whole thing to ensure all the various parts are working within the same basic ground rules.
The strange looking arrows connecting systems 3, 4 and 5 are a representation of the details of how those parts of the Metasystem interact. The essence of the interaction is to balance the data coming in from the external environment (into S4) with the information coming from the internal environment (into S3) and plan accordingly. System 5 oversees the whole process and only steps in if policy guidelines are flaunted.
|This is nothing like a straight line of command diagram. The VSM works with balances and closed information loops. It is not a hierarchical model which works with one way communications. (Do this as I say so and thus it has to be right ...)|
Compare this with the traditional view that the Operational parts are only there to carry out the orders of the Directors.
This diagram shows the (large) Operational ellipse, inside which are three (smaller) Operational elements.
You will probably have noticed that the Operational units are
drawn to look like smaller (rotated) versions of the larger system.
They have a Metasystem, an Operation and they have arrows which
indicate they are connected with an external environment.
This illustrates the principle of recursion, originally formulated mathematically by Beer, and one of the key concepts of VSM diagnosis.
The principle applies at all levels, throughout all Viable
Systems. Wherever you look, the Operation is composed of
(smaller) Viable Systems, and is embedded in a (larger) Viable
System. They are all nested one within the other, like Russian
Recursion means that at all levels, the same principles of organisation "recur," and so it doesn't matter if you are diagnosing a two-person business or the global economy - exactly the same principles apply.
The VSM is a recursive model.
The various levels are called Levels of Recursion.
The VSM considers an organisation as a number of Operational
units, and the systems needed to ensure they cohere, or work
together, as an integrated, harmonious whole.
The three basic elements are the Operation, the Metasystem and the Environment.
All three are in continuous interaction.
The Operation is called System 1, and carries out the organisation's primary activities.
The Metasystem is composed of Systems 2, 3, 4 and 5.
The model is recursive, that is the same principles of organisation recur at all organisational levels, regardless of scale. This means that any Viable System is composed of smaller Viable Systems and is embedded in a larger Viable System.
HTML version constructed by John Waters at the Llanidloes Resource Centre. Last modified 10th November 2001.