I began with HWMC because at that time it was the enterprise that I
knew most about.
I had been involved in setting it up in 1980, and had seen it grow and prosper in its first five years without any formal structure.
The task I had set myself was to see if the VSM could describe the mechanisms which enable a small loose co-operative to function in an undeniably viable fashion.
Or ... if the VSM had said "this just can't be viable as you don't have a System X, and that's a fundamental of all viable systems" ... I would have had serious doubts about its usefulness to co-operatives.
For the period 1980 - 1985, HWMC was successful both in its financial performance and in the working environment it provided for its members. The production processes became extremely efficient, crises were dealt with effectively, challenges were met and discharged, relations between the members were excellent, profits were good, and in general the system worked beautifully.
All decisions were made by consensus, and weekly meetings (when necessary) usually lasted about ten minutes.
Working procedures evolved during the day: after a 30 second planning session ("Let's do the Basmati rice first"), everyone would work around each other, without formal planning, and the days production would proceed. The process is much more in sympathy with the operation of a Jazz band or a football team: basic rules and constraints are understood, but the specific actions performed by the participants are dictated by the conditions of the moment.
[As an aside, I should mention that working in this way has been one of the most satisfying experiences that I have had, and goes some way to explain why co-ops are full of graduates doing apparently boring manual jobs.]
Generally, as the diagnosis proceeded it became obvious that as a function was identified (for example a System 2 stability function whereby the available worker-power was effectively allocated to the various tasks) the same principle was in operation: all members identified the need to articulate a particular Metasystemic function - often without verbal acknowledgement - and shifted into the appropriate mode to deal with the situation.
In many cases, the Metasystemic functions could be done while the Operational work was proceeding (we're nearly at the end of this run ... has anyone got the next one ready?) whereas other discussions required the temporary suspension of manual work, or in unusually complicated situations a few hours put aside to generate plans and strategies.
Usually, in a group of four or five people, there is no problem in satisfying these three prerequisites, and viability is relatively straightforward provided that everyone works as a team for the majority of the time and the need for all the Metasystemic functions, especially future planning, is recognised.
There would seem to be nothing to prevent a non-structured organisation of this kind working Viably.
|The weakness of the kind of structure exhibited by HWMC is that viability is entirely dependant on the people involved. There is no formal structure to ensure effective viability. Consequently it is not uncommon for the group to degenerate into a non-viable form.|
There also seems to be a potential danger that in a co-op which involves much concentration at the Operational level (say a co-op of computer programmers) very little brain power will be left to deal with Metasystemic issues. In this case it may be necessary to appoint a member to deal mainly with Metasystemic issues, and in this case a different organisational structure will be needed.
A further problem could emerge in a period of continuous crisis when the Metasystemic functions need such a large amount of the time that the Operational functions are neglected (that is, no production gets done). This could be overcome by extending production time, but again the division of the Operational and Metasystemic functions is a possible solution.
This may be caused by movement of members (the relevant information was given to Jill who is out driving today ...), by feelings of unimportance (Jack doesn't think he's valued enough to make a contribution, although he may know the crucial element ...), and so on.
Recognition of the absolute necessity of the System 3 model for viability may be one of the more important contributions of VSM theory to co-ops. It may also avoid the usual knee-jerk reaction to the lack of the System 3 model which is: appoint a manager. Although this would allow a complete System 3 model to be generated (the Manager would act as a reference point for everyone and would thus accumulate the necessary information), other ways may be more appropriate such as a computer model or a large blackboard or magnetic shapes on a sheet of metal.
The first three conditions for viability are not impossible to meet, but viability can collapse as membership changes, members' personalities clash, some people feel they can take on Metasystemic jobs without consultation, and so on. Condition 2 is obviously difficult due to holidays and sickness, and thus the Metasystem will occasionally have to cope with an incomplete model.
Two recommendations may be offered
HTML version constructed by John Waters at the Llanidloes Resource Centre. Last modified 30th October 2005.