Viable Systems Model: John Walker. NCVO Collaborative Learning Network event, November 2010.
The Viable Systems Model What is it ? What are its origins? How does it work? How do you use it? Jon Walker Laurel Bank Associates .
VSM: What is it ? It’s a theory about the way viable organisations work. It’s focus is organisational structure. It’s a tool kit which enables you to diagnose problems and to come up with solutions. It’s a diagram which encapsulates • the parts of a viable systems • the relationships between the parts • the relationships with the environment It’s a language for discussing organisational issues
VSM: Origins VSM comes from systems thinking • Whole, self-organising systems • Patterns of relationships Developed by Stafford Beer during the 1950’s while he was a manager in the UK steel industry.
VSM Origins - The human body <ul><li>Beer studied the way that the central and autonomic nervous systems “manage” the operation of the organs and muscles, and used this understanding as the inspiration for his organisational model. </li></ul>“ We will seek the source of effective organisation in the cybernetics of natural processes - the brain itself ”
VSM Origins - Complexification Small viable systems come together to form a new, larger, viable whole. Evolution has been driven by a never ending need to create larger organisms out of smaller organisms. And human development follows the same pattern: “ The increasing integration of smaller units into units of greater size and complexity has been the engine of history” (Schmookler and Elias)
VSM Origins - Organism in its environment. Beer was looking with cybernetic eyes - at the way any viable system adapts to survive and attain its goals in the context of a changeable environment. So the connection to, and interaction with, the environment must be at the heart of any model of viability. Viable system Environment
VSM - The Platform How to attain your goals in a changing environment. How to control those who work for you. Inspired by the way the brain and nervous systems control the muscles and organs. Inspired by hierarchy - literally sacred or priest power . Systems co-evolving with their environment. Links with the environment secondary. Small systems come together to form a new, larger whole. Control from the top down Pyramidal structures Viable operational units, working together for their mutual advantage. Command and control. Authority and obedience Beer’s Approach Traditional Approach
The Viable Systems Model How it works: 1 The Three Elements
The Three Elements. <ul><li>All organisations have three basic elements </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Operational units which actually DO the work which defines the system </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>An environment in which it operates </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Some sort of control or management </li></ul></ul><ul><li>Beer found it made sense to tease these apart. </li></ul>
The Three Elements. <ul><li>The Operation, the primary activities, composed of 3 smaller viable systems, all organised in the same way. </li></ul><ul><li>The Meta-system, ( logically “over & above”) designed to ensure all the parts of the operation cohere into a single, harmonious, integrated whole. This is a service to the operational units. </li></ul><ul><li>The Environment . Those parts of the outside world which affect or are effected by the system. Each viable system has its own environmental niche. </li></ul><ul><li>The three elements are continuously interacting. </li></ul>
Horizontal and Vertical Interactions Operational units need to do their job on the horizontal axis, dealing with a complex, rapidly changing environment. They must have as much autonomy as possible to respond effectively The Meta-system understands the need for this autonomy, but has to do its job of ensuring the whole think works coherently. It can intervene, but only for system coherence. The Golden Rule is: maximised autonomy, limited only by systems cohesion.
Recursive Structure <ul><li>This diagram gives more detail of the way that viable systems are composed of smaller viable systems and embedded in larger viable systems </li></ul><ul><li>You can see three separate levels of recursion. </li></ul><ul><li>This might be pupils (R1) embedded in a class (R2) embedded in the school. (R3) </li></ul><ul><li>You could go on - the school will be embedded in a regional educational system, which is part of a National educational system. </li></ul>
The Viable Systems Model How it works: 2 The Five Systems
The Five Systems - Overview and Physiological Inspiration . Beer’s diagram of the body and brain . . developed into . .
The Five Systems <ul><li>System 5 (Higher Brain function) </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Closure, policy, identity, ultimate authority </li></ul></ul><ul><li>System 4 (Mid Brain function) </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Environmental scanning, strategy, planning, innovation </li></ul></ul><ul><li>System 3 (Lower Brain function) </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Overview of entire Operation, optimisation, synergy, imposition of policy when necessary. </li></ul></ul><ul><li>System 2 (Sympathetic nervous system.) </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Resolution of conflict. Stability. </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Keeping the peace. </li></ul></ul><ul><li>System 1 (Muscles & organs) </li></ul><ul><ul><li>The entire Operation </li></ul></ul>
The Viable Systems Model How it works: 3 How the parts create the whole.
Systems 1,2 and 3:Inside and Now <ul><li>This Operation is composed of three autonomous System 1’s </li></ul><ul><li>System 2 is there to deal with conflicts of interest: ideally to anticipate problems in advance. </li></ul><ul><li>System 3 is there to ensure policies are being followed and to create synergy. </li></ul><ul><li>Systems 2 and 3 are both Meta-systemic - they have an over-view of the entire interacting cluster of Operational units, and their job is to make sure the whole thing works as effectively as possible. </li></ul><ul><li>Balanced autonomy and cohesion. </li></ul>
Systems 3, 4 and 5 <ul><li>In the brain, information comes in from the outside world through eyes and ears and is registered by the mid brain (System 4) </li></ul><ul><li>Simultaneously, information about muscles and organs comes up the spinal column and is registered by the base brain (System 3) </li></ul><ul><li>Thus the brain’s activity involves models of what’s happening both outside and inside. </li></ul><ul><li>All of this is surrounded by the cortex (System 5) which monitors all this activity, and ensures it follows policy guidelines. </li></ul>Beer modelled these connections like this
A Dynamic Whole System The autonomous Systems 1 responding to a changing Environment System 5 monitoring and ensuring everything is within policy guidelines System 4 checking both the outside world and System 3 to design strategies to respond to threats and opportunities. Systems 2 and 3 overseeing the entire interacting cluster of Systems 1, dealing with conflicts of interest, and looking for synergies. All parts of the system are in a continuous, dynamic interaction with all other parts. The VSM functions as a coherent whole system.
Overview Clusters of self-organising viable systems (from bacteria to people) find it makes sense to work together and create a greater whole. 4 Meta-systemic systems are needed to ensure the parts come together in a coherent, harmonised, optimised way. Both the Meta-system and the Operation are in a continuous, dynamic, co-evolving dance with each other and with their environment. The way that the whole is organised is exactly the same as the organisation of the Operational parts. Viable systems contain and are contained within other viable systems. The model is recursive. The Operational units have as much autonomy as possible - the Meta-system can only intervene in order to maintain the cohesiveness of the whole. The same laws apply to all viable systems - large and small
So what ? All very interesting. . . BUT Is it useful ? Can it help to deal with organisational problems ?
VSM Application: Yes, it works ! William F. Christopher. President of The Management Innovations Group. After a management career in industry, he worked with more than 100 businesses in sixteen countries. All his work is based on the VSM. <ul><li>• Worldwide the biggest expert team for consulting and education in holistic management systems (St. Gallen, Zurich, Vienna, Berlin, London, Shanghai) </li></ul><ul><li>300 employees </li></ul><ul><li>30 years experience </li></ul><ul><li>All their work firmly rooted in organisational cybernetics. </li></ul><ul><li>See www.malik-mzsg.ch </li></ul>
VSM Diagnosis <ul><li>Map the relevant recursions </li></ul><ul><li>Identify the problem recursion </li></ul><ul><li>Map the System-in-Focus </li></ul><ul><li>Look for weaknesses (gaps) in the five systems. </li></ul><ul><li>Examine the information flows. </li></ul><ul><li>Make a diagnosis </li></ul><ul><li>Change everything ! </li></ul><ul><li>Monitor, review, re-think, try again. </li></ul>The VSM specifies the necessary and sufficient functions for a Viable System. If any of the systems are missing they must be created and put in place.
VSM Application 1: Chile Each recursion is a whole, viable system. Each recursion is nested inside the next, like a series of Russian dolls. Here are the 12 recursions for the Chilean social economy as mapped by Beer in 1971.
VSM Application 2 : Suma <ul><li>Recursions unclear </li></ul><ul><li>Insufficient autonomy in Operational groups. </li></ul><ul><li>Weak (absent) Systems 3 and 4 at Company recursion </li></ul><ul><li>Lack of measurement systems and KPIs. </li></ul>Restructuring a Food Storage and Distribution Cooperative Diagnosis Intervention <ul><li>Recursions clarified. </li></ul><ul><li>Autonomy of Operational groups enhanced, </li></ul><ul><li>New jobs created for Systems 3 and 4 at Company recursion </li></ul><ul><li>Performance measurement systems and KPIs designed and implemented based on daily figures. </li></ul>Results <ul><li>Improved productivity/profit/service level. </li></ul><ul><li>More enjoyable working environment. </li></ul>
VSM Application 3 : the Village Involvement in an Irish eco-community
The VSM Approach All applications involve partnership: • you know the details, culture, problems • we can help to re-think problems in VSM terms. Solutions emerge from the inter-play .
Relevance to The future requires more collaboration, mergers, perhaps consortia. The VSM can help to design new groupings: <ul><li>Based on clusters of autonomous, viable systems </li></ul><ul><li>Requiring a Meta-system </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Looking for potential conflicts of interest and designing an appropriate System 2 </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Looking for ways of working together synergistically </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Creating a System 4 for the group, focussed on the outside world, looking for opportunities, avoiding threats. </li></ul></ul><ul><li>Designed by you using the VSM language and tools. </li></ul>