Viable System and Autonomy

Viable System and Autonomy

Block 3

Part 1:

Viable system and autonomy

The Viable System Model (VSM) uses support for devolved autonomy to maximize an organization’s viability.

1.1 Organization, viability and the VSM

  • Organization:

In this block, the focus of attention is on organizations and how they can be structured to manage complexity.

In this block, organizations certainly include all commercial enterprises, local and central government departments, and the administration of charities, clubs of all sorts, choirs and orchestras.

All of these organizations involve numbers of people engaged in a purposeful activity.

What are the three different perspectives of the organizations which led to Viable System Model?

There are three perspectives of the organizations:

  1. The organization is a network of relationships among people; this is shed a light on the importance of the social dimension of in the working environment within the organization. If managers focus on this dimension, there would be an enhancement in moral, lower staff turnover and improvement in performance.
  2. The organization is a mechanism for handling, or distributing, power amongst those in the organization; any organization has a power structure that staff has to accept as a feature of the organization that broadly obeyed. Different sorts of power are not something that people can carry around to use whenever it suits them. The distribution of power is always issue-specific.
  3. Both as a participant and as an observer you cannot afford to ignore the power-handling aspect of the organization. The organization is a system for accomplishing some transformation; indeed it is a human activity system. In fact VSM focuses on the purposive quality of the organization and the purpose of the system is what it does. The identified purpose depends upon the perspective of the person who is deciding what the system does.
  • Viability (continual survival)

An organization is said to be viable if it can survive in a particular environment.

This means that the organization must be able to adopt to changes in its environment, withstanding the impact not only of expected but also of unexpected disturbances in order to maintain an independent existence.

Viability is not an absolute; it is always subject to conditions.

  • The VSM

The aim of those who engaged with cybernetics and systems was to identify common models, theories and structures that could be applied to all complex systems.

Stafford Beer describes this search for commonality in complex systems as a search for ‘invariants’ – aspects of the system that do not vary from one context to another.

What sort of things is observed as being an invariant in complex systems?

  1. one example is the existence of bothe positive and negative feedback loops.
  2. another example is the trade off between adaptability التكيف مع البيئة and adaptation التكيف مع التغييرات التي تحصل بالبيئة

Beer’s core model from which the VSM emerged was based upon a similarity with a human being. His insight was that a great deal could be understood by regarding the organism as three interacting parts. These are generalized in the VSM as follows:

  • Operation: In the case of organism, it is the muscles and organs. Within VSM is referred to as the primary activity of the system in focus.
  • Management: In the case of organism, it is the brain and nervous system. This is the part of the system in focus that ensures that the parts within Operations work harmoniously together and operate as an integrated whole.
  • Environment: in the case of organism, everything outside the body. This is everything outside the system in focus.

VSM Description
Human Organism
System 5
Policy: ultimate authority, identity
Higher brain functions
System 4
Planning: adaptation, strategy
Input from the senses, forward planning
System 3
Cohesion: internal regulation, optimization
Internal regulation and optimization
System 2
Stability: conflict resolution

Stabilization of the activity of muscles and organs

System 1


Primary activities: ‘Operations’


Muscles and organs

These three basic components form the core of the VSM, though the full model is a great deal more detailed. The Operations and Management parts are further sub-divided into five internal systems as shown in the table above.

Within the VSM, system 3,4 and 5 all reside within Management. System 2 links System 1 (the primary activity) and Management by enabling, coordinating and regulating resources.

VSM helps you to understand how an organization is or is not working effectively. The VSM provides an ‘ideal’ structure for an effective organization. By comparing the actual organization with this ideal, it is possible to identify shortcomings and defects in the organizational structure and operation.

Recursion: every viable system contains, and is contained in, a viable system. What is means in practice is that every sub-system within a viable system is itself a viable system: they all have the same generic VSM structure.

The use of recursion provides a mechanism for dividing complexity into different structural level which can be treated one at a time.

1.2 Variety, autonomy and power

  • Variety

Variety is how many situations the system may face. Variety is the measure of the number of different states in a system.

For example a light switch has a variety of 2: States On and OFF. but variety assumed that everything upon which the light depends is present and working properly.If the light bulb is not working, the switch is broken, the wires are cut or the power is off, the light switch no longer has a variety of 2. (the example is from internet)

A key feature of the VSM is the management of variety. The people in an organization need information to perform their jobs effectively, but too much information can be a distraction. What is needed is both variety attenuation and variety amplification. An example of variety attenuation is the environmental scanning activity. Some people in an organization must keep up with new technology, new government regulations, and what competitors are doing. From a great variety of sources of information, they select the information that is most important for the decisions the firm must make. Variety amplification, on the other hand, refers, for example, to the distribution of the organization’s messages. Advertising messages go outside the firm. Plans, policies and procedures need to be distributed within the firm. (from internet)

  • Autonomy:

As the greater potential source of variety within operation is the people employed there. So I have to encourage them to be more aware and more committed by giving them autonomy in order to allow them to make their own decisions to handle variety as Within the VSM, autonomy is a superior mechanism for handling variety

Autonomy can be defined as the capacity of a system to select and decide within limits, its own behaviour.

  • Power:

It is crucial to note that autonomy must always be limited within a system. As the more reduction there is, the more my variety control is better. It could be limited by some sort of control (power)

• The evolving autonomy of sub-systems or units or individuals might not remove the need for a power structure

• Instead of imposing detailed control over actions, the power structure ensures that the limits of autonomy are respected

• Some advocates of the VSM become over-enthusiastic about autonomy and lose sight of the need for a power structure in an adequate Management to ensure the viability of the overall system

The fundamental limit is that no sub-system can be allowed to behave in such a way as to threaten the viability of the larger system

1.3 the Viable System Model complete

This section show how the components fit together:

In order to construct a VSM:

- you need to be able to define a ‘System in Focus’

- And one level of recursion higher and lower.

  • This higher level of recursion is the system in which the System in Focus is contained.
  • The lower level is the combination of sub-systems contained within the System in focus, which carry out the primary activities of the System in Focus.

It is important that the sub-systems carrying out these primary activities are viable systems themselves.

It also important to note that a system or sub-system carrying out an activitiy or sub-activity might or might not correspond to any particular existing unit in an organization. That’s why ‘Naming the System’ by what it does is so important in the Viplan VSM method.

You define a system by what it does لأنه ممكن ما يكون إله وجود أو بديل في ارض الواقع

The next step in development of VSM diagram is to add in the rest of the five internal system.

system 1: Operation (primary activity)

system 2: stability, responsible for coordinating the subsystems within the operations area. And to prevent conflicts. It is not carried out by Management, it only reports to Management. It is shown on the VSM diagram by triangles connecting the primary activities to the Management box.

Systems 3, 4 and 5 are all located within the Management box:

System 3 (Cohesion) is concern with internal regulation and synergy. It is based on an internal view of the System in Focus. It has to do with ‘Inside and now’. It looks for ways in which the different subsystems might support one another better, and arranges for this to happen

System 4 (planning) is concern with relating the System in Focus to the outside world through planning and adaptation, i.e. strategy. It has to do with ‘Outside and then’.

A major requirement for the viable system is that there should be a comprehensive exchange of information between Systems 3 (Cohesion) and 4 (planning).

System 5 (Policy) monitors the exchanges of information between System 3 and 4 and absorbs the variety that emerges from them.

It is important to not that the role of Management is to guide the operation and support it.

See figure 7 p 26

Summary point 1 P 25 and Summary point 2 p 27

2the basic VSM method

Here almost repeat what said before in different ways

3the Viplan VSM method

The Viplan VSM method assesses viability in depth and more accurate than the basic VSM method.

The steps of Viplan VSM method can be used to:

  1. To diagnose the viability of an existing organization (Mode I).
  2. or to design a viable organizational structure for a particular propose (mode II)

The steps of Viplan VSM can be described as follows:

  1. Establishing the organization’s identity and purpose.

Develop a statement of what the organization does. Use the TASCOI checks to ensure that the statement is adequate


Transformation : what input is converted into what output

Actors : who is involved in carrying out the activities entailed by the transformation

Suppliers: who are the suppliers of the inputs to the transformation.

Customers: who are the once receiving the outputs of the transformation

Owners: who has in the system an overview of its transformation.

Interveners : who is defining from outside the system the context for the transformation.

  1. Technological and structural modeling

Produce a model of the primary activity processes and begin the process of identifying recursive levels within the organization.

  1. Modelling structural level by unfolding the complexity.

Use the recursion principle to establish the structural levels within the organization. Separate the primary and regulatory activities and unfold the primary activities (system 1).

  1. Modelling the distribution of discretion

Use the recursion function table to document the degree to which functions are decentralized or devolved through the organization. This is devolution of autonomy.

  1. Modelling the organizational structure.

Explore in detail how Systems 2,3,4 and 5 operate within the organization. Compare the ideal VSM structure with what actually exists and identify any gaps or inadequacies.

See Summary point 3 p30

Table 3 and 4 (مهم) Direct comparison of the basic and Viplan VSM methods. P31, 32