Viable Workplace Systems and Conversations

The Viable System Model as a Framework for Understanding Organisations

It is a passion of ours to examine what makes organisations run effectively then apply what we find with our clients. Lyn Traill explores some conceptual analogies which may assist you to make your organisation run even more effectively.

From research and observation, there is no doubt in my mind that effective conversational techniques are a key to effective organisations. I have been studying and working with different models and will share some of these over the next few newsletters.

The VSM (Viable Systems Model) was introduced in an article by Raul Espejo and Antonia Gill

The cybernetic aspect of the model makes it very relevant for today’s thinking. Stafford Beer created this model as an analogy to our own recursive living system, to help understand organisations and their various systems.

The diagram below sets out the systems he is using in his metaphor of the human organism as an organisational system.

The environment is demonstrated as a fluid moving object, within which all systems are recursive, getting away from the top down approach.

Implementation: The System 1 – the analogy is to the human system which involves all muscles and organs – the parts that actually DO something.

This is the core of the recursive model, and has its focus on the primary activities – production. It is important to note that this system can be made up of a number of primary activities each being its own viable system.

Coordination: System 2: Relating to the sympathetic nervous system which ensures that the interactions between muscles and organs are kept stable.

This is a vital part of having each of the above systems communicating with each other. The importance of the teams sharing common standards, approaches and values to achieve synergy is stated, resulting in more autonomy and, most importantly empowerment! This is also the area that deals with ‘conflict’ and provides stability to the organisation. This appeals to me as it moves away from the top down communication to effective two way communication systems benefiting from a shared vision and values.

Control: System 3: Relating to the Base Brain which ensures that the whole complex of muscles and organs work together for optimum performance.

I see this as the accountability system. In my experience of late, employees respond well to an effective form of accountability and VSM offers an effective monitoring system which does not espouse the ‘big brother’ attitude but a more collaborative system, employing effective conversations that reflect a genuine caring for those involved in the operations. In order for it not to reverse back to the top down system, the VSM monitoring system should only link two adjacent levels of recursion.

Intelligence: System 4: Relating to the Mid Brain – the senses – where we make all our future plans, projections and forecasting.

A vital part of organisations today is looking to the future – ensuring that they survive in a changing environment. The primary activity is given continuous feedback about what is happening in the market place and ensuring that there are plans for long term viability. Ongoing conversations are vital so that each system is aware of what is happening at every stage in the organisation.

Policy: System 5: The higher brain functions – the cortex.

This vital link, System 5, functions with an overall context. This is the policy making function. Unlike many policy making institutions, where policy spells control, the VSM model is about providing clarity about direction, values and purpose and to provide the highest quality conditions for the organisation to be as effective as possible. It provides the ultimate authority but the decisions of this system are few because it serves as a final check against direction after the extensive work carried out by and between the Intelligence and Control functions.

The strength of this model is the continual conversational process that happens between and within each system. While this appears to be a highly structured process, the systematic two-way communication processes still allow a great deal of flexibility within each level. Because of the robustness of the structure, new strategic business units can be inserted into a level without having to change the surrounding structures. With the conversations that should continually happen in and between each level, all members of the organisation are always in tune with what is actually happening and what the operational needs for the future may be.

To explore how this metaphor applies in your organisation and to use it to increase effective organisational communication, contact Lynn Traill on 1300 766 092.

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