Viable System Model and Group Dynamics cycle

I’m currently trundling my way through writing the next book, The Service Oriented Enterprise – still on-track for publication at the end of this month, I’m delighted to say – and came across an interesting point about Stafford Beer’s Viable System Model that I hadn’t noted before. It may be important for anyone who’s applying systems-theory principles in enterprise-architecture.

I base much of my architecture-work on a rethink of Tuckman’s Group Dynamics project-lifecycle as an overview-model of the overall workings of an enterprise:

  • forming: purpose, identity, strategy; also far-future
  • storming: people-issues; kind-of orthogonal to time – anywhere from far-future to far-past
  • norming: plans and schedules; also near-future
  • performing: production; also ‘now!
  • adjourning (or mourning): completions; also near- to mid-past

But when we look at the management-section of Beer’s Viable System Model, only three of those five are covered:

  • system-5 ‘policy’: aligns to ‘forming’
  • system-4 ‘strategy’: aligns to later part of ‘forming’, plus ‘norming’
  • system-3 ‘direction’: aligns to later part of ‘norming’, plus ‘performing’

(For those who don’t know the VSM, ‘system-2’ is about inter-process coordination, and ‘system-1’ about service-delivery, the detail-level of the ‘performing’ phase: they don’t really apply here.)

There’s no VSM coverage at all of the ‘storming’ phase, the people-issues – which seems odd, considering Beer’s very strong personal bent towards left-wing participatory politics. And although VSM ‘system-3*’, random-audit, does sort-of touch the ‘adjourning’ phase, it’s only on a very occasional basis – not the continuous process needed for completions and lessons-learned and the like.

This may stem from the VSM’s history as a model of the information flows for management and the like; but it still seems a huge hole in the coverage of what’s actually needed for systemic design of management processes. Is there any way that the VSM does actually cover that hole? And if not, what would we need to do to fill it?

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1 Comment on “Viable System Model and Group Dynamics cycle

  1. I think your suspicion is correct–this disparity stems from the roots of the VSM as a cybernetic description of the minimum set of “functionalities” required by any viable system. My thought would be that the typical progression through forming to performing reflects the fact that humans will tend to form themselves into viable systems (“shout across the void,” as SB puts it in HOE, I think) BUT this natural tendency does not guarantee a smooth process. Forming might then be seen to take place place place as an organization “grows” in terms of establishment of a rudimentary system 3 and “command channel” consisting of somewhat patterned communications processes between informal leaders and group members (“I aways talk to Joe at the coffeepot before signing a client”). Storming takes place when ‘overly autonomous’ systems 1 undergo attempted regulation by a more robust system 3–which, even though it entails probable future benefits to system one elements, also comes at an immediate and often unwelcome cost in terms of autonomy. Norming reflects development of more routinized gatekeeping and homeostatic functionality as systems 2 and 3 functions coalesce into an at least partially integrated set of SOPs, habits, mental models, and rules. A second stage of storming may come about as the “calmness” seeking nature of the 1-2-3 complex is “challenged” by a system 4-5 input to change operational mode, either in response to an emergency or as a strategic decision. Once the dust settles from such a conflict, the overall organization will have a more internally consistent, and hopefully better-balanced, capability for dealing with external events and internal relations. For both the 1 “against” 2-3 conflict and the 1-2-3 “against” 4-5 conflict, the issue may not be conflict as humans would normally percieve it–it’s probably more a question of hierarchy of application of rules. Undoubtedly, this cybernetic issue can very directly lead to interpersonal issues, but it may not do so in all cases. (Further, the less participatory the dust-settling process is, the less likely that the new intra-system relations will actually be “better balanced” in terms of ability to maintain viability in the face of external change.)

    Without explicit attention to balancing the authority/autonomy of these systems, it isn’t surprising that the first several oscillations the system undergoes are relatively extreme–the smooth and balanced VSM is evolving itself. Even with design, it is likely that some of the oscillations will still arise…but if attention to viability concepts AND feedback based adaptation are built in to the original structure, such oscillations will be far less severe and the organization will be far more capable. Human organizations are the primary laboratory for this unfolding autopietic process, I believe, because so many other natural viable systems “did their thing” in the distant past, so most natural viable systems are already well-tuned.

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