The Viable System Model and Structural Recursion
Stafford Beer’s Viable System Model and in particular his Recursive System Theorem are often the subject of discussion. In this blog rather than explaining Beer’s work I want to explain how I use it. Indeed I’ve used the VSM for a long time, since the old days in Chile, and in particular I’ve applied the idea of structural recursion to enterprises of all kinds.
I see structural recursion as a possible consequence of the often tacit strategies used by members of an organisation to manage the complexity that they create, regulate and produce as they deal with a self-defined problematic situation in their medium/environment. I use the term create to point at the meanings (policies, purposes, values and products) that they define to guide their collective actions. These actions produce the organisation’s meanings as experienced overtime by stakeholders. Aligning meaning creation and production requires regulation supporting the organisation’s cohesion and adaptation to its medium/environment.
It is apparent that members of any organisation, whether they are senior managers or shopfloor workers, share the same biology and therefore have similar complexity management capabilities, but often their potentialities are very different. Since potentially problematic situations can imply exceedingly large complexities, a strategy to deal with them is chunking the global problematic situation into chunks (or primary activities as I call them in my work) that we may expect people strive to align with global policies, purposes and values. If these aligned chunks manage to be autonomous themselves and succeed creating, regulating and producing their particular policies and products, the structural and processual implications are amplifying, perhaps in orders of magnitude, the mutual constitution of organisational and environmental complexities. In the end achieving a constructive synergistic ‘unfolding of complexity’ hugely increases the overall situational and organisational complexities. This implies that in the same way that the global organisation articulates its problematic situation, the aligned chunks create, regulate and implement their own meanings; in other words are autonomous themselves creating and dealing with much more complexity than if they were following hierarchical instructions. Indeed this unfolding (i.e. chunking) may now happen within each of the chunks and therefore we are now witnessing a proliferation of situational and organisational complexities relying on the creativity, flexibility and inventiveness of their members. The number of structurally recursive levels in an organisational system is the number of autonomous structural levels producing the organisation’s self-defined meanings.
Thus, each of the chunks needs resources and competencies to create, regulate and implement their self-defined products; these are systems 5, 4, 3, 2 and 1 in Beer’s VSM or the systemic functions of Policy, Intelligence, Cohesion, Coordination and Implementation in my own language. These functions must recur in all viable chunks at all structural levels. More significantly, communications among them in the organisational system and with agents in their medium/environment produce recursive relationships of performance, cohesion and adaptation. In viable organisations these relationships emerge from effective complexity management strategies, which rely as much as possible on self-regulation and self-organisation for balancing what in general are asymmetrical varieties (I’m using variety in the Ashby’s sense). This recurrence of systemic functions and relationships for each autonomous chunk is for me the meaning of structural recursion. The platforms for this recursion are the meanings or policies created by the members of the organisational system, which give them the closure of an autonomous organisational system. These policies are their purposes, values, norms emerging from their communications with agents constituting problematic situations and also most significantly, from their cultural contexts. These are multiple loops of circular causality, boot-strapping and so forth.
Beer’s first insights about this model came from his appreciation of the complexity management strategies of our nervous system as humans co-evolved with their medium. Methodologically, the insights coming from a scientific situation (neurophysiology) helped him to offer a model relevant to organisations and management. This methodology, which connects nature’s evolution and learning, is used in artificial intelligence and engineering today (e.g. mimicking the behaviour of ants, bees and birds). With adequate methodological support, particularly accounting for people’s purposes, it can also be a most useful methodology for social situations.
I’ve applied structural recursion in a wide variety of situations; there are easy cases where the managerial situation clearly recognises autonomous chunks; this is the case of large corporations that over the years have evolved from functional, centralised structures, to autonomous divisions and strategic business units. But, for smaller units in SBUs as well as for small and medium sized enterprises it is not uncommon to find that there is no structural recursion; simply, often, chunks are the outcome of hierarchical relationships. Indeed, empirical evidence may suggest that no recursion is happening. Indeed in all cases recursion can only be established empirically. Of course we can always recognise shortcomings in these ‘unfoldings of complexity’ but in one form or another we start hypothesising chunks and levels creating, regulating and producing their own meanings and then test the hypothesis. There are structural and identity shortcomings that tend to be archetypical, which in practice limit the scope of recursive chunks (see Organisational Systems; Managing Complexity with the Viable System Model, by R. Espejo and A. Reyes, Springer 2011).
More interesting examples of complexity unfolding happen with reference to government policies, such as health, education, nuclear waste management and so forth, where we find that processes of self-organisation evolve towards some form of structural recursion of the multiple institutional parts creating, regulating and producing that policy, which overtime develop connectivity that eventually may give viability to the policy.