viable system model

The Viable System Model (VSM), a concept developed by cybernetician Stafford Beer, is a structural scheme that can be applied to the organization of any sustainable system.

A system can be considered viable when it manages to survive on its own in a changing environment, thanks to its ability to adapt. It is therefore this indispensable adaptability that characterizes all viable systems.

The VSM is therefore a kind of abstract description of how such a system works and it is applicable to any organization that can be characterized as viable.

This description is divided into five main pillars, which Stafford Béer describes as subsystems for efficiency of the global organization:

  • System 1: Implementation, operations
  • System 2: co-ordination of system 1 operations
  • System 3: Operational governance - control and optimization of operational activities
  • System 4: Strategic governance: interpretation of results from experience and development of expectations based on these results
  • System 5: Normative governance: development of rules and conduct within the organization.

For Stafford Beer, this five-step systemic functions (implementation, coordination, optimization, intelligence and policy) is applicable at every level of the company: at the highest level, just as it is applicable to each team and each project.

Finally, this architecture responds to the dual challenge of providing a stable and efficient model of managerial organization, while preserving the agility and adaptive flexibility that characterize viable systems. If the forms of governance and management vary infinitely between companies, Beer bets that their functioning is constant, and is represented in this VSM scheme.