TOPICS: [ 1. Systems theory ] [ 2. Communication & information ] [ 3. Feedback loops ] [ 4. Automata & games ] [ 5. Requisite variety ] [ 6. Hierarchy & heterachy ] [ 7. Conversation theory ] [ 8. Viable system model]

Viable Systems Model

Some systems survive and evolve and propagate despite turbulent and partly hostile environments - systems such as: "linguigions", families, companies, persons, flora, fauna, and artificial life forms.

Stafford Beer exhibited and generalized the functional subsystems which viable organizations must posses. Current research in A-life and complexity theory, and memetics, are exhibiting other advantageous functional characteristics for systems and environments where survival symbiosis, and propagation are of interest. ( GMB. 97)


For over twenty years my colleague Prof. Mitchell and I have been teaching VSM to graduate students in Educational Technology who consult and work in the Human Performance Development/ Business/Govt. field.

The main difficulties which I have found in helping them to grasp the power of VSM are:

People tend to look for similarities between the new and what they are familiar with, and then they take the sexy new words and stick them on their old familiar entities and practices! -thus nicely defending against having to learn, and also being able to put on a good show of apparent leadership!

Stafford Beer's main VSM diagram showing the five necessary functional recursive systems and their relationships, is just similar-enough to a conventional organisation chart so that the novice will cheerfully pop the company president into system V, the Accountant into system III, the shopfloor people into system I etc. and remain comfortably ignorant of what VSM really means.

This sort of mis-identification utterly ignores two crucial aspects of the VSM:


1) Each functional subsystem of the main system is also a viable system with all five levels of functional components in it. Also Unless they have learned Gordon Pask's conceptualisation of P-individuals versus M-individuals they find it very difficult to grasp that any M-individual(biological individual) may be a participant in any or all of the macro systems I to V, and certainly will be a participant in all five types of components in whichever of the main macro systems where they are most involved, and in themselves qua viable systems!2) To make really meaningful use of VSM one needs to understand basic: information, communication, and control theory, and games theory, (and Gareth Morgan's complementary metaphorical IMAGES etc.) in systemic contexts - what I call cybersystemics.
The learning about cybersystemics and VSM, has to be done not just by an individual, but by a very influential individual, AND by
    a. her/his work-group,
    b. her/his network
    c. her/his boss (CEO, etc.) who must have some respect for systemic knowledge.
(Abraham Maslow ran into the same problems with his excellent Eupsychian management approach -which incidentally is nicely complementary to VSM, as is Pask's Conversation Theory).

Also, finally, since it is concerned with control for viability of the whole organization, and we often care only about the viability of ourselves qua "skindividuals"; VSM can be easily misunderstood as totalitarian.

Only if you realise the ludicrousness of skindividuals without their involvement in transviduals (churches, communities, clubs, families etc.) and if you realise as Presidente Allende did that SYSTEM V is "el pueblo" does it become apparent how democratic VSM CAN be.

In my opinion that is why VSM has not achieved the ubiquitous use which it deserves.

Gary Boyd


Major contributors |  Key concepts and principles  |  Required readings |  Other references  |  FAQs  ]

Major contributor:

Key concepts and principles:

Principle readings:

Beer, S. (1984). The viable system model: Its provenance, development, methodology and pathology. Journal of the operational research society, 35(1), 7-25.

Clemson, B. (1984). Cybernetics: A new management tool . Chapter 5 - The Design and Regulation of Organization: The Viable System Model. London: Abacus.


Further references:

Beer, Stafford.(1959). Cybernetics and Management . London: The English Universities Press, Limited.

Beer, S. (1966a). About Models. In Beer, S. Decision and Control . London: John Wiley and Sons.

Beer, S. (1966b). The Meaning of Operational Research & Management Cybernetics . In Decision and Control, Chapter 4. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Beer, S. (1973). Designing freedom . Massey Lectures. Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Toronto: CBC Publications.

Beer, S. (1978). An Argument for Change - Management in Cybernetic Terms . In Platform for Change. John Wiley & Sons: Bristol, England.

Beer, S. (1979). The Heart of Enterprise . Great Britain: John Wiley and Sons Ltd.

Beer, S. (1981). Brain of the firm (2nd Ed.). Chapter Six : The Anatomy of Management & Chapter Eleven: Corporate Structure and Its Quantification. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons.

Jackson, M.C (1988). Systems Methods for Organizational Analysis and Design . Systems Research, 5 (3) 201-210.


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[ 1. Systems theory ] [ 2. Communication & information ] [ 3. Feedback loops ] [ 4. Automata & games ] [ 5. Requisite variety ] [ 6. Hierarchy & heterachy ] [ 7. Conversation theory ] [ 8. Viable system model]