Viable Systems Model

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The Viable Systems Model (VSM) was an approach to industrial management developed by Stafford Beer.

Jon Walker wrote The Viable Systems Model a guide for co-operatives and federations

Its stated objectives are:

  • "to provide you with a set of tools which will enable you to deal with any problems concerning your organisational structure"
  • "to show you how to use these tools."

"It offers an alternative to the usual approach which depends upon hierarchy, authority and obedience, and is of particular interest to enterprises which are looking for ways of becoming more efficient and of encouraging participation and democratic work practices."

Of particular relevance is the section Application to Federations. This gives an account of problems setting up federations of Co-ops in the Wholefood sector in the 1990s.


The VSM consists of five subsystems (from Viable Systems Model)

System 1

System 1 in a viable system contains several primary activities. Each System 1 primary activity is itself a viable system due to the recursive nature of systems as described above. These are concerned with performing a function that implements at least part of the key transformation of the organization.

System 2

System 2 represents the information channels and bodies that allow the primary activities in System 1 to communicate between each other and which allow System 3 to monitor and co-ordinate the activities within System 1. Represents the scheduling function of shared resources to be used by System 1.

"Constraint within the institution that exceeds the minimal variety reduction that is needed to ensure the cohesion that betokens viability, is oppressive." Stafford Beer (1970) The Heart of the Enterprise

System 3

System 3 represents the structures and controls that are put into place to establish the rules, resources, rights and responsibilities of System 1 and to provide an interface with Systems 4/5. Represents the big picture view of the processes inside of System 1.

System 4

System 4 is made up of bodies that are responsible for looking outwards to the environment to monitor how the organization needs to adapt to remain viable.

System 5

System 5 is responsible for policy decisions within the organization as a whole to balance demands from different parts of the organization and steer the organization as a whole.

Further reading