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Viable Systems Model (VSM) and Soft Systems Model (SSM) Essay

1.1 Viable System Model

The VSM is a powerful tool; it establishes the adequacy of the strategies used by an organization to cope with the complexity of its tasks. The VSM is a model of the web of regulatory mechanisms that are needed in an organization to cope successfully with the inherent large complexity of real-world tasks.

1.1.1 A brief overview of VSM

There are five systems in the process of VSM, each of which takes the different functions. The system 1 of an organization consists of the various parts of it directly concerned with implementation. Each part of System 1 should be autonomous in its own right, so that it can absorb some of the massive environmental variety that would otherwise flood higher management levels. This means the parts themselves must be viable systems and must exhibit the five functions– the model is ‘recursive’; the structure of the whole is replicated in each of the parts. System 1 has some special primacy in Beer’s VSM because it consists of other viable systems and because it produces the viable system of which it is part. The management ‘meta-system’, Systems2-5, emerges from the need to facilitate the operations of system 1, and to ensure the suitable adaptation of the whole organization.

System 2, coordination, is necessary to ensure that the various elements making up system 1 act in harmony. System 3 is a control function ultimately responsible for the internal stability of the organization. It must ensure that system 1 implements policy effectively. System 4, or the intelligence function, has two main tasks. First, it switches information both ways between the ‘thinking chamber’ of the organization, system 5 and the lower-level systems. Second, it must capture fro the organization, all relevant information about its total environment.

System 4 is the point in the organization where internal and external information can be brought together. One of its most difficult tasks is balancing the sometimes antagonistic internal and external demands placed on the organization, as represented by the requirements of system3 and system 4 respectively. System 5 must also represent the essential qualities of the whole system to any wider system of which it is part.

1.1.2 Argumentation on VSM

The VSM lays down a minimum set of necessary relations that must obtain if a system is to continue long in existence. It does not try to provide a detailed blueprint for design. There are five features of the VSM which serve it most advantageously when it is used to assist management practice.

Firstly, the model is capable of dealing with organizations the parts of which are both vertically and horizontally interdependent. The notion of recursion enables the VSM to cope with the vertical interdependence displayed in a multinational company which itself consists of divisions, companies or departments, etc. In the VSM the parts of system 1 of an organization must be viable systems in their own right and must possess their own systems 1-5. The nature of the system purpose should be the guide to settling the balance between centralization and decentralization.

Second, the model demands that attention be paid to the sources of command and control in the system. The role of system 4 deserves special attention here. It is a development function which, in the light of threats and opportunities in the environment, can suggest changes to systemic purpose and consequent alterations of organizational structure. The restrictions on the autonomy imposed by system 2 and 3 are only such as to ensure overall systemic cohesiveness.

Third, the model recognizes that information is the true cement holding organizations together. It offers a particularly suitable starting point for the design of information systems, as indeed has been convincingly argued by Espejo (1979) and Watt (1978).

Fourth, the organization is represented as being in close inter-relationship with its environment; both influencing it and being influenced by it. The organization does not simply react to its environment but can proactively attempt to change the environment in ways which will benefit the organization.

Finally, the VSM can be used to make specific recommendations for improving the performance of organizations as systems. Beer’s model can be employed to assist with the design of new organizational systems, which should be constructed so as to ensure that they adhere to the cybernetic principles elucidated in the VSM.

1.2 Soft Systems Methodology

1.2.1 A simple description of SSM

“SSM is a systemic process of enquiry which also happens to make use of systems models. Thus, it subsumes the hard approach, which is a special case of it, one arising when there is local agreement on some system to be engineered.” (Checkland, 1990; 25).

The soft systems approach are that a true understanding of complex problem situations is more likely using this approach than if the more simplistic structured or data-orientated approaches are used, which address mainly the formal or ‘hard’ aspects of systems. Hard Systems thinking is concerned with the ‘how’ of the problem. In soft systems thinking, the objectives of the system are assumed to be more complex than a simple goal that can be achieved and measured. Systems are argued to have purposes or missions rather than goals. Understanding is achieved in soft systems methods through debate with the actors in the system.

Rich pictures, root definitions and conceptual models come from Checkland’s Soft Systems Methodology. Rich picture prove particularly useful as a way of understanding the problem situation in general at the beginning of a project; Root definitions help the analyst to identify the human activity systems they are to deal with; and conceptual models show how the various activities in the human activity system relate to each other. The three sections describe each of the three techniques, but many analysts using one of these techniques will use them all and therefore the reader will notice much cross-referencing in the descriptions of each.

1.2.2 Commentary on SSM

SSM uses a particular kind of holon, namely a so-called ‘human activity system’. This is a set of activities so connected as to make a purposeful whole, constructed to meet the requirement of the core system image. Overall, the aim of SSM is to take seriously the subjectivity which is the crucial characteristic of human affairs and to treat the subjectivity.

A root definition expresses the core purpose of purposeful activity system. That core purpose is always expressed as a transformation process in which some entity, the ‘input’, is changed, or transformed, into some new form of that same entity, the ‘output’.

SSM can be viewed as an epistemological stance, with its own special vocabulary. Any “full” application of SSM should involves structured thinking about real- world situations, which should acknowledge that although the real world may be complex or appear chaotic, its investigation may be systemic. It should distinguish clearly between real world situations and systems models of them, and should describe systems using “holon” models. Each practical application of SSM should contribute to the theoretical apparatus.

1.3 Comparison between VSM and SSM

Viable system thinking is based on an optimising paradigm, whereas soft system thinking is based on a learning paradigm. That means VSM emphasises the organisational structure and control process and set an optimum structure for all organisations while SSM focuses on the participants and their learning process. Dissimilar with VSM, SSM designs a learning process to discover the problems existing in organization and encourage the participants to identify them. In fact, even some trifle problems are identified in the discussion (the learning process) by the participants. From this point, SSM is more flexible and innovative than VSM.

It is most likely that the application of VSM would meet some difficulties. Employees within organization refuse to accept the change suggested by VSM; VSM’s design does not dictate the management style; the purposeful role of human being within VSM has not been sufficiently explored.

The application of SSM also might encounter some problems. Organisation goals may be politicised, fuzzy or even disputed. We can hardly assume that all members accept the unitary views and goals of top management. Formal methods usually begin with a problem statement but – fixing the problem too early where people are concerned tends to conceal problems. The research method itself may limit the “things that will be elicited”. Conclusions will reflect methods and starting positions. They are clearly affected by human perception and commitments.

Adopting an SSM approach involves recognition that the process of analysis (human interaction) is as important as precision in the data and outcomes. Following and experiencing an SSM approach will itself affect change. The participants change, the organisation may change. This arises because of the very process of exploring views about the problem and possible solutions.

The purpose of structural models is to identify the primary activities. The recursion/function can deal with the regulatory activities. It helps to relate organisational functions to primary activities. Autonomy is granted to the system1 within VSM parts. This leads to increased motivation in the sub-systems. It encourages the lower system to achieve the agreed goal by their way. In this way, humans potential are recognised by the organisation because the relative autonomy is given to the parts of the organisation.

VSM emphasised that close interrelationship should be established within the organisation. The organisation should not only react to the turbulent changes of its environment, but also influence and change it that will benefit the organisation. In the perspective of VSM, systems are also seen as dynamic. Relations among parts are not just passive links. The links carry information, become active only under certain conditions, and have capacities to identify errors in the organisations. While SSM emphasises the root definition and comparison the conceptual model with the real existing model.

SSM was called “human activity systems” because the participant is emphasised. It doesn’t actually tell how to build a system, that there is no real method. On the contrary, VSM emphasises ideal organisational structure and communication and control process but neglects the purposeful role of individuals that are important to the organisation. The components of the model are regarded as machines, they only react, and they don’t have emotions. Employees will be de-motivated by the machine-like model. VSM is designed for encouraging intrinsic control but not intrinsic motivation.

VSM emphasises the perfect structures for all organisations while SSM is a learning approach that encourages participants to find, analysis, and resolve the problem by themselves. The choice of the model depends on the given environment. Different organisational context determines the different methodology. Under complex-unitary context, it is better to address VSM than SSM, while under pluralist context SSM is recommended.

In my opinion, SSM is preferable to VSM due to its flexibility and on-going nature. SSM motivates participants to find out the deficiency in the organisation and to improve the problematic situation. And once the initiative of the participants has been stimulated, the process of diagnosing the problematic situation will be kept on going. Yet an SSM project does not mean a complete success, but it should reflect a natural evolutionary of the organisation.

2. Mutualism between VSM and SSM

2.1 The Relationship between SSM and the VSM

It is certainly possible to consider the problem of groupware implementation using SSM amongst many systems approaches. Thus, in considering the introduction of new technology a variety of systemic identities could be explored, the potentials introduced by the technology would be incorporated into conceptual models that could lead to the adoption of appropriate technical solutions and practices aimed at bringing about the desired effect. This, implicitly iterative, process could be aimed at a growth in use of the technology towards agreed beneficial outcomes. An alternative might be to adopt a model such as the Viable System Model, employing it as a diagnostic tool to identify areas where technology could facilitate improved variety management and conformation towards improved viable system design (Beer 1979, 1985).

It will be apparent that both the SSM and VSM approaches to organizational analysis cover much of the same territory albeit from different perspectives. Although it has been common to view these as contrasting alternatives, we believe that there is considerable benefit to be derived in the current study from combining the two approaches. We see SSM as providing a methodology for collecting the raw data needed for constructing a useful VSM of the University in the context of MLE development. To put another way, where SSM requires the building of models in the logic-based stream of enquiry, the VSM provides the tools and theoretical framework to build a richly elaborated and precise model, which can be used for comparison to perceived reality as demanded by SSM.

For example, where SSM refers loosely to the need for monitoring and control subsystems in the logic-based model, the VSM helps to unpack a wealth of detailed information about monitoring and control systems that are in place, or would need to be in place for an MLE to be effective in the organization.

We further believe that the developed VSM will offer useful insights into the cultural stream of enquiry in addition to the techniques offered by Checkland. Thus, we see the two approaches as entirely complementary. Checkland mentions the possible use of the VSM in this role; although in general he views the VSM as too much in the tradition hard-systems thinking. In contrast, we suggest that the VSM with its cybernetic grounding in the concept of variety management serves to enhance the model building in SSM.

2.2 Combining use of the VSM and the SSM

1. Develop the SSM models from the point of view of the action researcher

2. Develop interview questions for a cross-section of relevant organization members

3. Obtain information to build the initial VSM of the organization

4. Develop SSM models and refine VSM based on interview transcripts

5. Use all of the above to feed into focus groups

6. Monitor and evaluate work.

3. Conclusion

VSM is designed to solve the problems of ill-structure organization; its solution is clear and definite. There are more organizational activities involved in the process of VSM. The holistic point view reflects on the whole VSM, in which there are more control, power and conflicts plus cultural, political and coercive aspects. SSM tends to be applied to solve the problems of organization in bad situation. Nevertheless, its solution is multiple and vague. SSM can identify more problems in a democratic way, in which more attention is drawn to human aspects. Therefore, we can make a conclusion that VSM and SSM complement to each other in solving the problems of organizational management.

4. Bibliography:

Ć Beckford, John, 1958, The Viable system model: a more adequate tool for practicing management. (T/H 1993, P.H.D. B3.)

Ć Checkland, Peter B, 1990, Soft Systems Methodology in Action, JOHN WILEY & SONS

Ć Checkland, Peter B, 1993, Systems Thinking, System Practice,

ƒÜ Chichester, Wiley, 1989, The Viable System Model: interpretation and application of Stafford Beer’s VSM, JOHN WILEY&SONS

Ć D.E.AVISON and G.FITZGRALD, 2000, Information Systems Development Methodologies Techniques and Tools, 2nd Edition, The McGran-Hill Companies

Ć Johnson and Richard Arvid, 1992, Systems Theory and Management, XEROX

Ć Robert L. Flood and Norma R.A.Romm, 1997, Critical System Thinking: current research and practice, Plenum Press, New York and London

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