To Change Ourselves: a
Personal VSM Application
If one wishes to change the world, one must first change oneself. This was one of Heinz von Foerster’s profound teachings and one that has great applicability today as it seems that many aspects of our lives threaten to spiral out of control. Here in Ontario, which is one of the more tranquil areas on earth, we have had continuing security fall-out from the World Trade Center attack, the Walkerton water system’s e-coli contamination, SARS, a computer leasing scandal in city government and the electricity black-out in August. All appeared to be catastrophes or anomalies but, upon examination, all have been found to be events that we could have, and should have, been better prepared to meet. All the subsequent examinations exposed failures to see the whole picture and to respond with requisite variety when the first sign of trouble appeared.
Adequate models with which to frame complex circumstances are needed but are too infrequently applied. Stafford Beer’s Viable System Model (Beer 1979,1981, 1985) is a model that can be very useful at several levels in dealing with complex situations. It can be used in a straightforward ‘objective’ fashion when dealing with topics that are less complex or ones where nearly everyone agrees about what the systems and boundaries are and what should be measured. If there are accepted criteria of performance, it can be used to diagnose whether the management infrastructure is well adapted to fulfil its duties and where there are gaps or lags. It may, however, also be used in a hermeneutic mode to question assumptions, definitions and significance and in an emancipatory mode to explore alternative power structures, value systems and world-views. But, before these other modes are attempted, it is necessary to master the basics, and that takes time and effort. Busy professionals are often too overloaded to learn new tools, and many have little patience with new terms or theory. This leaves universities and workshops the most feasible settings in which to learn the model, but this brings its own difficulties.
Teaching the Viable System Model to people without an organizational setting to frame the exercise can be challenging. It is not easy to introduce new ideas and terms in the abstract and help people gain facility in their application without examples. Case studies are helpful here but there is another alternative. Although not everyone, student or not, has an organizational setting that provides a familiar situation to apply unfamiliar ideas, all people have their own lives to manage. This is not a trivial task. It becomes more difficult as our schedules and our technologies become more complex and as the demands upon us fragment our attention. Indeed, even ten year olds seem to need weekly planners to keep up with their school work and extracurricular activities. Putting the model to use in this way could be an effective tool to question and reflect upon one’s own priorities and activities and reintegrate our lives at the same time as learning the model.
Teaching and workshop presentations, including my own, have tended to focus on the factory producing two or three types of widgets. This is a positivistic example that does not provide much scope for using the model in a hermeneutic or liberating mode. Both these uses require a more sophisticated understanding than is usually possible in the case study format. But everyone does, at least potentially, have a more sophisticated appreciation of the complexity of their own lives with their identities, commitments and choices.
The Personal VSM
What follows is an example of a VSM of an individual’s life. It is a setting that everyone can relate to and that is useful as a self-referential tool. One’s life is also an example that provides illustrations of how some of the same activities may fulfill different functions in different people’s lives, or in the same people’s lives at different times. In this exercise we are reversing the framework of Plato’s Republic in which the question of what constitutes a good man was examined at a higher level of recursion through the question of what constitutes a good state.
System One activities are operations that do something that is rewarded by the environment, usually products or services in the case of a business. On the individual level, it could be paid work, but it could also be unpaid work, schooling, a hobby or care-giving.
Our subject is a full-time student in a university. She is taking four classes, so each of them is a System One activity at the next lower level of recursion. She has an athletic scholarship, so playing her sport on the University team is also a System One activity. In this, she differs from her roommate who plays sports on an intramural team to relax and stay in shape. For her, her sport is not a System One activity although her part-time job is. Her classmates may count as System One activities their volunteer work, student government, care of a child, or network building in the context of their social life, if it is pursued in a purposeful and organized manner. The test is ‘is the activity an exchange in the environment that produces something that the environment recognizes and rewards?’ If so, it is a System One. It is connected to other System One activities and may conflict with them, or at least not take advantage of synergy if they are not viewed from a broader perspective.
The first problem that arises is that the System One activities may get in one another’s way, causing oscillations whereby the individual scrambles to deal with schedule glitches, budget disruptions and problems with enabling infrastructure – computers and other tools that help keep things in order.
System Two is a service to the System One activities to help them run smoothly. So, our System Two tools are likely to include: our diaries or planners, our address books, our checkbooks, filing systems, instruction manuals for our tools, training or certifications that need to be renewed – even the alarm clocks and tickler files that tell us it is time to move. And, of course, there are the System Two activities that go with being human: our habits, eating, health and fitness, grooming, rest and relaxation.
Students, as part of the recursion ‘university’, adopt a number of System Two conventions that relate to expected behaviour in class, standards for papers and other assignments and social relations. Forms of address, style manuals, requirements for using university computer centres and dormitory rules are examples.
System Three makes inside and now executive decisions on the basis of the circumstances of all the System One activities together. It looks for synergy and makes adjustments to deal with priorities and shift resources to adapt to changing conditions. The ‘resource bargain’ with the System One activities allocates time, money, space and other resources among the student’s different classes and between classes and other commitments. A field trip or big project in one class, for instance, might use study time and perhaps class time normally allocated to the other classes. Or, the demands of a tournament, a big push in a part time job or student government event could result in shuffling schedules and perhaps scrambling to get everything done. Everyone does this sort of trade-off anyway, with or without the benefit of a model, but having a model makes what is included in the considerations more explicit.
Often System Three decisions are made on the run. Something more or less unexpected happens and it is necessary to reallocate priorities and resources. This is not so different from when a company shifts gears to comply with a larger than normal order or to compensate for a breakdown. When there is time for consideration, synergies may be pursued. Two different courses may have overlapping reading lists, allowing for a deeper understanding of how they apply to both of them, or two courses may be scheduled consecutively in nearby buildings, thus saving travel time.
System Three Star
System Three Star mops up excess variety that is not handled by regular arrangements. Any sitting down and taking stock of particulars counts as a Three Star effort. Sitting down with one’s budget is the obvious parallel to the financial audit of a company but there can be others, such as measuring your computer capacity against current demands or looking at whether your transportation arrangements are satisfactory. Some external evaluations such as one’s yearly physical examination or the university’s periodic review of eligibility for maintaining scholarship status are also Three Star activities.
System Four for the university student may seem to be the whole effort as education for one’s future life is almost by definition a System Four activity. However, while at university, there are needs to focus on the short and medium term future, i.e. this week and its demands, as compared to next semester.
System Four contains a model of itself and the connections it has to the relevant future environment as well as a model of the VSM structure of which it is a part. The internal conversations within System Four between different aspects of these two models can be very enlightening. The student, operating in System Four, may select a possible alternative from the environment, say, a new course for the next term. He or she would first consider this potential course according to its System Five criteria for computability with identity and overall goals. If there was no conflict, a System Three feasibility check would be made and its relations with other courses and commitments considered. Lastly, he or she would look at whether any changes would be needed in the System Two support structure, such as additional software, to accommodate this new initiative.
System Five maintains identity and coherence whether we are a student, a member of a community or member of an organization. All of us have different aspects of our identity that we may stress at different times or in different contexts. These aspects may differ when the same ‘identity’ finds itself in a different context. Although there is wide variation, students almost inevitably broaden their contexts when they attend university, whether they have traveled five miles or five thousand miles to attend. New ideas, people with different outlooks and people from other countries are encountered and these experiences become part of the student’s growth and emerging identity.
The other function of System Five is to balance present and future efforts and emphasis. This aspect typically shifts during a university programme. At the beginning, the emphasis is mostly on the present; learning the new routines, figuring out the new expectations and meeting day to day obligations. One day at a time is not an unusual orientation during the first weeks. After one has settled in, it is possible to look around, perhaps even stop and smell the roses, and think of next steps. As the student gets closer to the completion of the programme, more thought is given to the future.
System Five may consider different potential shifts in identity to explore ways of changing ourselves so we may change the world. Our identities are made up of many aspects. Indeed, ‘identity politics’ would seem to reduce each of us to our race or ethnicity, our age, our gender, our religion, our class or our party affiliation. We are certainly all these things, but we are also an unfragmented whole with the integrity of a persistent personality with its combined influences of nature, nurture and choice.
Other Stages and Ages
Although many who learn the VSM are students, there are many possibilities for individual VSM workshops for others. One popular area of concern in North America is ‘work/life balance’. It was a major topic at a recent HR Conference I attended this fall. Although it is a track that attracts many women juggling their work and families, it applies to men with family responsibilities as well. Even at the domestic level of attention one finds choices that involve Systems One through Five, such as the System Three resource bargain of whether the time saved by using processed foods is worth the increased risk of additives and the likelihood of decreased taste and higher cost. They are performed in the System One here and how, supported by shopping and food storage practices in System Two, evaluated according to their future implications and related to one’s identity. Although I usually think of Heinz’s dictum as concerned with more reflective choice, it is not always the case. Consumer choices and ad hoc adaptations to change made individually, do ‘change the world’ as we ‘vote with our feet’.
Another group of people who might find use for the personal VSM are the large number of free-lancers, contract workers and others who must manage their ‘Me, Inc.’ according to variables not faced by those with permanent employment. They have different types of contracts and perhaps other claims on their time as their System One activities. They must maintain their contact lists, billing and record-keeping arrangements and technological infrastructure in System Two. Decisions and resource bargains are made in System Three and evaluated in System Three Star. They anticipate the new knowledge and practices they should be acquiring and take steps to direct their learning, attend conferences and keep up with their fields in System Four. In System Five, they take the long view and reflect on how everything fits together. And, perhaps most usefully, they may consider themselves in the context of all the different Systems of which they are a System One – their families, their colleagues, their communities, and so on. The comparisons made between a personal VSM of oneself as a member of a family and as a member of a work group or other affiliation can be very enlightening – illustrating connections, relations and conversations that may be compatible or in conflict.
A Matter of Perspective
It has been mentioned earlier that the same activity may be, depending on the individual, part of a different System. For example, for one person physical exercise is a System One. That person may play on a team, or participate in an individual sport, as ‘semi-professional’, such as the students on athletic scholarships in the United States college teams or anyone for whom this hobby is seen as something done for a reward. Another person may exercise or play a sport to maintain physical fitness so that they are equal to the expected demands on their strength and energy, which is a System Two function. In a System Four context, one may pursue exercise to prepare for a marathon or another test of endurance. For another, sport and physicality are part of their identity – of who they are. This is System Five.
Among people who meditate seriously, all five systems are addressed by different uses of meditation. It may be an activity that one performs to benefit the larger environment – System One. It may function as a System Two maintaining balance among different aspects of one’s life. It may be the means used to address decisions about the here and now and the resource bargains made among different System One’s – a System Three function. A meditative retreat may serve as a variety mop up in System Three Star. One may meditate on the future, acting in a System Four capacity or may reflect on questions of identity or the balance between present and future in System Five.
Beginning to learn to apply the VSM to an individual’s life and work is a very useful way to come to grips with the model without the benefit of a common organizational context. It is also helpful to introduce more nuanced interpretations that can be made in a reflective, hermeneutic, or emancipatory mode. It is advantageous that an individual does not need much familiarity with the management of organizations to proceed. And, of course, it is hoped that when similar dynamics are met in the context of organizations and their relations, that the invariances will be recognized.
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Beer, S. Heart of Enterprise. Chichester and New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1979
Beer, S. Brain of the Firm, 2nd ed. Chichester and New York, John Wiley & Sons, 1981
Beer, S. Diagnosing the System for Organizations. Chichester and New York, John Wiley & Sons, 1985.