1st Edition

Sustainable Self-Governance in Businesses and Society The Viable System Model in Action

By Angela Espinosa Copyright 2023
    312 Pages 64 B/W Illustrations
    by Routledge

    312 Pages 64 B/W Illustrations
    by Routledge

    Sustainable Self-Governance in Businesses and Society offers a sound introduction to Stafford Beer’s Viable System Model (VSM) and clarifies its relevance to support organisational sustainability and self-governance. While the VSM has been known since the early 1980s, it hasn’t been always easy to understand and to apply.  It explains the self-transformation methodology to analyse the way organisations manage (or not) their complexity and govern themselves.

    The work is supported by multiple examples of application in organisations of all scales – from small to multi-national corporations and from organised social networks to communities and national organisations. It clarifies the relevance of Beer’s theory to support systemic learning and change in organisations, and to coach them to self-organise and self-govern.

    Readers interested in further understanding insights from complex systems and cybernetics theories for designing and transforming organisations will benefit from this book, as it works to offer very detailed insights on how to put the VSM theory into practice. It clarifies how it improves adaptive capabilities, agile and self-regulated structures, more capable of fully implementing corporate sustainability strategies and self-governing themselves.  The chapters provide key reading for managers, consultants, practitioners, and post-graduate students working in organisational transformation, governance, and sustainability.

    List of Figures

    List of Tables



    List of Abbreviations

    List of Contributors


    1. Towards Self-Governed Businesses and Societies

    Systems, Complexity, and Cybernetics Sciences

    Organisational Cybernetics

    Complex Systems Sciences

    Complexification in the 21st Century

    Understanding Complexity (and Variety)

    What is Complexity and Variety?

    Organisational Elements (O, M, E)

    Ashby's Law of Requisite Variety

    Viability vs Complexity Management

    Managing Variety and Learning

    Organisational Learning and Development

    Managing Complexity in Organisations

    Why We Need to Evolve Towards Sustainable Self-Governed Organisations


    2. Organisational Viability (and Sustainability)

    The Need for More Resilient Organisations and Societies

    What is a Viable and Sustainable (v&s) Organisation?

    The Physiological Inspiration

    The Viable System Model

    System 1 (S1)

    System 2 (S2)

    System 3 (S3)

    S3: Generating Synergies

    Aligning Meta-Systemic and Operational Management

    Complementarity of S3 and S2 Roles

    The Control Dilemma

    System 3* (S3*)

    System 4 (S4)

    System 5 (S5)

    The Recursive Viable System Theorem

    Managing Complexity: Organisational Principles

    Responsible Autonomy




    Sustainable Self-Governance

    Leaving Behind Earlier Critics of the VSM

    3. A Methodology to Support Self-transformation Towards Viability and Sustainability

    On VSM Methodologies

    Developing the Self-Transformation Methodology (STM)

    The Ontology of the Observer

    The STM: A Systemic Methodology to Facilitate Organisation Learning

    On VSM Epistemology

    The Self-Transformation Methodology in a Nutshell

    Designing and Starting a v&s Project

    Agreements on Organisational Identity

    Rich Pictures - The Organisational Landscape

    Statement of Organisational Identity

    Recursive Analysis

    VSM Preliminary Diagnosis

    Mapping the Viable System of the System in Focus

    Doing a VSM Preliminary Diagnosis

    Complete VSM Diagnosis

    Mapping v&s Roles and Mechanisms

    Identifying and Mapping Diagnostic Issues

    Assessing System 1’s Interactions

    The Inside and Now (Systems 1, 2, and 3)

    The Outside and Then (Systems 3, 4, and 5)

    Aligning Strategy, Structure, and Information Systems

    Aligning Strategy and Structure

    Strategic Information Management

    Self-Transformation Projects and Plan

    Monitoring and Assessing Performance

    Team Syntegrity


    4. Towards More Resilient and Healthier Organisations and Societies

    Organisational Health, Resilience, and Self-Governance

    Early Alarms from the COVID-19 Pandemic

    Towards More Resilient Individuals

    Representing an Individual as a Viable (and Sustainable) System

    Towards More Viable and Sustainable Individuals

    Early Alarms to Businesses v&s

    Towards More Resilient Businesses

    Case study – M*Clean (with A.C. Martinez)

    Towards More Resilient Health Providers

    Preliminary VSM Analysis of the NHS in England

    VSM Diagnosis of a Surgery Unit in a Local English Health Trust (with J. Walker and K. Grover)


    5. 'Fits like a Glove': The VSM for Supporting More Systemic Educational Organisations

    From Non-Systemic to Systemic Education and Educational Institutions

    What Is a Non-Systemic Approach to Education?

    Towards More Systemic Educational Institutions

    Self-Transformation of ELF – The Whole Story (with Jon Walker and Vladimir Pop)

    Clarifying the School’s Identity

    Recursive Analysis

    VSM Diagnosis

    Aligning Strategy, Structure, and Information Systems

    Self-Transformation Projects and Plan

    Monitoring and Assessing Performance

    Reviewing Elf’s Self-Transformation

    Designing TINTA, a Systemic Education Online Provider (with G. Ramirez)

    TINTA’s Approach to Systemic Education

    Agreeing on TINTA’s Identity

    Recursive Analysis - TINTA’s Primary Services

    Designing TINTA’s Organisation with VSM Criteria

    TINTA Coming to Life: First Self-Assessment

    Systemic Education in Higher Education Institutions

    Systemic Management in Universities around the World

    Magdalena University (v&s) Case Study

    Self-Transformation of Educational Institutions - Post-COVID-19

    6. v&s in Organisational Networks

    Complex Organisational Systems as Social Networks

    The Rise of Social Networks (21st Century)

    What is a v&s Network?

    Background Research on VSM and Social Networks

    Example: A v&s Industrial Network

    Designing a State-Owned Enterprise on a Complex Environment (with A. Al Hinai and J. Walker)

    Complexity Challenges to Design a National Broadband Network

    VSM Design of the OBC

    VSM Design

    Social Network Analysis

    Five Years Later

    Redesigning a Latin-American 2nd Generation Broadband Network (with M. Giraldo and J. Walker)

    The N2BN Identity

    Recursive Analysis

    VSM Diagnosis

    Aligning Strategy and Structure

    Designing Strategies for Supply Chain Integration at the UK Offshore Wind Industry (with Julija Danilova)

    Analysing SCI with the STM

    VSM Findings

    Suggested Reorganisation Strategies

    Learning from the Research

    Dilemmas of Self-Governance in Organisational Networks

    7. Sustainable Self-Governance

    Contemporary Approaches to Governance

    Traditional Approaches to Governance

    Collaborative Approaches to Governance

    Sustainable Self-Governance (v&s)

    Towards Sustainable Self-Governance

    A Framework to Assess Sustainable Self-Governance

    Example: Sustainable Self-Governance in a Socio-Ecological System

    Assessing Self-Governance in an Indigenous Community in the Amazon (with C. Duque)

    Background on Their Governance Structures

    VSM Analysis of Their Governance Structures

    Learning from the v&s Project (by C. Duque)

    Sustainable Self-Governance in an Afro-Caribbean Community (with C. Duran)

    Past and Present of the Orika Community Council (OCC)

    Assessing Sustainable Self-Governance at Orika

    Learning from the Case Study (by C. Duran)


    8. Facilitating Systemic Change with the VSM

    Systemic Change: What It Is and How It Can Be Done

    The Cybersyn Project

    Strategic Information Management at the Colombian President’s Office (1990-1992)

    Re-Engineering the National Auditing Office (NAO) in Colombia

    Redesigning the NAO

    The Model of the State

    Implementing the ‘Systemic Auditing Process’

    Learning from the Project

    Monitoring the Impact of National Programs to Reduce Poverty in Colombia

    Redesigning the National School System (NSS) in Colombia

    Developing the National Environmental System (NES) in Colombia

    The Relevance of Beers’ Legacy to Facilitate Systemic Change

    The Need for Massive Systemic Changes to Improve Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic

    9. An Idea Whose Time Has Come

    Lessons on Using the VSM for Sustainable Self-Governance

    Developing VSM-Related Methodologies and Tools

    VSM and Multimethodology

    VSM and Team Syntegrity

    Addressing Traditional Criticisms to the VSM

    VSM Research Landscape





    Angela Espinosa is Emeritus Fellow at Hull University Business School, University of Hull, UK.

    'Lots of people have been waiting for this book. Angela Espinosa is a noted authority on organisational cybernetics and worked closely with Stafford Beer. Her work deepens our understanding of the "viable system model" and offers significant insight into how best to use it in practice.'

    - Professor Michael C. Jackson, OBE


    'It is a pleasure to recommend this book that brings multiple applications of the Viable System Model (sometimes combined with other systems approaches) to practical problems in society. Too often, new methodologies remain within academia and their potential goes unrealized but this book gives numerous examples of work that combines an empathetic approach to people trying to make their institutions work while maintaining the rigor of the science behind them.'

    - Dr. Allena Leonard, Cybernetician, Director Team Syntegrity International, President Metaphorum. Former President of the American Society for Cybernetics and the International Society for the Systems Sciences


    'The functioning of our society depends strongly on the functioning of its organizations. Angela Espinosa's book, based on great application experience, shows in a practical way how to apply the Viable System Model so that we can finally make organizations work, however complex and dynamic their environment. A must read for all leaders dealing with organizational issues.'

    - Dr. Martin Pfiffner, Board of Trustees Fondation Oroborus