Sustainable Self-Governance in Businesses and Society : The Viable System Model in Action book cover
1st Edition

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

ISBN 9781032354972
Published December 19, 2022 by Routledge
312 Pages 64 B/W Illustrations

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Book Description

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.

Table of Contents

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




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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