The Viable System Model, Viplan and Organisation Transformation
Typical questions we receive from time to time are: can you show us an example of a successful application of the Viable System Model? Can we have a case study that shows its successful implementation? Is there a company we can visit to see the model in use? These questions come in tandem with statements such as: “I need to convince my boss that this is the approach we need to restructure the company but you know, he is a busy person and has very little time to read difficult documents”. There is the belief that a short document, sufficiently enlightening, can make the trick of selling the VSM to the sceptical manager. Unfortunately we don’t have precise, short and sweet, answers to the above questions. In this document we want to reflect upon this issue and explain the scope of the model and related methods.
Over the 20 years of Syncho’s operations, we have been involved in a wide variety of interventions in the public and private sectors and the experiences have been instructive. Most of our assignments have gone on for several years, and there is no doubt that our clients and research partners have found our work valuable. The core of our work has been organisational diagnosis and design and in the latter work we have made extensive use of information and communication technologies. The problem solving focus of the Viplan Methodology has underpinned most of this work. In general, diagnosis and design are triggered by specific problems rather than by the need of an all-sweeping application of the VSM to the total organisation.
The VSM is a very powerful diagnostic tool. It offers significant diagnostic points about the structural weaknesses of an organisation in a relatively short period of time. Diagnosis can be done at different levels of detail, going from the quick and dirty, few days’ assignment, to the in-depth study of the organisation’s structure involving extensive interviewing and debriefings. We use the Viplan Method in all this work. However proposed improvements are seldom free of political and cultural obstacles, making it naive to expect organisational transformation from a simple list of diagnostic points. We require the understanding of the organisational context as well as the client’s political leverage. This often requires extensive grounding of both ideas and proposed changes to many more than the immediate clients, something that is not always easy.
But even if the grounding of the work is adequate, it is necessary to manage expectations and likely consequences of an organisational diagnosis. Are people in the organisation prepared to change in line with the implications of the diagnosis? At a personal level, when we are diagnosed an illness and confronted with significant behavioural changes, we may accept them only when the negative consequences of not doing so become apparent. However, our bodies are more cohesive than those of organisations, something that makes far more difficult to 'see' in them the need for changes. Organisations are composed of people with their own purposes, agendas and viewpoints.
In practice, therefore, after a diagnosis, we find it difficult the implementation of change. Change is often constrained by people's difficulties to accept and implement new practices. Managers may accept pilot studies to test new organisational forms, but the situation becomes tricky when organisation-wide behavioural modifications are required and senior managers have not been directly involved (See paper Giving Requisite Variety). Achieving their commitment is critical.
Seeing and modelling organisational systems is what drives Syncho’s methodological work. In practice we find that fragmentation is the rule and that necessary connectivity does not happen in situations where we would expect it. We use the VSM as a heuristic or learning tool to see necessary connectivity and suggest organisational improvements. Changes may require people to accept different values to those they hold today. For instance, developing human potentials in a company may well imply enacting trusting relationships throughout it. This is easier said than done. Equally increasing the quality of policy processes may well imply distributing the power of senior managers, a demand that may not be easy for them to swallow. Also, at a level much closer to the bottom line, a structural diagnosis may suggest a reallocation of resources that managers may not be prepared to implement.
One thing is experiencing an intellectual attraction for the VSM another to appreciate its implications for the day-to-day life in the organisation. By its very nature the VSM is a holistic way of thinking that, over time, affects people’s relations with each other and with the organisation to which they belong. Those absorbing the VSM ideas often change their relationships with others in the organisation and their appreciation of external changes may no longer remain the same. Indeed, if these changes did not happen the implications would be either that they had nothing to learn from the VSM or alternatively that they were not prepared to ‘walk the talk’, thus creating an obstacle for their individual learning. On the other hand, if they do embrace change they may experience difficulties in their relations with others (with a different understanding of the organisation). Conflicts may ensue but organisational transformation begins with individual transformation. Often change is accepted for as long as it is not perceived as threatening. The moment it threatens deep organisationally shared values it becomes problematic for the individuals concerned.
Where we have had successes, an honest appraisal suggests that transformation is the outcome of many concurrent influences on the organisation and not of a single approach. It would be arrogant to suggest that any particular success story is the result of one intervention or method. At the very core of our activities is an appreciation of social complexity and any suggestion from our part that the VSM alone is responsible for these transformations would be a denial of this appreciation; however, our tools and methods allow users to make powerful interventions to improve effectiveness in a wide range of situations, and also to take account of the broad sources for change that concur in organisations.