Thu 13 Dec 2018 6:09PM

Synergy between Sociocracy and the VSM

PC Philip Coulthard Public Seen by 152

The Viable Systems Model ( VSM) by Stafford Beer has been around for many years and Jon Walker produced an informative guide back in the early 70s, now supplemented by his joint publication "Complexity Approach To Sustainability, A: Theory And Application (Series On Complexity Science) " Sociocracy is better understood today, it is well presented and publicly available material with Sociocracy 3.0. Where are the nuances between the two models. Is cybernetics real or a myth, a relic of the past and only applicable to AI? Where is the evidence to support any one model over the other? Could there be emergence of a new paradigm as these two models interweave, or are they best left alone.


John Niven Thu 13 Dec 2018 7:06PM

I'm very much a newbie with both, so take everything I say with a pinch of salt. I see the VSM as a way of modelling or understanding how the various human and non-human parts of "a system" (in my case, Greencity, a worker co-op that - like Suma, and Essential and Infinity - wholesales wholefood) are organised, and how they regulate each other. Sociocracy provides a way for the human parts of the system to decide on and create change to the system. I don't see sociocracy as a model, so much as a process. This is maybe taking a metaphor too far, but if the VSM is the data structures, then sociocracy is perhaps the algorithms. Or perhaps the VSM is the computer program in its entirety.

In any event, I see the two as complementary. My colleague Harry is an active participant in Greencity's sociocracy practice sessions, and has a picture of Project Cybersyn's ops room on his PC's desktop. Perhaps that's a better metaphor - sociocracy can guide the part of a VSM that sits in the Tulip Chairs.


Douglas Racionzer Fri 14 Dec 2018 5:17AM

There has been a lot of work over many decades around how groups make decisions. I find the work by Garfinkel and others very helpful.

Models such as sociocracy are useful but can obscure, in their detailed procedures, the contexts and the work of members of these contexts in making sense of democratic decision making.

I am happy for cooperators to use whichever model or mix of models (or none) they find useful to making recognisably competent democratic decisions.


Douglas Racionzer


Graham Fri 14 Dec 2018 9:18AM

I'm also very much a noob on both fronts, but have always thought that the VSM could be a valuable tool for co-operatives. I would be interested in learning more about it, in particular where people in co-ops have used or are using it for real, and their experience of the pros and cons. Other than the online information at https://www.esrad.org.uk/resources/vsmg_3/screen.php?page=introduction useful information on the VSM seems to be fairly costly to access, with Jon and Angela's book mentioned above priced at £48 for the paperback. If there is interest, it would be great to update the website. I know we'd have Jon's support for that (he's a neighbour and friend).

As for synergies with sociocracy, that's a question for people with more experience of both than I, but again I'd be keen to listen to that conversation.


Philip Coulthard Tue 19 Feb 2019 8:29PM

Hi @graham2 , the Heart of Enterprise is a little cheaper, I don't like to promote Amazon but a used HB copy for just over £20 is a recommended good buy.
I have written to John Wiley and Sons to see if it is possible to get a electronic copy, so far no joy.


Philip Coulthard Fri 14 Dec 2018 2:08PM

Dear Graham, I placed a series of posts on the https://usqc.org website. Its just a personal wordpress site which I have used to store all of my BSI 9001:2015 QMS diploma assignment on. You are welcome to browse and I would be grateful for any comments. I too got my understanding of the VSM from the esrad link but in my case I had also read "One from Many" by Dee Hock which was a signposted book from the Transition Towns web site for which I am most grateful. Perhaps what made my journey more special over the last 10 years was working with a bunch of physicists who have a political span from the right of Genghis Khan to the left of Roy Jenkins. So I think I can say it was apolitical.

Dee Hock used the word Chaordic and I think I can say that reflected well the working methods we used from the outset of winning our first tender. We were a coop by name but a consortium by nature and the BSI modules explain much of that journey and why I have ended up as I have. There have been many insights along the way, from behavioural psychology, dissonance, understanding of choice, exercise of free will, wellbeing, spirituality and mindfulness. My hope is that there is sufficient interest to re-examine the ISO9001:2015 QMS and rebuild it once more, using the richer tapestry of all of us to produce a true evidence based management system which our kids can use to help them rebuild their lives. So that they have the inner strength and creativity to choose to mitigate against an unsustainable World.


bob cannell Fri 14 Dec 2018 3:58PM

Thanks for inviting me Philip. I am obsessed with how people get along together in collective actions. Decades ago it was assumed that people behaved collectively like ants or bees or the organs of the body or nervous system (VSM). Prior to that of course were the machine models, still very much in use in capitalism.
My long practical and theoretical experience has convinced me that none of these are analogous (showing the same relationships between individual agents) with human groups. They may be metaphors (look similar but relationships are not the same).

VSM is stuck in the systems theory era when we now know that human interaction cannot be reduced to a system (an assemblage with clear boundaries of agents where the rules governing the interaction between agents are discrete and discoverable). Indeed weve known since the 18th century but chosen to reduce people to the role of agent to control them.

VSM suffers from the who controls the controller paradox of all cybernetics. Second order cybernetics moves it on one level but then you need third level and fourth and an infinite regression unless you make a political choice to stop.

Ive read quite a bit about VSM and as I said its probably ok as an operational and tactical management tool but it has no answers for strategic challenges. What Ive read is speculation and poor at that.

I dont want people wasting their time investing in a severely limited and probably inappropriate tool when they could be enjoying working together in more productive ways. For the last few years Ive promoted the ideas of Ralph Stacey who rejects the concepts of systems of sentient human minds. Where there is sentience there cannot be a system because people dont always follow rules. But what people do is communicate and respond in vastly complex processes and networks. An organisation is a conversation with participants using different means to converse. Sociocracy fits this post systems view, which is why Im interested.

Ive used this non systems, process thinking in my management and consulting work and it works really well Whats more its suitable for everyone. You dont need to be trained or an expert speaking jargon (VSM is full of it) to do it.
So Im not vry interested in VSM as such. To me its like trying to find a way to reintroduce steam engines onto the railways, why would you? But there are enthusiasts..


Simon Grant Fri 14 Dec 2018 4:12PM

Thanks @bobcan I'm really interested to read your thoughts and reflections on VSM, which make good sense to me. Perhaps we can reframe the question to VSM advocates, to ask what they think is a good value-for-effort application of VSM? I'm neither an expert nor an advocate myself, but from my limited knowledge, I wonder if just knowing what the different VSM "systems" are helps people to grasp a little of the genuine complexity of complex systems.

I would agree that a human being (and even more so, any assembly of humans) is not a system in a mechanical or engineering sense, but in the broadest sense perhaps we can get a little insight through system thinking, while not confusing the systems model with reality? The big question to me, which I hear very much echoed in what you write, is whether it is worth the trouble, or whether there are more useful ways of spending one's time. That question seems open to me.


Martin Meteyard Sat 15 Dec 2018 11:26AM

Says the steam engine enthusiast @bobcan lol :)


Philip Coulthard Sat 15 Dec 2018 11:38AM

Dear Bob,
There is a curiosity in me which tries to investigate things which don't quite feel right. I understand your reasoning of "lets move on" but surely our past got us to where we are? I would hope that academics would at least have some interest in celebrating our past so that as you say we can then look forward. I will look to the references you have kindly provided. Yet would you agree that Stafford Beer was a "National Treasure" and part of this countries great heritage? Then why would Liverpool's John Moores University, the home for Saffords collection, send me the letter below:
Following on from your enquiry, I have included some information about the Stafford Beer Collection below. At LJMU Special Collections & Archives we hold the Stafford Beer Collection, which consists of his personal library and his archive collection. More information about the Stafford Beer Collection can be found at https://www.ljmu.ac.uk/microsites/library/special-collections-and-archives/special-collections/stafford-beer-collection, including catalogues for both the book and archive collections. "If you would like to consult material from the archive you would be very welcome, but you will need to request material at least 24 hours (excluding weekends and bank holidays) in advance of your visit. The book collection is available to browse in the Special Collections & Archives Reading Room in the Aldham Robarts Library (https://www.ljmu.ac.uk/contact-us/find-us#read-more). Please note that if you would like to visit us you will need to show printed photographic ID and wear a visitors’ badge to gain access to the library, and you will then need to sign in at the Reading Room and abide by the reading room rules."
Why would you hide away from students eyes, original source material? Is this celebration of open and transparent learning in our education system? Why is it that we have a bright shiny new "Sociocracy3.0 " whilst Staffords work is stuffed in cupboards gathering dust? What could come to light is we start following the money? There are such programs which are state sponsored using TM theory and SNM Theory, I don't wish to start a new conspiracy theory but too much of what I am discovering just does not add up.
I will try to keep replies on this forum to a minimum to respect others time but it would help me to best evolve some form of synthesis of the two models if people would engage and comment on my contribution so far.


bob cannell Sat 15 Dec 2018 2:36PM

Theres only so much time in a life. In my search for a strategic management methodology that works for non-hierarchical organisations I have done extensive literature reviews of what is on offer. The various methods use different basic models, usually reflecting the dominant technology of the time and I would place VSM in the late industrial early computing era.

We have moved on a long way since then. Our understanding of how people interact with each other in purposive ways in organisations is much more sophisticated. Indeed we have moved into a much better understanding of complexity which much better describes our 'as lived' lives today. VSM does not enable a modern understanding of complexity. It is both too mechanically simplistic and too complicated in use.

VSM publications with 'complexity' in the title dont seem to understand the difference between 'complicated' and 'complex'.

Stafford Beer was a genius for his time and worthy of study but trying to adapt those ideas for our modern vastly more complex world seems a waste of effort to me.

We need ideas which start from the premise that our social world is complex. That is, it is unmeasurable, unpredictable and uncontrollable. It is not a knowable system at any level.

If you want to know where Im at now you could try Ralph D Stacey Chris Mowles - Strategic Management and Organisational Dynamics 6th edition 2016 Pearson. Its dense stuff.

If you google 'Break Free From Our Systems Prisons' you will find an essay I wrote about Staceys work for the UKSCS and how to use it in practice. Its also much more accessible (and shorter) than the book.

I tend to take an intellectual way to investigate these matters so Im delighted that more pragmatic people are developing processes like sociocracy which are rapidly developing away from a systems model towards a complex responsive processes model. Or to be glib, 'all organisations are living conversations between humans' and that's it. All else is illusion.



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