The Viable System Model – Part 4

Too close a view may interfere with one’s grasp of an overall problem or concept.

Stafford Beer

System 4 – Forward Planning, The External Eye

With Systems 2 and 3, the organization will have stabilized and optimized operations (System 1). However, the environment is changing all the time, and each wave of change brings multitude of uncertainty, and impacts the stability of operations. One operation that was previously stable and optimum will no longer be so.

The outside world for the whole system is much larger than the sum of all those smaller environments that are directly connected to (and perceived by) individual operations.

Moreover, there are myriads of interactions in the world, changing any individual environment. One invention in a remote place somewhere might create a considerable change in the environment we are dealing with now.

​The Viable System requires a System 4 to look into the outside world to identify threats and opportunities, to recognize changes and future possibilities.

Viable System Model VSM - System 4

While Systems 2 and 3 are working together stabilizing (System 2) and optimizing (System 3) operations, System 4 will bring forward planning and outside information. It also receives continuous feedback from System 3 in order to more effectively plan for the future.

Viable System Model VSM - System 3 and 4

In a human body, System 4 will receive outside information and plan to walk through a jungle towards a defined destination; while System 3 receives constant feedback; so it knows that, for example, there is a minor injury in one leg; and therefore the speed of movement cannot be increased. Considering these, System 4 will realize they cannot reach their destination before dark; hence the need to search for a rest place.

Receiving this new plan, System 3 will optimize the body organs for a more efficient pace, while asking the eye to search for a proper spot for rest, adding an emergent task to this operating unit.

Coordination between System 2 and System 3 ensures that the eye will search for a rest place while helping the body walk through rocks, puddles, and trees (managing conflicting goals).

System Five – Policy, Identity

If the human body was organized in a centralized manner, all organs would wait for an order form the central command on what, when, and how to perform their tasks. Based on our previous discussions about the Variety and the law of Requisite Variety, we know that it is impossible for the central command to handle all possible varieties in its processes (organs), let alone the vast environment in which the human body lives. The brain should remember to order the lungs to breath, while directing the heart to pump blood, while actively leading white blood cells to control a foreign intruder.

On the other hand, if the human body was completely decentralized to allow its organs have the most autonomy to handle their immediate variety, there would be multitude of internal conflicts that could lead the whole system to destruction.

One organ, sensing thirst, might force the body to go search for water; while the other organ is pushing the body to save itself from an immediate danger; and in midst of all this, another organ might want to sleep! While running forward, eyes may decide to keep looking at the sky, and hands may come to this conclusion that they need to grab the nearest tree branch and never let go!

The human body is fine tuned in a way that there is almost no argument between the future needs and current tasks. Myriads of tasks are being executed simultaneously, while the human body is well aware of its surroundings, threats, and opportunities, and planning accordingly.

It is apparent that the balance between Future and Now (System 4 and System 3) is critical for system viability. This function, in the Viable System Model, is called System 5.

​System 5 monitors the balance between System 3 and system 4 and make sure the long-term viability of the system (identity) is preserved. It ensures all other activities and decisions are aligned with the overall direction, values, and purpose of the system.

Viable System Model VSM - System 5

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