Viable System Model

In composing this post on Stafford Beer (author of the model in the post title) I’ve been dipping into some of his books I’ve only skimmed in the past. Thought I’d pull a quote. The most recent book in my library is Beyond Dispute: The Invention of Team Syntegrity. Copyright 1994. From the back of the Title page:

Dedicated to

Qui prius respondet quam audiat stultum se esse demonstrat et confusione dignum
Proverbiorum Liben 18:13 (Vulgate)

He that answereth a matter before he heareth it, it is a folly and shame unto him.
Book of Proverbs 18:13 (King James)

¬†Stafford Beer’s realms of expertise included cybernetics, systems, operations research, yoga (he taught (or teaches – I conjecture he is no longer with us) individual pupils), …

I own half a dozen of Stafford Beer’s books. I’ve read 3 or 4 of them at least once, some of them multiple times.The ones I’ve read in full deal with his Viable System model. One feature of it that I have not found emphasized in any other system model:

It is a model in which systems at one level (self-maintaining within their environment) become, in the aggregate, the first-level components in a larger system, which also self-maintains within its larger environment.

The strength of this model (as I see it) is in the nature of the communication between adjacent system-levels. Each level of “management” serves as a filter for the information coming from larger systems. A healthy system has the “requisite variety” of ways to handle what its environment might send its way. (“Requisite variety” is a concept from cybernetics / H. Ross Ashby – that is important in Stafford Beer’s model.)

To make this concrete, I will discuss it in terms of how Vermont could design a hierarchy of systems to connect its educational institutions.

Local school boards set the direction for local schools. It is part of a larger system (in Vermont, a Supervisory Union – what others call a district).¬† There are over 50 Supervisory Districts (smaller) or Unions (larger). The largest SU’s have over a dozen schools. Some Districts have only one or two schools.

Teachers, schools, districts, even states are given “things to do” from higher level systems. Rules and mandates from above; constructed with little thought towards (in creation) nor observation towards their effectiveness (in execution); blind to the effects on those who must live with seemingly arbitrary and sometimes irrelevant rules, and their short and long term consequences in the daily lives of those affected – directly or at some distance.

If one were to attempt a re-design starting from a Viable System framework, it might be possible to cut through some of the Gordian knot of managing budgets, schools, teachers, classrooms, etc.

Echoing what I said in other words above, one of the roles of the larger whole (the system-of-systems) is to filter from the component (lower level) systems repercussions from goings-on at higher levels. I see that not happening in the way things work now. And the component systems work most smoothly when given the autonomy to deal with issues best dealt with locally. That’s not always the case in our classrooms nor in the schools of which they’re a part, nor in the larger entities administering the individual schools.