INCREASING INTEREST IN THE VIABLE SYSTEM MODEL:

AN EXAMPLE OF THE TECHNOLOGY OF PARTICIPATION

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stuart A. Umpleby

 

 

 

 

 

 

Department of Management Science

The George Washington University

Washington, DC 20052

Umpleby@gwu.edu

 

 

 

 

 

 

January 9, 2005

 

 

 

 

 

 

A report on an exercise in a doctoral seminar at the University of St. Gallen

St. Gallen, Switzerland, January 8, 2005

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

INTRODUCTION

 

On January 8, 2005, Stuart Umpleby led an exercise in the Participatory Strategic Planning procedure developed by the Institute of Cultural Affairs.  The participants were doctoral  students in a seminar on cybernetics and systems theory usually taught by Prof. Markus Schwaninger, who was on sabbatical.   The students in the seminar were Stephan Dahlem, Frank Haupenthal, Stephan Herting, Florian Hotz, Markus Kreutzer, Christoph Lueders, Nicola Malcherek, Dirk Martignoni, Kai Roemmelt, Lars Stein, Christof Trauffer, Widar von Arx, and Inge Voss.

 

The Participatory Strategic Planning (PSP) process involves five steps:

  1. Operating Vision

  2. Underlying Contradictions

  3. Strategic Directions

4.      Systematic Actions

  1. Implementation Timeline

 

Each step of the PSP process uses the Consensus Workshop method. This method entails five steps:

  1. Context

  2. Brainstorm

  3. Cluster

  4. Name

  5. Resolve

 

The exercise was conducted in English.  The purpose of the exercise was to demonstrate group facilitation methods and to develop plans for promoting the Viable System Model.

 

Five focus questions, all related to the content of the seminar, were suggested. 

  1. How can systems thinking be incorporated into management education and management practice?

  2. How can managers be helped to use ideas from systems theory and cybernetics?

  3. How can management education incorporate more ideas from systems theory?

  4. How can system dynamics be incorporated into management practice?

  5. How can the Viable System Model be incorporated into management practice?

 

The students chose the fifth option.  So, the demonstration of Participatory Strategic Planning addressed the focus question, How can we convince people (managers) to apply the Viable System Model?  For each step of the PSP process there was a more specific focus question.  The vision focus question was:  What is our vision of what we want to see happening in about five years?  The contradictions focus question was:  What are the contradictions/ obstacles/ barriers to achieving this vision?  That is, since the VSM was first published in 1972, what is preventing its widespread use?  The strategies focus question was:  How can we remove the obstacles to achieving our vision?

 

Due to limited time only the first three steps in the Participatory Strategic Planning process were conducted in this class.  When a planning exercise is conducted with a business or government agency, usually it is conducted during a weekend, often in a "retreat" setting, when there is more time.  Ideally people from outside the organization are also involved, particularly during the final parts of the planning activity.  These people can relate their experiences with similar problems, suggest alternative actions, and provide sources of needed materials or skills.  In addition, outside observers may be impressed with the planning exercise and decide to conduct one in their organizations.

 

 

RESULTS OF THE TOP EXERCISE, UNIVERSITY OF ST. GALLEN, 1/8/2005

 

VISION

 

ADAPTABILITY (VIABILITY) MEASURED AND MONITORED

Intelligent acting organizations

People feel motivated to make suggestions

Organization is viable (survives)

Appropriate profit margins for the product range

Continuous process improvement

Successful monitoring of the environment

Periodic surveys to determine if people are using VSM language and tools

 

NEW PATTERNS OF ORGANIZING

Flat organizational structures

New communication structures

Organization develops and controls ALL their processes according to VSM

Quality management designed according to VSM

VSM provides a logic to mediate among TQM, BPR, KM

 

VSM BASED TOOLS ARE AVAILABLE

Email distribution groups organized by VSM

Empirical research (maps) of who talks to whom (consistent with VSM?)

Periodic surveys of how the various units are communicating and helping each other for purposes of improvement

Performance indicators developed according to the VSM

VSM software is widely accepted and used

 

SHARED UNDERSTANDING AND VISION OF THE ORGANIZATION

Reflexive behavior is a precondition for VSM

Common understanding:  We are a viable system

Everyone speaks one language: VSM

Managers and employees are able to see and analyze problems through VSM “glasses”

 

THE VSM IS A STANDARD TOOL IN CONSULTING PROJECTS

One of the big consulting companies uses VSM as a standard method

Schwaninger and Umpleby consulting group smashes McKinsey and Boston Consulting Group in profits and sales in organization practice

 

USING THE VSM EVERY DAY

VSM is the basis for daily business

Routine use of the VSM in management practice

VSM is used internally in some organizations (not via consultants)

 

BETTER SELF-UNDERSTANDING

VSM is known by managers

Responsible co-workers (due to better understanding of how the organization works)

Competencies are better known by everyone

 

VSM IS KNOWN AND TAUGHT IN BUSINESS SCHOOLS

On-going research on the VSM and its utility

 

 

CONTRADICTIONS

 

LACK OF POPULARITY AND SUCCESS STORIES

Different goals lead to different understanding of the company

Practical implications (daily details) are not elaborated yet and not tested on a larger scale

Missing proof of superiority

No marketing to promote the VSM

What is exactly the strategic aim/ purpose of VSM?

Lack of clear goal

Traditional business schools stick to their old style

Uncommon inventor (Beer)

No success stories from firms that already use the VSM

Organizations think they already are “viable” without using the VSM

 

UNCLEAR COST-BENEFIT RATIO

Does VSM provide a benefit to the customer?

Benefit (for daily use) is not clear

Just another tool:  It is time-consuming and the benefits are unclear

First only the COSTS are visible

The possible outcomes and gains of using the VSM are unclear

Is using the VSM worth the change effort required to implement it?

Perceived to be of benefit only to consultants

 

MISSING TOOLS

Measurement methods are needed:  How do we know that we are a viable organization?

Education of employees is needed

Do we have the right data to achieve good results using VSM?

People have no competence in using the VSM (no experience)

Who designs the company specific VSM tools?  What are the costs?

VSM is TOO holistic: organizations need special modules for special problems, like SAP

 

EMOTIONAL RESISTANCE

People might feel uncomfortable using a biological metaphor in business

Middle managers fear losing power

Differences in culture

Not invented here effects

Resistance to “new methods”

Unclear incentives for employees

 

VSM PERCEIVED TO BE TOO COMPLEX

VSM is not easy or simple to transfer

VSM language is different from people’s daily/ usual language

VSM is perceived as much too theoretical by colleagues

A large effort is necessary to maintain everyone’s awareness of the VSM

 

TIME INTENSE IMPLEMENTATION

No time for change and experimentation

VSM could mean additional bureaucracy

Existing capacities are totally absorbed by day-to-day business; so no time for VSM

VSM might be regarded as an extra exercise, in addition to daily business

 

MISSING INCENTIVES FOR THE CONSULTING INDUSTRY

What are the incentives for consulting firms?

If companies would routinely use the VSM, consultants would lose their cash cows

Do consulting companies that focus on VSM survive?

 

 

STRATEGIES

 

DO PROMOTION

Publish articles in practitioners magazines (e.g., HBR)

Create a marketing strategy for the VSM comparable to quality awards

Provide success stories

Create marketing ideas and materials

Find a well-known and admired leader that supports VSM (e.g., Jack Welch)

 

SHOW FEASIBILITY AND CREATE CONFIDENCE

Search for successful examples and promote them

Implement prototypes

Install VSM in all social levels:  families, govt agencies, NGOs, big corporations, SMEs

Place VSM supporters in big consulting firms

 

ACADEMIC RESEARCH

Organize VSM conferences and symposia

Do extensive research on practical implications and benefits

Offer a 2 week short course to provide interested scholars with the VSM foundations

Prove its success through experiments and trials

 

FIND MONEY FOR RESEARCH

Find a rich supporter to provide $30 million to fund the research

Obtain funding

 

INCORPORATE VSM INTO EXISTING TOOLS

Use VSM as an “umbrella” concept

Add VSM ideas to quality award criteria

 

DEVELOP TOOLS

Incorporate VSM ideas into big software packages

 

 

REFERENCES

 

Prytula, Yaroslav, Dragana Cimesa, and Stuart Umpleby, “Improving the Performance of Universities in Transitional Economies,” Presented at the annual meeting of the Alliance of Universities for Democracy, Pecs, Hungary, November 2004.

 

Umpleby, S.,  Medvedeva, T. and Oyler, A. “The Technology of Participation as a Means of Improving Universities in Transitional Economies,”  World Futures, Vol. 6, Nos. 1-2, pp. 129-136.

 

Umpleby, S. and  Oyler, A.  “A Global Strategy for Human Development:  The Work of the Institute of Cultural Affairs,”  Proceedings of the annual meeting of the International Society for the Systems Sciences, Crete, Greece, July 7-11, 2003.