The viable system model : a more adequate tool for practising management?
The primary purpose of this research is to explore the relationships between Beer's viable system model (VSM) and mainstream functionalist organisation theory.The latter is taken to include the classical, behavioural and systems models of organisation. For completeness, we also consider organisation theory situated in the interpretive, radical humanist and radical structuralist paradigms of Burrell and Morgan's (1979) sociological grid. Models of mainstream organisation theory have been used extensively by organisation theorists in the structuring of organisations and the design of information systems. Little interest, however, has been paid by organisation theorists to Beer's VSM, which is also used by cyberneticians to structure organisations and design information systems. The problem is that both camps have developed in isolation from one another. Theorists in each camp advocate their own stance regardless what the other might have to offer to their thinking. This situation is a result of a gap between the two camps owing to lack of dialogue between them. The aim of this thesis is to attempt to bridge the gap between the two camps. It is the author's firm belief that this is best done by adopting a complementary approach to pinpoint domains of support each camp may offer to the other. The outcome of this approach is an enhanced model of organisation. Part One of the research begins by introducing the science of cybernetics. Its history, tools, techniques and concepts are then put in place. Building on cybernetic tools and techniques, Beer developed a model of any viable system. Beer's VSM is presented in Chapter 2. Part Two of the thesis is totally devoted to organisational theory. First, we take up models of the functionalist mainstream organisation theory. The approach adopted is first to elaborate on each model, then to contrast each with the VSM. Attention is then directed to organisation theory located in the alternative paradigms, that is, the interpretive, radical humanist and radical structuralist paradigms, respectively. Again, theory of organisation within the above mentioned paradigms is contrasted with the VSM. We mark the end of Part Two by presenting an enhanced model of organisation. This model is the outcome of the comparison which took place between the functionalist organisation theory and the VSM. The argument is that the likelihood of the classical model providing support to the VSM is slim. In fact, the former stands to gain much from the VSM, particularly from the notion of recursive structures which explains how control and communication systems must be designed and organised. The behavioural model, which takes the informal aspects of organisation as its core, appears to be a useful adjunct to the VSM, which concentrates primarily on the formal organisation. Again, the behavioural model stands to gain much from the insights offered by the VSM. At least, the view of openness to the environment would surely give the behavioural model a boost in the right direction. However, we focus our interest on the systems model of organisation, specifically, the notion of semiautonomous work groups encapsulated in the sociotechnical systems approach. By incorporating this notion into the VSM we can, it is hoped, enhance the VSM. Once again, the insights of the VSM, especially that of recursivity of its structure, is of immense significance. In Part Three, the enhanced model is put to the test. This is done by applying it to an existing pharmaceutical manufacturer. The model proves to be not only practical, but also powerful in highlighting domains requiring attention if the effectiveness and efficiency of the organisation in concern is to improve, which the VSM, on its own, cannot provide.