Talk 2011-10: Efficiency Without Hierarchy – Management Arrangements Using the Viable Systems Model

7.30pm Thursday 27th October 2011

Drs. Jon Walker and Angela Espinosa
(Hull University Business School) have many years experience of working with and using the viable systems model – particularly with co-operatives and social economy enterprises. They will explain how it works and what it has to offer voluntary and community sector organisations and social enterprises.

International Community Centre, 61b Mansfield Road, Nottingham, NG1 3FN

Further Information

Once an organisation becomes big and complex enough it becomes impossible for everyone to participate in all its decisions. So management hierarchies tend to develop. But most people will also have experience of working under supervisors and managers who are…to put it politely…not as well-informed or understanding  as they need to be to play their supervisory role well – despite the broader perspective that the managers claim to have of the role of subordinates and the context the organisation is operating in.

Is there a way out of this dilemma? The management theorist Stafford Beer thought he had found it and called it the ‘viable systems model’. It involves optimally distributing different types of management decisions and information flow in organisations so that, as far as possible the people who know most about a situation or process are left to manage these processes – but, as appropriate (and only when appropriate) additional structures take care of wider organisation issues – dealing with conflicts inside the organisation, realising synergies, developing a strategic view of the evolving external contexts – and maintaining the ethos, identity and values of the organisation so everyone pulls together.

Beer saw the viable system model or organisation as being rather like the way another system worked – the human body. The head does NOT decide everything – as in this hierarchical model for society pictured by Thomas Hobbes in the 17th century. In the body the organs work largely autonomously but are networked in such a way as to regulate conflicts, realise synergies, assess developments in the evolving external environment and plan accordingly, and to maintain identity.

This model has a track record of success, including with workers co-operatives like Suma Wholefoods – indeed at one point it was being applied to the Chilean economy under Salvador Allende – but then the Pinochet coup happened…


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