The Viable System Model is the missing theory behind Enterprise Architecture
19 May 2011
I am currently involved with the EAST group (an outreach group of SCiO http://www.scio.org.uk/ ) which is looking at the overlap between Enterprise Architecture and System Thinking, and in particular the Viable System Model (VSM).
The Viable System Model has been around for many years, coming out of Stafford Beer’s work http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthony_Stafford_Beer
This diagram looks complex at first but you can also read a very accessible description of the Viable System Model at http://www.scio.org.uk/resource/vsmg_3/screen.php?page=0cybeyes and at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Viable_system_model
An excellent book to read is Patrick Hoverstadt’s book ’Fractal Organization: Creating Sustainable Organizations with the Viable System Model’ See http://amzn.to/mjHz6F
But what is the Viable System Model?
The Viable System Model is a recursive view of five main systems within an organisation.
The word ‘System’ here doesn’t mean an IT system or an information system but has the more generic meaning of the word ‘System’. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/System
Those five systems are concerned with the following functions and capabilities:
|System 5||Policy, ultimate authority, identity.|
|System 4||Adaptation, forward planning, strategy.|
|System 3||Internal regulation, optimisation, synergy.|
|System 2||Conflict resolution, stability.|
|System 1||Primary activities.|
System 1 systems within an organisation are realised by those organisation units that actually make products, deliver business services and create value.
System 2 systems are those organisation units that provide the coordination functions.
System 3 systems are those that provide the audit and operational control functions.
System 4 systems are those that look forward to the future and the external environment.
System 5 systems provide the strategy and business direction.
The Viable System Model is recursive so that the same five systems appear at all levels within an organisation, but it’s easy to see equivalent VSM systems at various levels in an organisation.
At at the top level it is possible to see that the Executive Board is a level 5 system, the general management are mainly level 3 systems, the system 2′s are the programme managers, project managers and solution architects. The system 1′s are the operational service delivery units and project teams.
Where does that leave Enterprise Architects? Well the Enterprise Architect function is essential a system 4 system with it’s focus on strategic planning for the long terms view and creation of roadmaps of strategic initiatives.
The strategic Enterprise Architects (system 4) with their long term, external and strategic focus work in co-operation with the Solution Architects (system 3) with their immediate operational, internal, lean, design and delivery focus.
It’s clear to see with our Viable System Model lens that solution architects and enterprise architects are not doing the same job but a completely different job.
From an Architecture Continuum perspective (TOGAF9 http://pubs.opengroup.org/architecture/togaf9-doc/arch/chap39.html) then the Viable System Model is an example of a generic Foundation Architecture. and a thus a key architecture to reuse when designing organisation specific target enterprise architectures.
The SCiO group has developed the SCiO Organisational Maturity Model http://www.scio.org.uk/OMM which is based on the Viable System Model.
This can be used for assessing the strengths and weaknesses in your enterprise, looking at how efficiently it is working today, both in the immediate operational perspective but aslo the log term viability of your enterprise in the face of changing external market and business environment.
The on-line questionnaire for the SCiO Organisational Maturity Model addresses six aspects of the Viable System Model:
- Resource and Performance Delivery
- Managing strategy
The outcomes are expressed in terms of a measure of maturity across those six dimensions and a diagnosis of which Archetypes (i.e VSM anti-patterns) apply to your enterprise and which need to be addressed.
Unlike Lean manufacturing which only focuses on operational efficiencies in the the lowest level System 1, System 2 and System 3 systems within an organisation, the Viable System Model looks at the whole enterprise from a recursive perspective which is more sound and holistic.
In some ways it is surprising that it hasn’t yet reached a tipping point within organisations or their enterprise architects. Maybe this is because everyone is too focused on the day to day need for operational efficiency and approaches such as Lean Manufacturing (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lean_manufacturing) and forgets about planning for the future. This is the difference between being reactive and proactive.
and the excellent book: The Service-oriented Enterprise by Tom Graves, http://amzn.to/kAzR7F
The next time you are challenged on the purpose and value of Enterprise Architecture, then answer that it’s the difference between the external and future oriented perspective of the VSM system 4 as opposed to the inside and now, operational efficiency perspective of system 3 and service delivery perspectives of system 1 and 2.
As a system 4 system, the enterprise architecture function focuses on:
- Supporting the business strategy developed by system 5
- Analysing strategic change initiatives
- Planning and creating strategic road-maps
- Scenario analysis
- Assessment of future risk, agility and viability of the enterprise
- Coordinating with system 3 systems (i.e. portfolio and programme management, project management and solutions architecture)
- Governing the realisation of those strategic changes and development of new business capabilities.
The more one looks at the Viable System Model, the more it looks like the unifying theory behind Enterprise Architecture.