The VSM Guide

An introduction to the
Viable System Model
as a diagnostic & design tool
for co-operatives & federations

Jon Walker

Version 3.2 (2020)

Section 0: Cybernetic Eyes
Section 1: The Quick Guide to the VSM
Section 2: Case Studies
        Hebden Water Milling 1985
        Triangle Wholefoods 1986
        One Mondragon Co-operative 1991
Section 3: Preliminary Diagnosis
Janus interlude
Section 4: Designing Autonomy
Section 5: The Internal Balance
Section 6: Information Systems
Section 7: Balance with the Environment
Section 8: Policy Systems
Section 9: The Whole System
Section 10: Application to Federations

Appendix 1: Levels of Recursion
Appendix 2: Variety

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compiled by John Waters

For the theoretical background to the VSM and for an account of Beer's work in Chile, refer to:

  • Brain of the Firm 2/e
    Stafford Beer (John Wiley, 1981)
    A largely neurocybernetic development of the VSM and (introduced in the 2nd edition) an account of Beer's work in Chile.

The VSM is further developed, from a different perspective and with refinement/standardization of the terminology and diagrammatic conventions, in:

  • The Heart of Enterprise
    Stafford Beer (John Wiley, 1979)
    A companion volume to "Brain of the Firm" which develops and illuminates the VSM from additional perspectives.

  • Diagnosing the System for Organizations
    Stafford Beer (John Wiley, 1985)
    A guide (aimed at managers) to applying the VSM.

  • The Viable Systems Model: Interpretations and Applications of Stafford Beer's VSM
    ed Raul Espejo & Roger Harnden (John Wiley, 1989)
    A diverse collection of papers dealing with many different aspects of the VSM and the foundations on which it is built. Case studies, critical reinterpretations and alternative perspectives.

Further useful and illuminating material can be found in the following:

  • Platform for Change
    Stafford Beer (John Wiley, 1975)
    A book which, while not explicitly mentioning the Viable System Model, deals with many issues fundamental to the continuing viability of human systems.

  • Designing Freedom
    Stafford Beer (John Wiley, 1974)
    A series of six lectures, originally broadcast on Canadian radio, briefly covering some of the same ground as "Platform for Change".

  • Decision and Control
    Stafford Beer (John Wiley, 1966)
    A cybernetic treatment of Operations Research.

  • A Complexity Approach to Sustainability Theory and Application
    Angela Espinosa & Jon Walker (Imperial College Press, 2011)

  • An Introduction to Cybernetics
    W. Ross Ashby (Chapman and Hall, 1956)
    A thorough and accessible introduction to many aspects of the theoretical foundations upon which the VSM was built. In particular this book introduces, develops and justifies the Law of Requisite Variety. It is now available in PDF format.

  • Design for a Brain 2/e
    W. Ross Ashby (Chapman and Hall, 1960)
    This book illustrates a number of very important concepts, including homeostasis and ultrastability.