The Viable System Model is based on work of Stafford Beer, continuing from the 1950s until the present. The basic style of this work is systems approach and it grows out of Beer's operations research background. A systems approach assumes (or claims to show) that all systems (things) operate according to some common fundamental rules, that analysis is usually best done from the top down, that the most fundamental rules deal with the dynamic interaction of a system and its component parts and that systems should be viewed recursively, that is, that each part of a system can itself be studied as a complete system (and vice versa).
"Viable systems are those that are able to maintain a separate existence. Such systems have their own problem solving capacity. If they are to survive, they need not only the capacity to respond to familiar events such as customer orders, but the potential to respond to unexpected events, to the emergence of new social behaviors and even to painful catastrophes. The latter capacity is the hallmark of viable systems; it gives them the capacity to evolve and adapt to changing environments. While a catastrophic event may at a particular instant throw the viable system off balance, the fundamental characteristic of viability lessens its vulnerability to the unexpected, making it more adaptive to change."
For BeeNot Available. February 28, 2006. Retrieved
For Beer, a system is viable if it is capable of responding to environmental changes even if those changes could not have been foreseen at the time the system was designed. The system must be able to respond appropriately to the various threats and opportunities presented by its environment. Beer's studies of the human form, the muscles and organs and all the various nervous systems were the inspiration for the Viable Systems Model. It may be considered as a generalization of the way that we all manage ourselves in response to a changing environment.
Beer's first insight was to consider the human organism as three main interacting parts: the muscles & organs, the nervous systems, and the external environment. Generalizing these three parts resulted to:
1. The Operation: The muscles and organs, the bits that do all the basic work that is the primary activities.
2. The Metasystem: The brain and nervous systems, the parts that ensure that the various Operational units work together in an integrated, harmonious fashion. The job of the Metasystem is to hold the whole thing together.
3. The Environment: All those parts of the outside world, which are of direct relevance to the system in focus.
According to this model, the organization is viewed as two parts: the Operation, which does all the basic work (production, distribution, earning the money) and the bits which provide a service to the Operation by ensuring the whole organization works together in an integrated way (scheduling, accounts, strategic planning...) These bits are called the Metasystem. And the Environment refers to all the external factors that influence the organization, its activities and people in one way or the other. An arrangement of five functional elements, which Beer call Systems 1 - 5, constitutes the basic Viability System Model. A brief description of Systems 1 - 5 is now given.