Open Thinkering


Tag: systems thinking

TB871: Block 3 Tools stream references

Note: this is a post reflecting on one of the modules of my MSc in Systems Thinking in Practice. You can see all of the related posts in this category

A quick post to share (i) a quotation from Dewey shared in the summary to this part of the module, and (ii) the books, articles, and other material referenced in the Block 3 Tools stream that I might want to come explore at some point in the future (Open University, 2020)

Inquiry is the controlled or directed transformation of an indeterminate situation into one that is so determinate in its constituent distinctions and relations as to convert the elements of the original situation into a unified whole.

(John Dewey)

Ashby, W.R. (1956) An introduction to cybernetics. London: Chapman and Hall.

Ashby, W.R. (1960) Design for a brain. 2nd edn. London: Chapman and Hall.

Beer, S. (1959) Cybernetics and management. London: The English Universities Press.

Beer, S. (1972) Brain of the firm: the managerial cybernetics of organization. London: Allen Lane.

Beer, S. (1979) The heart of enterprise. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons.

Beer, S. (1985) Diagnosing the system for organizations. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons.

Conant, R.C. and Ashby W.R (1970) ‘Every good regulator of a system must be a model of that system’, International Journal of Systems Science, 1(2), pp. 89–97.

Dewey, J. (1938), Logic: the theory of inquiry. New York: Henry Holt and Company.

Hofstadter, D.R. (1979) Gödel, Escher, Bach: an eternal golden braid. New York: Basic Books.

Hoverstadt, P. (2020) ‘The viable system model’, in Reynolds, M. and Howell, S. (eds.) Systems approaches to making change: a practical guide. 2nd edn. Milton Keynes: The Open University/London: Springer, pp. 89–138.

Maturana, H.R. and Varela, F.J. (1998) The tree of knowledge: the biological roots of human understanding. Rev. edn. Boston and London: Shambala Publications.

Medina (2011) Cybernetic revolutionaries: technology and politics in Allende’s Chile. Cambridge: The MIT Press.

Naughton, J. (2017) Ashby’s Law of Requisite Variety. Available at: (Accessed: 28 November 2019).

Ramage, M. and Shipp, K. (2020) Systems thinkers. 2nd edn. Milton Keynes: The Open University/London: Springer.

References to references

TB871: Using the Viable System Model (VSM) in design mode for my system of interest

Note: this is a post reflecting on one of the modules of my MSc in Systems Thinking in Practice. You can see all of the related posts in this category

Diagram of the Viable System Model (VSM) in design mode showing systems 1 to 5, connected with arrows and related questions.
Diagram taken from The Open University (2020)

The Viable System Model (VSM) can be used in both diagnostic and design modes. Up to this point, I’ve largely been using it in diagnostic mode to ascertain issues within my system of interest, which is ‘a system to promote lifelong learning’ in a library context.

In the diagram above, we can see how the VSM can be used in design mode. By asking questions about what ought to be the way each of the five systems are structured, we can design an effective approach. When applied to my system of interest, here’s how it could work.

System 1: Primary Activities

What ought to be the breakdown of primary activities to most effectively achieve the purpose and identity?

In a library promoting lifelong learning, primary activities could include:

  • Workshops and seminars: Regular sessions on diverse topics such as digital literacies, job skills, and personal development.
  • Reading programmes: Initiatives for different age groups to encourage reading and comprehension skills.
  • Resource access: Providing access to books, journals, online databases, and learning materials.
  • Community outreach: Partnering with local schools, businesses, and community centres to extend learning opportunities.
  • Feedback mechanisms: Regular surveys and suggestion boxes to gather input from library users on their learning needs and preferences.

System 2: Coordination

What ought to be the mechanisms by which primary activities are coordinated in order to prevent issues arising from the interactions between them?

To manage seamless operation, coordination mechanisms could include:

  • Scheduling software: Implementing an integrated scheduling system to avoid overlaps and manage resource allocation effectively.
  • Communication channels: Establishing clear communication lines between staff and volunteers to ensure everyone is informed about upcoming events and activities.
  • Regular meetings: Weekly or bi-weekly meetings to review ongoing programmes, address any issues, and plan future activities.
  • Collaboration tools: Using digital tools like shared calendars and project management software to enhance teamwork among staff.

System 3: Management of Delivery

What ought to be the principles by which resource bargaining takes place and how would these ensure effective delivery of services?

Resource management principles could include:

  • Budget allocation: Allocating funds based on priority areas such as educational resources, technology upgrades, and staff training.
  • Partnerships: Forming strategic partnerships with educational institutions, tech companies, and local businesses to pool resources and expertise.
  • Performance metrics: Establishing clear performance indicators to monitor the success of various programmes and adjust resource allocation accordingly.
  • Transparent processes: Maintaining transparency in decision-making processes related to resource allocation and programme funding.

System 4: Development and Planning

What ought to be the ways in which relevant developments in the environment are identified and analysed and what ought to be the approach towards enabling the organisation to respond to changes in a timely and effective way?

Adapting to changes can be managed through:

  • Environmental scanning: Regularly monitoring trends in education, technology, and community needs to stay ahead of changes.
  • Advisory committees: Forming committees with representatives from different community sectors to provide insights and feedback.
  • Pilot programmes: Testing new initiatives on a small scale before full implementation to gauge effectiveness and make necessary adjustments.
  • Flexibility: Developing flexible strategic plans that can be quickly adjusted in response to emerging trends and feedback.

System 5: Identity and Purpose

What ought to be the purpose and identity of the organisation and what mechanisms ought to be in place to develop these over time?

The overarching purpose and identity of the library system could be defined as:

  • Mission statement: “To empower individuals of all ages through accessible and comprehensive lifelong learning opportunities.”
  • Core values: Inclusivity, accessibility, community engagement, and continuous improvement.
  • Brand development: Creating a strong, recognisable brand that reflects the library’s commitment to lifelong learning.
  • Stakeholder engagement: Regularly engaging with stakeholders, including library users, staff, and community leaders, to ensure the mission and values remain relevant and impactful.
  • Continuous review: Periodically reviewing and updating the mission statement and core values to align with the evolving needs of the community.

As the module materials note, giving the example of The Open University itself, the way that you might design a system from scratch could be very different to the way the organisation looks now. This is because organisations change organically over time. However, using the VSM both in diagnostic and design mode can lead to some interesting insights as to what is going wrong, and what could be better.


TB871: A complete VSM model of my system of interest

Note: this is a post reflecting on one of the modules of my MSc in Systems Thinking in Practice. You can see all of the related posts in this category

A Generic VSM diagram including Systems 1-5 in relation to its environment

In previous posts, I have defined all five systems of the Viable System Model (VSM) in relation to my system of interest, which is ‘a system to promote lifelong learning’ in a library context:

I find VSM diagrams confusing to look at and clunky to produce. Thankfully, I’m not alone in this! In my conversation with Steve Brewis, he said that he tends to put the data straight into MATLAB, and in an exchange with Patrick Hoverstadt (author of the chapter on VSM in the course text) he said he tends to use a table:

Doug Belshaw One of the problems of the normal VSM graphic is that as you go down levels of recursion, you need more physical space because you have more viable systems to draw in, so you end up with impossibly tiny graphics. Both Steve and I quite seperatley and at around the same time turned the model inside out so it was more like a snowflake, so lower levels of recursion were on the outside of the higher level rather than embedded within it and had more of the page to expand into. 
I've tended to go away from that to use a more tabular format simply because many management teams seem more comfortable using it and that usability has been a more important priority in my work.

I’m still figuring out the snowflake representation of the VSM, so for now I’m going to represent all five in tabular format.

System 1: Primary OperationsCore activities or units that perform essential work and produce primary value for the external environmentEducational delivery: Provides high-quality educational programs and courses tailored to the needs of lifelong learners

Technological support: Ensures the technological infrastructure to support e-learning and digital literacy

Learner support: Offers comprehensive assistance to enhance the learning experience and outcomes for learners

Community engagement: Promotes lifelong learning within the community and establishes/sustains partnerships with local organisations and businesses

Evaluation & feedback: Monitors and evaluates the effectiveness of lifelong learning initiatives and incorporates feedback for continuous improvement
System 2: CoordinationEnsures different operational units (System 1s) work harmoniously without conflictsCommon standards and protocols: Ensures consistency in cataloguing, classification, lending procedures, and managing digital resources

Agreed communication channels: Facilitates effective communication between different parts of the library and external stakeholders

Monitoring and feedback systems: Tracks performance through user surveys, suggestion boxes, and digital feedback forms

Conflict resolution mechanisms: Addresses disputes among staff and between staff and users through clear procedures

Staff training and development: Provides continuous training and professional development opportunities for staff

Coordination with external partners: Manages collaborations with other libraries, educational institutions, and community organisations

Resource allocation/management: Allocates budgets, staff, and equipment effectively across departments and branches
System 3: Management of DeliveryOversees and controls the operations, ensuring efficiency and effectivenessAllocating resources: Distributes resources such as books, digital materials, staff, and funding

Monitoring performance: Sets standards, collects data, and analyses results to identify areas for improvement

Implementing policies: Translates high-level policies into actionable plans for operational units

Resolving conflicts: Mediates disputes and manages conflicts of interest between departments

Optimising operations: Continuously improves and streamlines library operations
System 3: Monitoring*Independent component performing checks and balancesIndependent audits: Conducts regular reviews to verify the efficient and effective use of resources

Transparency and accountability: Provides unbiased assessments of library operations to maintain high service standards

Feedback for improvement: Offers valuable feedback to inform decisions and guide necessary changes
System 4: Development and PlanningFocuses on the external environment and future planningEnvironmental scanning: Monitors trends in education, technology, and community needs

External communications: Manages non-operational communications with external stakeholders and promotes lifelong learning initiatives

Innovation: Encourages and implements new ideas and methods to enhance lifelong learning

Managing change: Develops and implements change management plans for new initiatives

Organisational modelling: Maintains a comprehensive model of the library’s operations and its alignment with lifelong learning objectives
System 5: GovernanceEnsures the organisation functions cohesively and maintains its identityPolicy development and oversight: Creates policies to promote an inclusive learning environment

Strategic partnerships: Builds and maintains relationships with educational institutions, technology providers, and community organisations

Monitoring and adaptation: Continuously monitors educational trends and adapts programmes and services

Resource allocation: Ensures resources are effectively allocated to support both current operations and future initiatives

In terms of the Environment in which this system operates, it includes the following:

External EnvironmentExamples
Government policyLocal government policies that support public libraries, national education policies promoting lifelong learning, and grants for digital literacy programs.
Legal frameworksCopyright laws affecting the use of digital resources, data protection regulations for handling user information, and accessibility laws ensuring resources are available to people with disabilities.
Economic conditionsLocal economic conditions affecting funding and donations, economic downturns leading to increased demand for free educational resources, and partnerships with local businesses for sponsorships.
Research fundingGrants from educational foundations for developing new learning programs, government funding for community education projects, and research collaborations with universities.
Educational trendsGrowing emphasis on STEM education, increasing demand for digital literacy, and trends in adult education focusing on career development and lifelong learning.
Technological advancesThe introduction of e-books and online learning platforms, advancements in library management systems, and the use of AI for personalised learning experiences.
Community needsDemographic changes such as an aging population requiring new educational programs, community interest in sustainability and environmental education, and feedback from patrons requesting specific resources or services.
StakeholdersPatrons (library users of all ages and backgrounds), educators (teachers, university lecturers, and vocational trainers), local government officials involved in funding and policy-making, and funding bodies providing grants and donations.

Not included in all of this, of course, is the context in which all of this operates. For example, I’m writing this on the day of a General Election in the UK. The expectation is that we’ll be kicking out a government that instituted austerity and cuts to funding for public services, and replacing it with one which will hopefully channel money away from private pockets and into the public purse. That changes the nature of what libraries can offer, because with more certainty and more funding, virtuous feedback loops start appearing.