Subsystem 4 of the Viable System Model : intelligence

This is the third post in this blog on the Viable System Model (VSM). It follows on a general introduction to VSM and an overview of the more operational subsystem 3. Subsystem 4 is about intelligence, strategy, forward planning, and innovation. For an organization to survive it must adapt to change as pro-actively as possible. Business intelligence works to anticipate changes in the environment, e.g. changes in markets, technological change, economic trends, or the competition. This allows it to identify strategic gaps between current activities and possible future ones. It will attempt to close these strategic gaps by development management. This can involve various departments or activities, including human resources and finance. Product development and marketing may also be involved. Development management must involve for instance operations in subsystem 3 to make sure that operations can produce a new product of product development. This can be more difficult than it seems, because the people in subsystem 4 do not generally speak the same language as those in subsystem 3. Therefore, strategists and planners of subsystem 4 must operate at two totally different levels.

The strategy model of VSM differs radically from the traditional strategy model. VSM is designed to respond to environmental change, whereas the traditional model presupposes environmental stability. The traditional model is deterministic and hierarchical in the sense that at the top is the vision, from which follow the mission, strategy, and targets, which in turn determine the performance measures. The problem is that these performance measures fail to inform the strategic process. The traditional strategy model is simply not designed to identify strategic gaps and set in motion a process to change operations accordingly. Together with the fractal structure to accommodate complexity (see introduction), its ability to innovate distinguishes VSM from more conventional models.


About Sjon van ’t Hof

Development professional who worked in rural development, tropical agriculture, and irrigation development in Chad, Zambia, Mali, Ghana, Mauritania, Israel, Burkina Faso, Niger, and the Netherlands in capacities ranging from project design and management to information management. Conducted missions to India, China, Kenya, and Bangladesh. Experience in the development and delivery of trainings in irrigation equipment selection, information literacy, Internet searching and database searching. Explores systems thinking in relation to international development, education, and management, with an ever stronger focus on the systems approach of C. West Churchman. Knowledgeable in tropical agriculture, project design and development economics, agricultural mechanization, irrigation, plant pathology, environmental degradation and protection, rural development. Co-authored "Wicked Solutions: a systems approach to complex problems", a book written by Bob Williams and Sjon van 't Hof. It was published in June 2014 and provides a practical way of dealing with wicked problems. Wicked problems are complex, ill-structured, human problem situations. This book will help you design an inquiry and intervention in such messy, wicked situations. It does so by guiding you through the steps and stages of a systemic process that addresses your own wicked problem. For more information, see or
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