Limitations with Viable Systems Modeling

Autopoiesis (Maturana and Varela 1980[1972]) is central to Stafford Beer’s Viable Systems Modeling (VSM). VSM asserts that an enterprise has and retains its identity – it is in the business of preserving its own organization.[1] One gets a sense of this organization-preserving approach from the following summary of VSM’s five levels of system:

  1. System 1 in a viable system contains several primary activities. Each System 1 primary activity is itself a viable system due to the recursive nature of systems as described above. These are concerned with performing a function that implements at least part of the key transformation of the organization.
  2. System 2 represents the information channels and bodies that allow the primary activities in System 1 to communicate between each other and which allow System 3 to monitor and co-ordinate the activities within System 1. Represents the scheduling function of shared resources to be used by System 1.
  3. System 3 represents the structures and controls that are put into place to establish the rules, resources, rights and responsibilities of System 1 and to provide an interface with Systems 4/5. Represents the big picture view of the processes inside of System 1.
  4. System 4 is made up of bodies that are responsible for looking outwards to the environment to monitor how the organization needs to adapt to remain viable.
  5. System 5 is responsible for policy decisions within the organization as a whole to balance demands from different parts of the organization and steer the organization as a whole.

The behavioral closure to which I refer is derived from John Kineman’s approach to defining a living system in terms of a circular causality between the four components of system, context, structure and function (Kineman 2008). Kineman’s approach is a development of Rosen’s thinking on relational science (Rosen 1991), circular causality being the characteristic of the way living systems define their identity (Kineman 2011). The approach rests on the way a living system defines itself in relation to the way it makes three ‘cuts’, one of which remains implicit in the way it embodies a causally isolating ‘cut’:

  1. 1. A causally isolating ‘cut, distinguishing the system itself from the environment with which it is structurally coupled;
  2. 2. An epistemic ‘cut’ distinguishing an encoding structure from a decoding function; and
  3. 3. An ontic ‘cut’ distinguishing the localized from the non-localized.

The reference to ‘behavioral closure’ is about the four different kinds of behavioral strategy adopted by living systems (Kineman 2018). These four kinds of life (Protobiota, Archaea, Eukaryota and Bacteria) each have different strategies for sustaining their four-cause behavioral closures through the way each kind takes up each of these three ‘cuts’.[2]

It is the first of these ‘cuts’ that present a difficulty when we want to understand the relational strategies of an enterprise. Kineman’s approach to this first ‘cut’ is in terms of the particular form of structural coupling that characterizes the living system’s relation to its environment (Kineman 2009; Krupanidhi et al. 2017). This ‘internalist’ form of closure characterizing Kineman’s work (Kineman 2011) – in which the causally isolating ‘cut’ is held constant – is different to the ‘externalist’ form of closure attributed to an enterprise’s behavior (Boxer 1998), a closure in which it is the epistemic ‘cut’ that is held constant.  It is this epistemic ‘cut’ that characterizes the organization that an autopoietic system is said to be preserving (Maturana and Varela 1980[1972]).

One limitation of VSM is thus that it does not provide us with a way of thinking about the relational strategy of a living system qua enterprise, in which both the epistemic and the temporally-isolating ‘cuts’ – and probably the ontic ‘cut’ too (Lane and Maxfield 2005) – must necessarily be variable.

Using living systems as paradigms of adaptation brings us to consider what Rosen identified as a Class V system. “The total activities of individual human beings may be said to approach this class of universal adaptability … with an unlimited access to its environment, such a system can establish correlations between any environmental quantity and the states of [itself], functioning effectively in any environment” (Rosen 1974).  A Class V system is able to pursue a relational strategy by pursuing indirect effects on both itself and its ecosystem, modulating both its structural coupling and its norms of direct effect. The ecosystemic scope of Rosen’s Class V systems necessarily involve varying all three ‘cuts’.

Rosen’s Class IV systems “can employ their past behavior to modify their internal models; i.e., their correlations between present values of environmental quantities and subsequent values of the states of [itself].”[3] The VSM framework undoubtedly addresses itself to the needs of such enterprises.  It is of limited value, however, once the basis of a system’s behavioural closure is problematized by approaches predicated on living systems pursuing ecosystemic effects.


Barandiaran, Xabier, Ezequiel Di Paolo, and Marieke Rohde. 2009. ‘Defining Agency: individuality, normativity, asymmetry and spatio-temporality in action’, Journal of Adaptive Behavior (Rohde, M. & Ikegami, T, (Eds) Special Issue on Agency): 1-13.

Beer, Stafford. 1981. Brain of the Firm – 2nd Edition (John Wiley & Sons: Chichester, UK).

Boxer, P.J. 1998. ‘The Stratification of Cause: when does the desire of the leader become the leadership of desire?’, Psychanalytische Perspektieven, 32: 137-59.

Kineman, John J. 2008. “Fundamentals of Relational Complexity Theory.” In 52nd Annual Meeting of the ISSS Madison, Wisconsin.

———. 2009. “Relational Theory and Ecological Niche Modeling.” In 53rd Meeting of the ISSS. University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia.

———. 2011. ‘Relational Science: A Synthesis’, Axiomathes, 21: 393-437.

———. 2018. ‘Four Kinds of Anticipatory (M-R) Life and a Definition of Sustainability.’ in R. Poli (ed.), Handbook of Anticipation (Springer Nature: Switzerland).

Krupanidhi, Srirama, N. Madhan Sai, Homan Leung, and John J. Kineman. 2017. ‘The Leaf as a Sustainable and Renewable System’, Systems Research and Behavioural Science, 34: 564-76.

Lane, David A., and Robert R. Maxfield. 2005. ‘Ontological uncertainty and innovation’, Journal of Evolutionary Economics, 15: 3-50.

Maturana, Humberto R., and Francisco J. Varela. 1980[1972]. Autopoiesis and Cognition: The Realization of the Living (D. Reidel Publishing Company: London).

Rosen, R. 1974. “On Biological Systems as Paradigms for Adaptation.” In The Political, Social, Educational and Policy Implications of Structuralisms. Adaptive Economic Models.

———. 1991. Life Itself (Columbia University Press: New York).


[1] The following extract from Stafford Beer’s ‘Brain of the Firm’ elaborates on this:

“Life forms share this property. You and I reckon that we are alive, and we reckon that we are ourselves and not anyone else. … In microbiological terms, it is impeccable to say that we are environments for vast populations of viable systems. And incidentally, we shall continue to be so in our graves. Assuredly, at the level of recursion of the myriad life forms that my body supports, that is all there is to it. … At the level of recursion at which we normally speak of ourselves, we are born and we die. And somehow we remain viable systems within these temporal limits – despite the continuous process of death experienced by ourselves at lower levels of our own recursion – in the cells. How is it done?

The answer is that viable organizations produce themselves. This is something different from self-reproduction, which involves changing the level of recursion. Cells are born, and cells die. The parasites run through countless generations. But ‘the whole’ that we call ‘me’ goes on. … The enterprise, that arbitrary ‘whole’, produces itself too. That is to say that its staff may come and go, its departments may be closed down or opened up, it may be nationalized or denationalized – and still it has and retains its identity.

In cybernetic terminology, this enterprise is called autopoietic. The word derives from the Greek: poio means ‘to make’. So an autopoietic system makes itself – continuously. What business is it in? It is in the business of preserving its own organization.

Look at any great institution: a hospital, a university, a multinational company, a social service, a country. All these things change, insofar as their elements are replaced; all these things change, insofar as some features disappear while others are invented. But Guy’s Hospital, Oxford University, the steel industry, education, and Britain itself, are recognizably themselves. There is, as in our bodies, every kind of change. But there is no alteration.

In the concept of autopoiesis we have the final testimonial to viability. The viable system is directed towards its own production.

Now the quintessence of the cybernetic thinking that demonstrated autopoiesis was due to Humberto Maturana and his associates, notably Francisco Varela. Maturana is a biologist; in autopoiesis he found, he reckoned, the principle of life itself. Life is not primarily characterized, as most people would say, by the process of self-reproduction, but by the process of self-production. Life is devoted to the preservation of its own organization. As long as the living organism can maintain its organization, … then ‘I’ am still ‘me’.

For each of us, this cynosure [a person or thing that is the center of attention] of life is cause for celebration. For the enterprise also, we can at once see that autopoiesis is a mode of solidarity, for all levels of recursion. Come hell and high water, the show must go on. Somehow in the maelstrom, identity is preserved. We shall take a close look, now, at how this happens – in the viable system as we have studied it, that is to say; since what follows cannot be attributed to Maturana, although his concept of autopoiesis is central to the argument.” (Beer 1981: pp 404-06)

[2] In a personal communication in 2022, John Kineman pointed out to me that a Eukaryotic lifeform is able to simulate any one of these behavioral strategies. This observation led me to explore the equivalent differences in behavioral strategy within a business ecosystem. The corresponding four forms I hypothesized were r-type task-system dominance, c-type category dominance, K-type channel-market dominance and P-type relational dominance. A business ecosysgtem, like a holobiont, necessarily includes all four forms.

[3] See here also individuality, normativity and spatio-temporal asymmetry as an approach to defining the agency of such Class IV systems (Barandiaran, Di Paolo, and Rohde 2009).

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