Our Working Structure: Based on the VSM

Why we use the Viable Systems Model

Initially at the kick off meeting of the EPT in Germany (August 2012) the group found great difficulty in deciding how it would work and move forward with delivering the stated outcomes of the Learning Partnership. Davie Philip from Cultivate Ireland suggested using the Viable Systems Model (VSM), as a way to structure the work of the partnership.

The study of ecosystems and the way muscles, organs and the nervous system of the human organism interact, were the inspiration for the Viable Systems Model, which was originally developed by the English management cyberneticist, Stafford Beer. The VSM is used as a tool for diagnosing problems in social organisations, and to help to improve their functioning.

As both the Irish and UK partners had been using VSM in their own organisations and were familiar with the model, and as the other partners were interested in learning and applying a new approach to structure an organisation, we decided to host a workshop exploring how we as a Partnership could adopt this model to structure our work.

How we implemented the VSM

In the workshop the first step was to ask: “What are the operations that do the things that justify the existence of the Partnership?” The partners identified its “Primary Activities” or what we need to DO from the project application to Europe and set up working groups to focus on these outcomes. People then gathered in the areas that they wanted to work in and discussed the work that would need to be done in each activity, including identifying their “5 top tasks”.

Once we had identified what we would DO we asked: “Are there effective ways of avoiding or dealing with conflict between these operational activities and ensuring that meetings are well held?” A number of participants who had experience of facilitation and mediation set up a support group, which we called “Process” to hold this function.

The next step was to determine if there are effective ways of taking advantage of potential synergies between the different operations. A group called “Coordination” was formed to ensure good coordination and communication between the different working groups.

When using the VSM it is important to assess if there are ways of responding effectively to changing external environments. We formed a group, which we called “Navigation”, to look at the opportunities beyond the Partnership, explore how and to whom we would disseminate our findings to, and to facilitate sessions in each meeting to consider how best to take advantage of the opportunities outside of the Partnership.

And finally the workshop looked at our “Identity” and how all the operational activities of the partnership could work within a clear overall common identity or ethos. As a group we explored our shared purpose and the agreements we had made together in the application.


  • System 1: “Primary Activities” = “What we DO”, our activities


  • System 2: “Process” = Group facilitation, makes system work more smoothly, deals with conflicts, mediates
  • System 3: “Coordination” = Heart of the System, coordination, communication between elements, sees conflicts and synergies
  • System 4: “Navigation” The eyes and ears of our system, looks to the outside world
  • System 5: “Identity” “Why we do it”, boundaries of the system: purpose, vision, values, legal requirements
A small conclusion

The Viable Systems Model was a challenge to the Partnership, as not very many people had experience in using this model. At the same time, as the training of teachers and of organisations was the aim of the Partnership, we had the opportunity of inviting consultants who could give us in-depth insights into VSM. All in all, the VSM model helped us foster engagement, share the responsibility and accountability, avoid top down control, and most importantly, it helped us to get stuff done, together.