Section 0: Cybernetic Eyes
Section 1: The Quick Guide to the VSM
Section 2: Case Studies
Hebden Water Milling 1985
Triangle Wholefoods 1986
One Mondragon Co-operative 1991
Section 3: Preliminary Diagnosis
Section 4: Designing Autonomy
Section 5: The Internal Balance
Section 6: Information Systems
Section 7: Balance with the Environment
Section 8: Policy Systems
Section 9: The Whole System
Section 10: Application to Federations
Appendix 1: Levels of Recursion
Appendix 2: Variety
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Case Study 1: HEBDEN WATER MILLING COLLECTIVE 1985
HWMC is a small co-operative that was formed in 1980 to blend and package a large range of wholefoods using fairly complicated machinery.
For the period 1980 - 1985, HWMC was successful both in its financial performance and in the working environment it provided for its members. The production processes became extremely efficient, crises were dealt with effectively, challenges were met and discharged, relations between the members were excellent, profits were good, and in general the system worked beautifully.
All decisions were made by consensus, and weekly meetings (when necessary) usually lasted about ten minutes.
Working procedures evolved during the day: after a 30 second planning session ("Let's do the Basmati rice first"), everyone would work around each other, without formal planning, and the days production would proceed. The process is much more in sympathy with the operation of a Jazz band or a football team: basic rules and constraints are understood, but the specific actions performed by the participants are dictated by the conditions of the moment.
[As an aside, I should mention that working in this way has been one of the most satisfying experiences that I have had, and goes some way to explain why co-operatives are full of graduates doing apparently boring manual jobs.]
The initial diagnosis began with the five members positioned as the Operational units. The Metasystem was also composed of all five members, but in a different role: when the work was being done they were Operation, when planning was necessary they articulated the Metasystem. The fundamental co-operative principle of self-management means that there is no clear division in the roles of people working within the group: everyone is obliged to be both "manager" and "worker."
Generally, as the diagnosis proceeded it became obvious that as a function was identified (for example a System 2 stability function whereby the available worker-power was effectively allocated to the various tasks) the same principle was in operation: all members identified the need to articulate a particular Metasystemic function - often without verbal acknowledgement - and shifted into the appropriate mode to deal with the situation.
In many cases, the Metasystemic functions could be done while the Operational work was proceeding (we're nearly at the end of this run ... has anyone got the next one ready?) whereas other discussions required the temporary suspension of manual work, or in unusually complicated situations a few hours put aside to generate plans and strategies.
The Mechanics of Viability at HWMC
Conditions for Viability in a Small Group
Having experienced this process for a number of years, it is apparent that three conditions are necessary for viability. They are as follows:
Usually, in a group of four or five people, there is no problem in satisfying these three prerequisites, and viability is relatively straightforward provided that everyone works as a team for the majority of the time and the need for all the Metasystemic functions, especially future planning, is recognised.
There would seem to be nothing to prevent a non-structured organisation of this kind working Viably.
The Collapse of Viability in a Small Co-operative
1. Problems with the Metasystem
There are many ways in which the capabilities of the Metasystem can be affected. For example, if a new member lacks confidence he may not feel able to enter into a Metasystemic function, as this may be seen to be the province of more experienced members. Thus vital information may not be forthcoming in a System 3 meeting.
Exactly the same problem may emerge if the "old hands", by their attitudes, discourage new members from becoming involved at all levels.
There also seems to be a potential danger that in a co-operative which involves much concentration at the Operational level (say a co-operative of computer programmers) very little brain power will be left to deal with Metasystemic issues. In this case it may be necessary to appoint a member to deal mainly with Metasystemic issues, and in this case a different organisational structure will be needed.
A further problem could emerge in a period of continuous crisis when the Metasystemic functions need such a large amount of the time that the Operational functions are neglected (that is, no production gets done). This could be overcome by extending production time, but again the division of the Operational and Metasystemic functions is a possible solution.
2. Problems with the System 3 Model
One of the more common complaints from people who deal regularly with co-operatives is that essential information is not available when it's needed.
This may be caused by movement of members (the relevant information was given to Jill who is out driving today ...), by feelings of unimportance (Jack doesn't think he's valued enough to make a contribution, although he may know the crucial element ...), and so on.
Recognition of the absolute necessity of the System 3 model for viability may be one of the more important contributions of VSM theory to co-ops. It may also avoid the usual knee-jerk reaction to the lack of the System 3 model which is: appoint a manager. Although this would allow a complete System 3 model to be generated (the Manager would act as a reference point for everyone and would thus accumulate the necessary information), other ways may be more appropriate such as a computer model or a large blackboard or magnetic shapes on a sheet of metal.
Summary: Conditions for Viability
A small group may demonstrate viability as long as:
Having worked in this kind of co-operative for many years and experienced just how efficient and rewarding it can be, it is clear from the VSM analysis that two conclusions may be made:
The first three conditions for viability are not impossible to meet, but viability can collapse as membership changes, members' personalities clash, some people feel they can take on Metasystemic jobs without consultation, and so on. Condition 2 is obviously difficult due to holidays and sickness, and thus the Metasystem will occasionally have to cope with an incomplete model.
Two recommendations may be offered