This posting was originally published as a LinkedIn article (https://bit.ly/2kFr8W1)
Cybernetics. A word which evokes thoughts of robots, of Dr Who’s cybermen, or of ‘transhumanists’, people who are looking to improve human performance by integrating technology into their bodies. But that is only one aspect of cybernetics, and one which does not readily suggest how cybernetics can contribute to learning.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines cybernetics as “the science of communications and automatic control systems in both machines and living things”. Thinking about the ‘living things’ part of this definition, cybernetics therefore looks at how organisms interact with their environment, exchanging information and materials in feedback mechanisms which, if functioning correctly, ensure the organism’s survival.
Of course, organisations are organisms, being composed of living, human beings. Cybernetic principles have therefore been used to analyse organisational behaviour, and one thread of thinking, sometimes called organisational cybernetics, is of interest to us here.
Within this perspective, each individual worker interacts with their operational environment, exchanging information and other resources. By extrapolation, so does the overall organisation (of course, in a one-person organisation, the individual is the organisation!), and it is therefore reasonable to assume that we can apply principles of cybernetics to how individuals and their parent organisations operate. Each person’s ‘environment’ includes both external entities (clients, suppliers and so on) and internal entities (colleagues, other departments and so on). We therefore have potentially a complex set of interacting feedback loops, which can make it somewhat difficult to understand what is happening.
However, there exists a very powerful tool called the Viable System Model (or VSM) which can help us to make sense of things. VSM is based around the interrelationship of five distinct but interconnected systems of information and resource exchange. Within the VSM literature, these are typically shown in a diagram like the one below.
The key concept in VSM is viability, of being able to survive successfully in the face of whatever variety exists in the environment. Essentially, the organisation must be able to show enough variety in its own behaviour to match the variety it has to deal with. To explain this with an example, if we are looking at a healthcare organisation working with an environment of people who are old, young or have disabilities, its internal organisation must be structured so that it can look after people who are old, young or who have a disability. This may seem blindingly obvious, but it is all too common for training programmes to be limited in scope and inflexible of message, making it harder for people to learn how to work flexibly and function as a viable system. It is also very important to remember that environments are constantly changing, so each worker’s capacity for dealing with variety (and the training required to enable this) must also be changing.
This VSM diagram showing how an organisation operates looks completely different to the classic organisation chart, structured by function. But it has a major advantage in that it shows how the organisation works (or should work), whereas the organisation chart simply shows a structure, and says nothing about interactions or operation. This is because it is derived from a hierarchical, bureaucratic mindset, and goes a long way to explaining why people often complain about “working in silos”: if that is how we think about an organisation’s structure, then that is the way we behave.
So briefly, how does this VSM diagram work?
- The various System 1s are the operational (or implementation) activities, what delivers value to customers or clients, such as sales, procurement, fulfilment and so on. Every individual System 1 must be viable, in that it can respond appropriately to changes in its environment.
- System 2 is coordination between the operational activities, making sure that, for example, increased sales activity is matched by an increase in procurement of raw materials or other resources.
- System 3 is the delivery (or control) function, making sure that the different System 1s and System 2 all have the resources that they need. It actually works in two directions, and what is often called System 3* is a monitoring function, where each System 1 and 2 reports back so that System 3 provides what is needed.
- System 4 takes information from both the internal and external environment and makes sure that the organisation remains in tune with what its customers and clients want, passing this information on to Systems 3 and 5.
- System 5 sets the policy for the whole organisation, making sure that organisational activity remains in line with its vision and goals and is appropriate for the environment.
Crucially, this structure is recursive, and we should be able to see this structure within each different System 1 throughout the organisation. So we could look at the sales function and break this down into a number of separate System 1s and corresponding Systems 2 to 5. We see then that, for example, at every level of analysis the organisation should be taking appropriate information from its environment and feeding this into what it does.
If we use a VSM approach to look at how training is designed and delivered, we can identify principles which will make sure that training promotes viability.
Firstly, there is a major distinction between System 1, the operational activities, and the other four systems, which broadly represent what we would call ‘management’. Training for Systems 2 to 5 is often subsumed in what we call ‘management development’, so it is interesting to think about how traditional management development activities deal with cybernetically desirable activities. A key observation here is that traditional approaches to management development are often based around the hierarchical, bureaucratic model of organisations, with an emphasis on up and down relationships: for example, leadership, delegation, accountability and so on. Less importance may be attached to coordination and collaboration, monitoring or environmental awareness.
Operational training (System 1) needs to make sure that people can deal with all of the variety that they experience in every day, working life (being viable). This means that training should be learner-centred, practical and problem-based. This is well known empirically, being a core part of andragogical, adult learning principles, but here we can see how it is a requirement from cybernetic first principles.
Training designers should also recognise what relationships there are between different primary functions and make sure that these are incorporated into the training (System 2). Training programmes which focus on strengthening a System 1 without taking into account its dynamic relationship with other operational systems can cause more problems than they solve. This may mean that the scope of training needs to be widened, with related training or information being provided for people in other functions. Existing protocols and standard operating procedures may need to be revised to reflect different patterns in primary functions. There is a particular role here for informal learning, with people being encouraged to exchange information within and across teams so that coordination improves. ‘Training’ often ignores the need to promote informal learning, but it is crucial if the overall organisation is to be viable.
Training itself is an example of a System 3 activity (provision of necessary knowledge and skills). However, the VSM shows that what this provision should be needs to be based on information provided by System 3* (internal) and System 4 (external), which is, of course, what a training needs analysis (TNA) should do. Of course, this process may show that there are weaknesses in other System 3 or 3* activities. If there are System 3* weaknesses, reporting systems may need to be strengthened (while not becoming disproportionate or onerous): this would subsequently form an important source of information for training evaluations.
Training should make sure that people have the skills and tools needed to gather information from relevant parts of their environment, about what the environment needs and how it is changing (System 4). They should also be able to use this information appropriately. Training management should also be constantly monitoring the environment to make sure that training remains appropriate to what will be constantly changing patterns of variety: TNAs should be ongoing.
Finally, training should always be related to the broader aims of the organisation or department (System 5). This means that people working in a System 5 role should make sure that TNAs are taking place and that what they recommend is consistent with strengthening overall viability.
Too often training carried out in organisations is not planned from a systemic perspective. Training needs analyses may be perfunctory, with little thought being given to the complex web of decisions and interactions which contribute to effective performance. Training programmes are often reductionist, focusing on one small area of knowledge, skills and attitudes which seem to be appropriate to that particular silo of activity. Thinking about training for a cybernetic perspective can help to avoid this, making sure that training being delivered is closely integrated with all aspects of organisational activity so that the organisation continues to be viable in relation to its environment.