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					                   The Identity function (system 5)
                           And the tension
                 Between participation and democracy

Until recently the identity function of the VSM of Stafford Beer was some
sort of mystery for me. I understood the logic of it in the VSM, but the
way I tried to make use of that logic as a reflective practitioner was not
satisfying. During a workshop with school directors developing the ideas
of Stafford together with a colleague and friend, André Wierdsma, as may
happen, things fell into place. It is significative for the generative
character of the VSM that after 30 years of having made use of it in my
practice, it still leads to new discoveries and interesting insights.

One of the questions I am struggling with is the tension between
participation and representative democracy. As most of people reflecting
on our governance systems with a cybernetician’s eye, I notice how all
“big” institutions are loosing credibility and how those accountable for
them, their leaders, if they are not themselves showing a great deal of
cynicism, induce it in those who become aware of their powerlesness.
Clearly, one of the major reasons is the “culpabliss” in which they live,
not conscious of the basic laws of governance, the basic cybernetic laws
revealed by Stafford Beer. They still continue to take linear decisions,
based upon a simple cause-effect logic, which are unable to create these
effects and moreover generating lots of unwanted sideffects, in spite of
any cybernetic logic. In fact what are called decisions are nothing more
than expressed intentions by the leadership, which influences in more or
less previsible ways, the many worksystems and their recursion levels
which take notice of these intentions by giving them thier own
interpretation. Those who act, take decisions, not those who speak!
Those acting are the real participants in the events: acting is the essence
of participation. Nevertheless speakers and representatives are so
prevalent in all cultures that somewhere they must have a function in
their viability.

One could state, as Stafford used to do, that most governance systems
are pathological nowadays. But, if the VSM is a diagnostic tool for
discovering the basic mechanisms of viability in the system, we can use
it to discover why the complex systems we are living with are viable, in
spite of their pathology. And this may help us to improve the real viability
mechanisms so that the whole body becomes healthier. The rule of
Stafford: the system is what it does and not what it says it does, is here
the guiding principle. I think that we focus too much on the structural
illnesses of governance systems, while those are only an epiphenomenon.
Structures have very litle to do with the viability of the system. The

systems work in spite of all the hierarchical levels, the a-cybernetic,
variety reducing procedures and rules: how does it come?

A better understanding of the identity function (system 5) as the function
which balances the variety generated by the operational function (system
3) and the intelligence function (system4) may help us in our analysis.
My understanding was helped much by the anecdote that Stafford tells
us in the Brain of the Firm, when he explained the VSM to Allende in
Chile. “At last, here you are!” he told to Allende pointing at system 5. And
Allende answered him: “No, at last we have here the people!”.

Where in our Western tradition we associate easily the identity of a
system to it’s essence, to one characteristic, Allende links the identity of
a system to the multiplicity of Hobbes’ Leviathan. This poses some
serious questions.

Let us start with a biological metaphore. If we relate the identity of a cell
of an organism to it’s nucleus, then we can state that all the cells of our
body have the same identity. This is an essentialist approach, which is
not very useful in understanding the multifarious forms in which the cell
expresses itself in our body. What helps to understand the phenomenal
nature of a cell is much more how it deals with the transactions with its
environment. One could say that the identity of a cell is as much at its
boundary than in its nucleus.

I have the good fortune of being the chairman of the board of a theatre
school in Brussels. I learned there how good actors are able to play in an
authentic way many different roles. This authenticity has nothing to do
with who the actor “is” in essence. He/she is able to draw on that
essence to play the lover, the murderer, the tyrant and the victim. As the
cell, in function of the context, his/her identity changes and takes up
many different expressions. As the cell, this way of looking at what
identity is, is much more interesting than the Platonic search of what the
essence of a system is. In fact, each one of us, has many identities: what
I do in my family is different with what I do as a consultant or what I do
as a teacher of cybernetics. As Gergen points out in his post-modern, the
Saturated Self, our identity is much more defined by the social contexts
and relations in which we are embedded than in a hypothetical unitary
essence. The system is what it does becomes more relevant to
understand the nature of the identity function. What the system
essentially is, will always escape us. But in practice we don’t need to
understand it to be able to relate to it. Is cybernetics not helping us to
deal with essentially black boxes?

The paradox of system 5, of the identity function, can then be stated as
follows: the logical organisational closure which it signifies is only
understandable by the observation of the system’s transactions with the
environment. As system 3 is balancing the vertical variety generated by
the transactions of the systems 1, although apparently it is a function
internal to the system, and as system 4 has its reason of existence in its
attention towards the environment and the future, system 5 is not inside
the boundaries of the system, but at its boundaries, balancing inner
directedness with outside directedness.

Coming back to the anecdote of Stafford and Allende: at each recursion
level system 5 is embodied by the stakeholders of the system, those who
position themselves at its boundary and take up a boundary role. They
belong as much to the system itself as they are representatives of the
important systems in its environment. Representatives have a dual role,
they are boundary spanners. Their specific role is not to take decisions in
the system: those are taken by those embodying system 3. Their specific
role is to maintain a permanent dialogue in themselves and in their
constituencies about the relevant role of the system in its environment.
In fact they form the essence of all democratic systems. Decison making
and policy making don’t belong to their prerogatives: because of their
dual role, they are essentially confronted with a basic conflict of
interests. This is not a right position to take decisions. Policy making
belongs much more to those embodying system 4. A viable identity is in
essence a moving, a changing identity. Decision making is fixing things,
policy making is creating and blocking future opportunities.

In fact, we recognize in the word Parliament, the word parler, to speak,
and we have speakers in it, not decision makers. In fact good decision
makers only go through the ritual of voting, when they now already what
it’s outcome will be. Although theoretically the parliament should make
the laws, we know that in practice the laws are created by the executive
power and then presented to the Parliament. Instead of complaining that
this is not following the rules, one should question how it comes that the
system is viable, exactly because it doesn’t follow these rules. Allende
was right, system 5 is the people and the people is unable to take
decisions! All of us who have had community experience or the
experience of systems which really work in a democratic way can confirm
this strong statement. Democracy is not about decision making but
about a continuous debate and dialogue of why the system is valuable to
its environment.

If we think then about democratic systems on different recursion levels,
as eg. Russell Ackoff developed in his the Democratic Corporation, using
this approach to what system 5 does, we can look how the variety sponge

balances system 4 and system 3. There is an inherent conflict between
the focus of system 3 and of system 4. In my book: Making Work systems
better, I relate this focus to a relevant time span of the activities.
Activities on system 3 level, the operational level, have a time horizon of
maximum 2 years. I have labelled activities with this time horizon as
activities in the added-value domain. The major focus is streamlining
and maintaining the continuity of relevant supplier-customer relations in
the broad sense of the word: not limited to business practices. The basic
attitude of people interested in this kind of activities is problem solving.
To them belong basically all decision making. Decisions are taken by
acting in the management unit of the systems 1 and of system 3. As I
wrote: it is easiest to have the same people making decisions in these
different management units. Otherwise, we are again falling in the trap of
the classical hierarchical levels. The basic focus of people interested in
activities of system 4, the intelligence or the innovation function, is in the
creation of new supplier-customer relations for the future. Maybe
through adding fundamentally new features in existing product-services,
or creating new product-services for existing customers or starting
transactions of existing product-services with new customers, or creating
whole new product-services. Activities with this characteristic are named
activities in the innovation domain and have a time horizon from 1 to 10
years. People involved in these activities are creating problems for those
involved in the added-value domain. They change the rules of the game,
they change the boundaries of the existing systems and are rightly seen
as a threat for the ongoing business. Decision making in the innovation
domain reduces itself to go/no-go decisions. They have to be taken
jointly by those working in the added-value domain and those working in
the innovation domain. The first ones mostly supplies the risky
investments in the innovation domain.

The basic conflict between system 3 and system 4 is mediated by system
5, the identity function. Activities of the identity function belong to what I
have named the value-systems domain, the domain in which new
languages are created, new ways of dealing with reality. The domain of
inventions, discoveries and paradigms. Activities in the value systems
domain last from 5 to 50 years. The most appropriate form of the system
5 activities are debate and dialogue platforms and forums. My hypothesis
is that the teamsyntegrity activities have been designed by Stafford as
supportive to activities in the value systems domain. Decisions have not
to be taken. In the best case, out of those platforms new coalitions arise,
which commit themselves to start innovative work.

I come back now to the tension between participation and democracy.
Participation belongs essentially to the added-value domain, the domain
of decision taking through action and the domain of problem solving.

This means that on each recursion level participation is de facto done by
those taking initiatives and dealing with the horizontal and the vertical
variety balances between the systems 1 and system 3. Decisions have
not to be implemented: decision-making is implementation. Democracy
belongs to the value systems domain. Representatives of different, even
opposing worldviews continue a fruitful debate or dialogue generating
innovative activities in some of their members. No decisions have to be
taken in this domain: intentions and desires can freely be expressed.
This domain where the identity function belongs is a kind of humus (a
variety sponge in the sense of Stafford Beer) from which eventually
innovative activities may sprout.

Using this framework, it could be interesting to analyze existing forums
of debate to discover for which systems they play the identity function
role. Who are the boundary spanners and of which boundaries. At all
levels of society we may find them, sometimes as formal institutes,
sometimes as informal gatherings. One finds them at the family level, one
discovers them in the most diverse “primitive” cultures and one finds
them in lobbying circuits around the power caucuses. The VSM may help
to improve their functioning and to separate what belongs to the domain
of democracy and what belongs to the operational domain of
participatory decision making.

In the Metaphorum I would like to explore further these ideas and in this
way to add to the practice of VSM as a diagnostic tool.

                                                        Luc Hoebeke

Discoveries during the Metaphorum in Sunderland

* I was very impressed by Paul Stokes approach to sociology. Indeed the
basic unit of enquiry in social systems and also in society is not the
individual. If we start from individuals we are obliged to classify them in
aggregated entities. But aggregates are fundamentally in contradiction
with the core of systems thinking, and thus also of cybernetics. Looking
at “organizations” as the basic constituents of society is much healthier.
Societies can then be seen as complex networks of institutions,
associations and organizations. This makes much more sense to me than
the classical approach in economics, politics and sociology working with
classification schemes for individuals and aggregating them.

* Through the examples of Paul and of Angela I became aware that we as
human beings have the competence of multi-membership, and multi-role
in different social systems. All what we do is on a human scale, but our

focus may change in the social context we are contributing to. This
systemic characteristic of human beings necessarily subverts the
classical social sciences approach to try to box individuals in one
classification unit. This “territorial” view, as if each one of us belongs to
one place has become obsolete in our networked world. I don’t belong to
the Metaphorum, as I don’t belong to the “middle class”, as I don’t
belong to a “market”. As an outonomous being, I choose where I belong
to in function of the contigencies I am dealing with. Regarding my
description of the identity function, platforms of representatives may
consist of partly the same people, partly different people on various
recursion levels. The basic error in classical hierarchic thinking is that a
person belongs to a certain recursion level.

* What has struck me mostly during the Metaphorum is the apparent
lack of a coherent methodology for applying the VSM. The VSM is not a
classical scientific hypothesis to be tackled by classical scientific
methods. As a branch of Cybernetics, the observer, the enquirer has to
be participant-observer in the systems he is inquiring into. VSM’s are
consisting of VSM’s: also the enquirer is a VSM. All VSM’s should be
embodied in people to start with and not dealt with as abstractions. VSM
cannot be implemented, it only can be applied in the relation of the
observer, enquirer with the system(s) he, she is enquiring into. In my
opinion, only action-research is adequate of developing the huge
potential of the VSM. I am not a citizen of the world, of Europe, of
Belgium or of Flanders, I don’t work for Philips, BP, IBM, I only on a
human scale contribute to various human scale groups. The agenda of
these groups can be structured in recursion levels and in the various
systems developed in the VSM. This helps greatly the reflectivity of the
group and enhances the group’s role-consciousness. Either one tries to
put the “system” in one room (as Angela exemplified beautifully in te
Colombia case), or start from the assumption that the people in the room
form the system. Viable systems consist of real living beings by
definition. Again, in my opinion, the stakeholder platforms, I talk about
in my text about identity, are the only places where VSM interventions
can take place. But this is still something which should be subject to

* A last remark. It would be very good that we as Metaphorum start to
reflect upon our own roles as subsystems in a VSM. Inevitably this will
lead to a reflection how the academic world can regain a relevant
system4 role for which system 3 and for which system 1’s. This is not
easy task but in my view worthwhile to explore further.

                                                          Luc Hoebeke



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