Recursive Systems

Organisations are complicated and complex. Any attempt from context perspective which  is concerned with understanding systems must provide a means of looking at this complexity in manageable bits. Manageable from a VSM perspective implies vertical unfolding complexity where each level of recursion is considered as a ‘System in Focus’ and a viable system.

Vertical unfolding complexity implies a decomposition that will ensure fundamental aspects with respect to viability are manageable:

  1. Organization is only viable if it has set of management functions (Normative, Strategic and Operational Management functions) as stipulated by theory with Management Cybernetics for organizational design.
  2. Any deficiencies in the system such as missing functions , insufficient capacity or the functions or communication channels (variety engineering) , or faulty interaction between functions impair and / or endanger the viability of the organization.
  3. Viability, cohesion (mission, identity, goals, values) and self organization of the system depend on these functions being operating recursively at all levels of the organization.

The level of recursion level defines within the system in focus WHAT it does and the WHY (purpose), while operating entities define the HOW (System 1 How it interacts with its product and services to its relevant environment. The recursive level characteristics:

  • System in focus : viewpoint
  • Defines identity of what it does and why
  • Level below the ‘how’ it does it


A recursive organizational structure any viable system contains, and is contained in, a viable system.

Large systems are assembled from smaller systems. The part must fit into the whole; and the whole must accommodate the part.

Regardless of its size, all viable organizations will consist of and replicated to each recursive level;

  • They have an operational part which performs the basic activities,
  • A metasystem (Control)which is charged with providing the management functions needed by the operational units so that they coheres into a greater whole, and an environment which is in constant interaction with both the operation and the Metasystem.


.The critical criterion for decomposing complexity is to define levels of recursion that clearly define the WHAT, WHY and HOW. Each level the system engages with different issues and looks at different bits of the environment and different level of recursion will see different consequence of same action.   Fundamental criteria for decomposition are:

  • Adequate organizational viability diagnosis
  • From a design perspective, ability to ensure effective management functions and their interrelationship are in place to satisfy viability criteria
  • Ability to ensure design adequate variety attenuators and amplifiers