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Rethinking ‘systems viability’: Implications for social enterprises

Perhaps the best maxim that represents systems viability is this: ‘the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.’

Viability, as elaborated by Stafford Beer, refers to the capability of a system or an organization to independently exist and adapt to a changing environment. The word ‘system,’ which has a Greek etymological root, refers to an ‘organized whole.’  This implies that a system consists of parts that possess a certain degree of autonomy, but are interdependent in enabling a system’s existence. 

To help explain systems viability, Beer uses the human body as an analogy. Just as humans are composed of different parts, organs, and subsystems (e.g., nervous system, respiratory system, etc.), organizations must also possess different sub-units that are able to perform primary activities, coordination, monitoring and control, intelligence, and policy-making. Just as humans must be able to relate with other humans, fight harmful viruses (hello, nCov!), or take advantage of vitamins and probiotics to reinforce one’s own system, social enterprises and purpose-driven organizations too must be able to take care of its stakeholders, mitigate threats and exploit opportunities for growth.

At first glance, this seems a fitting analogy already. However, upon further reflecting on this, I realized that there is more to the organizations-as-humans analogy beyond the similarities of having subsystems. My insight comes from the difference between functional existence and purpose.

In my conversations with my friends and colleagues who have medicinal background, we were able to appreciate how the medical field can help alleviate or restore a person based on diseases or ailments one could suffer. In a way, the medical field has allowed a person to increase the chance of preserving one’s functional existence, or in other words, preserve one’s life (i.e., parts of the body can still function, therefore, one is still technically alive). Analogous to this, organizations can tap on external parties like donors, government and investors to be able to survive. But overlooked in Beer’s definition is the importance of identity and purpose. What is the identity and purpose of a system, beyond merely being capable of existing on its own and adapting to its environment?

Progressive medical doctors begin to emphasize the importance of holistic patient treatments and the notion of quality of life. Quality of life goes beyond the technical functions of a human body and asks whether a medical treatment could still allow a person to enjoy pursuing his normal activities or even live to pursue his dreams. In other words, should a treatment restore a person’s quality of life, then the person must be able to pursue who he wants to be (identity) and translate his potential into achieve a goal (purpose). 

Extending this analogy to social enterprises and purpose-driven organizations, the notion of systems viability goes beyond being able to functionally operate and adapt to the environment. Rather, a more holistic perspective of systems viability is the continuous capability of an organization to enable the flourishing of its internal and external stakeholders. Mere functional existence does not equate to viability. A human’s existence can depend on one’s functional ability to breathe just as an enterprise’s existence can depend on its functional ability to raise funds; but should an organization aspire to be viable, it must have internal and external mechanisms to pursue its mission and purpose. And to pursue this, the only way is to establish interdependencies among stakeholders from the external environment and the organization itself. True systems viability requires synergies that allow integral human development and human flourishing. 

‘The whole is greater than the sum of its parts’ Reexamining this maxim, I contend that ‘greater than the sum’ goes beyond existence or monetary value; but rather, ‘greater than the sum’ is about allowing every stakeholder to flourish greater than they would have if they were functioning alone.

Rethinking systems viability means going from mere functional existence to flourishing of identity and purpose. Shouldn’t every human and organization aspire for this?

The author is the Vice-Chair of the Management and Organization Department.  He can be reached at Patrick.aure@dlsu.edu.ph.

The views expressed above are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official position of DLSU, its faculty, and its administrators.

Topics: Stafford Beer , social enterprise , Management and Organization Department
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