Systems ReThinking: An Inquiring Systems Approach to the Art and Practice of the Learning Organization – Kienholz (1999)


Systems ReThinking: An Inquiring Systems Approach to the Art and Practice of the Learning Organization 
February 5, 1999 Alice Kienholz, Ph.D.
Alice Kienholz Associates
 This article is dedicated to the memory of Robert M. Bramson, Ph.D., who passed away suddenly on September 7, 1998 and to the memory of G. Nicholas Parlette who passed away suddenly on December 6, 1994 – that their work might continue.
It is here proposed that inquiring systems, as presented by C. West Churchman in his classic work “The Design of Inquiring Systems,” (1971) possess the necessary scope by which to elucidate and facilitate the acceleration and advancement of organizational learning for knowledge acquisition, creation and utilization. This paper builds on the application of Churchman’s inquiring systems to learning organizations for “Inquiring Organizations” as proposed by Courtney, Croasdell and Paradice (1996, 1998). It also builds on the application of knowledge management in these inquiring organizations, as outlined by Malhotra (1997), by providing a readily available means by which to expedite the shift in thinking needed to accommodate the demands of a faster, more complex cycle of knowledge creation and action. By understanding and being aware of one’s own relative preference for each of the five major inquiring systems, as determined by the Inquiry Mode Questionnaire (InQ), organizational members have a greater awareness and understanding of the way in which they, individually and collectively, go about gathering data, asking questions, solving problems and making decisions (Harrison and Bramson, 1982). Implications exist for applications in knowledge management, especially as it pertains to how people actually go about acquiring, creating and sharing knowledge.“…in the period ahead of us, more important than advances in computer design will be the advances we can make in our understanding of human information processing – of thinking, problem solving and decision making.” Simon, H. A. “The Future of Information Technology Processing,” Management Science, 14 (9), May 1968, p. 624.

While there have been a variety of applications of Churchman’s work to organizational development and organizational effectiveness, the InQ is the only instrument that actually measures our relative preference for each of these major inquiring systems. It also provides an interpretation of the behavioral implications of the resulting profile. And, while it has been applied to broaden and deepen individual competencies in problem solving and decision making, in team building, improving communication, conflict resolution, in matching persons to projects, and in integrating new hires; it has yet to be developed specifically to expedite the process of change needed for mastering the five disciplines of the learning organization, for the purpose of knowledge creation and sharing.

Before embarking upon this, a summary of each of the inquiring systems and their accompanying strategies will be provided, so that the reader will have the necessary background when reading the explanations of how these inquiring modes can apply to the learning organization, or so that they can refer back to them if necessary. Briefly, they are:

  • The Synthesist (Hegel) sees likenesses in things that appear unalike, seeks conflict and synthesis, is interested in change, gets at underlying assumptions, sees the essence of problems, is speculative – asks what if and why not, and regards data to be meaningless without interpretation.
  • The Idealist (Kant) welcomes a broad range of views, seeks ideal solutions, is interested in values, is receptive, and places equal value on data and theory.
  • The Pragmatist (Singer) proceeds on the basis of an eclectic view, uses a tactical, incremental approach; and, being innovative and adaptive, is best in complex situations.
  • The Analyst (Leibniz) seeks the “one best way,” operates with models and formulas, is interested in “scientific solutions,” is prescriptive, and prefers data over theory and method.
  • The Realist (Locke) relies on “facts” and expert opinion, seeks solutions that meet current needs, is serious about getting concrete results, acts with efficiency and incisive correction, prefers data over theory. (Adapted from “The Art of Thinking” Harrison and Bramson, 1982).

The Synthesist and Idealist inquiry modes are substantive, value oriented ways of thinking and knowing, while the Analyst and Realist are functional and fact oriented. While about half of all people prefer to think in one main way, 35% prefer two or more styles in combination. Most people in North America prefer the Idealist style (+37%), followed by the Analyst (35%), the Realist (24%), the Pragmatist (18%), and the Synthesist (11%). Thirteen percent have a level profile where four or five of the styles are preferred fairly equally (Harrison and Bramson, 1982).

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