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Innovation Explorers — Learning Forum

What is co-operative inquiry (or enquiry)?

“Co-operative inquiry [or enquiry] is a way of working with other people who have similar concerns and interests to yourself, in order to understand your world, make sense of your life and develop new and creative ways of looking at things [and to] learn how to act to change things you may want to change and find out how to do things better.” (Peter Reason & John Heron)

As a discipline, cooperative enquiry is commonly used by social scientists and organisational developers as a form of qualitative research and a way of developing ‘best practice’.

For example, Contented uses cooperative enquiry as a form of internal training and quality assurance.

Emeritus professor Peter Reason writes: “We usually think of enquiry and research as something done by people in Universities and research institutes. We think there is a researcher who has all the ideas, and who then studies other people by observing them, asking them questions, or by designing experiments.

“The trouble with this kind of way of doing research is that there is often very little connection between the researcher’s thinking and the concerns and experiences of the people who are actually involved. People are treated as passive subjects rather than as active agents,” adds Reason, who led Bath University’s Centre for Action Research in Professional Practice.

“We believe that good research is research with people rather than on people. We believe that ordinary people are quite capable of developing their own ideas and can work together in a co-operative inquiry group to see if these ideas make sense of their world and work in practice.”

Innovation Explorers

Innovation Explorers are a group of autonomous executives who practice action enquiry, action learning and other action research-based techniques.  As co-researchers in confidence, we are particularly engaged in how to address complex issues.

The group meets regularly in confidential (or ‘safe’) virtual and physical spaces — with smaller ‘learning groups’ meeting separately — to explore their challenges and report back on actions taken to try to address them.

While traditional research doesn’t help people create change, cooperative enquiry encourages them to take creative action to address matters that are important to them.  So it is concerned with upgrading the way we understand our world and changing the way we act within it.

In co-operative inquiry a group of people come together to explore issues of concern and interest. All members of the group contribute both to the ideas that go into their work together, and also are part of the activity that is being researched. Everyone has a say in deciding what questions are to be addressed and what ideas may be of help; everyone contributes to thinking about how to explore the questions; everyone gets involved in the activity that is being researched; and finally everybody has a say in whatever conclusions the co-operative inquiry group may reach. So in co-operative inquiry the split between “researcher” and “subjects” is done away with, and all those involved act together as “co-researchers” and as “co-subjects”.

How co-operative enquiry works

Each group is different but each one carries out cycles of action and enquiries (questions).  Each cycle can be said to have four key phases:

  • Phase 1. Gather to explore our work, interests and concerns, to focus on enquiry and develop questions to explore.  Agree practice and procedures to observe and record experiences.  All must grow to trust the process, because it will take them out of their comfort zones, where real learning takes place.
  • Phase 2. Apply agreed actions in everyday work; observe and record the outcomes.
  • Phase 3. Become fully immersed in our practice.  We may begin to see our work and experience in new ways, deepen our interest or be led into new fields, unpredicted action and creative insights. We may event lose the awareness that we are part of an enquiry group.; there may be a practical crisis; we may become enthralled; we may simply forget.  This phase is what makes action enquiry so very different from conventional research, because here people become deeply involved in their own experience so that any practical skills or new understandings grow.
  • Phase 4. After an agreed period engaged in phases two and three, the co-researchers re-assemble to consider their original questions in the light of their experience. They may change the questions or reject them and pose new ones. They agree on a second cycle of action and reflection, in which they may choose to amend procedures, forms of action or ways of gathering data.

After several cycles of phases 1-4, participants may reflect on what they have learned and write a report for circulation.  Cycles can take place during a short workshop or extend beyond a year, depending on the questions being explored.

(Adapted from A Short Guide to Cooperative Inquiry, by Peter Reason and John Heron).

Generating insights and knowledge

Co-operative enquiry involves non-verbal as well as verbal communication — this is called an extended epistemology.  (Epistemology is a theory of how we know):

  • Propositional knowing: for example, through ideas and theories.  We typically share information through speech and writing.
  • Experiential knowing: for example through empathy.  This requires direct face-to-face encounter with a person, place or thing. Think about an experience you’ve had — it’s often hard to put into words. You might have a gut-feeling about something.
  • Presentational knowing: for example, expressing yourself through creative arts such as images, metaphor, story, drawing, sculpture or movement. We often make decisions based on body-language.
  • Practical knowing: how to do something, expressed as a skill, knack or competence. Learning to swim or to play a musical instrument.

Reason and Heron say our knowledge is more true-to-life and useful if it is is grounded in our experience, expressed through our stories , understood through theories  and expressed in worthwhile action.

Improving quality of enquiry

Because we can fool ourselves about our own experiences, our knowledge can be subjective.  However, there are various techniques to overcome this potential bias.  For example, we can develop skill in examining our beliefs and theories critically.

  • Cycles of research , exploring experience from different angles, developing ideas, experimenting with ways of behaving.
  • Balancing action and reflection to avoid becoming a talking-shop or engaging in pure activism.
  • Developing detachment from our experiences in order to look more critically.
  • Ensuring all voices are heard.  For example, regularly reviewing how participants are collaborating, and engaging stakeholders outside the enquiry group.
  • Dealing with emotion. Examining experience in depth may uncover things participants have been avoiding.  If the group avoids distress management, the findings may be distorted.
  • Allowing disruption. Enquiry makes space for intuitive discovery and serendipity.  Sometimes, it might involve a wild experiment. The best groups are open and adventurous, taking risks in search of the truth. Diversity of ideas can create uncertainty and disorder and it’s important to tolerate this and not to rush to create premature order, but to allow for creative resolution.

Practical considerations for enquiry groups

Setting up a group 

Enquiry groups are usually started by people who want to explore an idea.  They may be university researchers or an interest group seeking to forward their interests. Up to twelve people works well; fewer than six reduces the diversity of experience.  If you are planning a larger group, you should consider professional. Contented works with a number of experienced facilitators.

Contracting

It’s important to allow participants to help establish the agenda and process — usually based upon the proposal of the initiators.

After introducing the research interest and the process of cooperative enquiry, it will be necessary to decide who wishes to join the group, dates, times, financial and other commitments.

The research plan

Meetings need time to for action and reflection.  An experienced learning group might meet online for an hour to update each other on their enquiries; an afternoon might suffice for a personal enquiry, while a group involving action in the external world might want longer cycles of action and reflection with sufficient time for practical activity, such as over a long weekend.

Roles

It’s a good idea to check who has skills for facilitating groups and enquiry, managing differences, working with distress and publishing — then to share out roles appropriately.  Will you run the group democratically with rotating leadership, or stick to one or two facilitators and editors.

Groundrules

A key concern should be preserving confidences within the group.   You might also want to consider how to avoid distractions and build trust.  Groups often want to talk about policies on digital devices and late arrivals, and how to ensure everyone gets heard.

Publishing

Who will be the audience for your research?  Perhaps internal company colleagues or external sector influencers.  If you want to publish a report or article, it who will decide when it is ready?  Will it be anonymous or name participants?  You may agree that anyone can write whatever they like on condition they identify the author and whether other group members approved the text.

Further support

Reason and Heron’ offer a comprehensive list of sources for further reading in their A Short Guide to Cooperative Inquiry.

You are welcome to contact Contented for advice and guidance on establishing a cooperative enquiry group.  If you are relatively new to action enquiry based practices, you might want to participate in a group before committing yourself to the investment.