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.

" 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.

  1. Introduction
  2. Expediting the Mastery and Integration of the Five Disciplines: An Inquiring Systems Approach
  3. Systems Thinking Through the Five Inquiring Systems
  4. Personal Mastery
  5. Mental Models
  6. Building a Shared Vision
  7. Team Learning
  8. Discussion
  9. Summary and Implications
  10. Conclusions


In his classic book, The Design of Inquiring Systems, C. West Churchman (1971) identified five traditions of inquiry basic to Western philosophy ascribed to Hegel, Kant, Singer, Leibniz and Locke. These traditions were later operationalized as inquiry modes by Mitroff and Pondy (1974) and others, and were then applied to be used in situationally appropriate ways by agencies in public policy analysis and decision making. Allen Harrison and Robert Bramson, together with Susan Bramson, and Nicholas Parlette (1977, 1997) then designed and developed an instrument that measured one's relative preference for these five inquiry modes. As they point out, the Inquiry Mode Questionnaire (InQ) is especially helpful in high knowledge fields where decisions are complex, and diversity of approach is a recognized need (Bruvold, Parlette, Bramson and Bramson, 1983). This is evident, for example, in its extensive use in executive development and with managerial level government personnel, and by and with a wide range of health care professionals.

This paper outlines an expedient means by which to operationalize the new perspective on learning organizations proposed by Courtney, Croasdell and Paradice (1996, 1998), in which learning organizations are viewed as inquiring systems, or systems whose actions result in the creation - and sharing - of knowledge. As they explain, in their "Inquiring Organizations," the Churchmanian inquiring models are interpreted in the language of the design of learning organizations. It also provides further development of the elaboration on these "inquiring organizations" as outlined by Malhotra (1997), in his paper entitled "Knowledge Management in Inquiring Organizations." It is becoming increasingly apparent that these inquiring systems have the capacity to accommodate the complexities inherent in today's "wicked environments," of discontinuous change and unpredictability, in a way that has heretofore not been possible - given the constraints imposed by current formulations of information technology (IT) enabled knowledge management. Given the minimal attention granted to the human aspects of knowledge creation in current formulations of IT enabled knowledge management, Malhotra proposes an inquiring systems approach to free knowledge management from its preprogrammed, convergent and consensus-oriented nature. As he points out, systems that can provide multiple and often conflicting interpretations are better suited to "wicked environments" of discontinuous change and unpredictability. The inquiring systems approach presented here, therefore, not only builds on the application of Churchman's inquiring systems approach to knowledge management as outlined by Malhotra, but also develops its practical application in a way that is readily accessible. Not only is it more understandable than the rather esoteric and philosophical writings from which it is drawn, but, or perhaps, therefore, it also is more readily applied in the real world. Furthermore, it is affordable, and sufficiently user-friendly that it can be readily implemented at an organizational level with almost anyone having a high school education. And yet, due to the substantive nature of the inquiring systems approach, the higher up in the organizational eschelons you go, the greater it is appreciated.

In The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge (1990) outlined five new component technologies (disciplines) that are gradually converging to innovate learning organizations.

  1. Systems Thinking - is a conceptual framework - a body of knowledge and tools - developed over the last 50 years, that serves to make clearer the full patterns of the problems, issues, and situations that confront us. Systems thinking also helps us see how to change them effectively.

  2. Personal Mastery - is the discipline of continually clarifying and deepening our personal vision, of focusing our energies, of developing patience, and seeing reality objectively.

  3. Mental Models - are deeply ingrained assumptions, generalizations, or even pictures or images that influence our behavior and understanding of the world.

  4. Building Shared Vision - is that discipline wherein people are bound together around a common identity and sense of destiny whereby they excel and learn.

  5. Team Learning - through dialogue team members suspend assumptions and enter into genuine "thinking together."

Senge places Systems Thinking first on this list, yet he calls it "the fifth discipline" because it is the conceptual cornerstone that underlies all of the other learning disciplines. As he points out, all are concerned with a shift of mind from seeing parts to seeing wholes, from seeing people as helpless reactors to seeing them as active participants in shaping their reality, from reacting to the present to creating the future.

Systems thinking acts as both an incentive and the means to integrate the learning disciplines, once they have come into practice. Systems thinking is therefore the cornerstone by which learning organizations are able to think innovatively about their world (Senge, 1990). Systems science can be studied and applied in a number of ways, but two of these are most directly relevant to the present topic. The first is systems philosophy, which involves a philosophy of, or a way of looking at the world - a language or set of principles and interventions for thinking and problem solving, i.e. the inquiring systems approach of C. West Churchman (1971). The second is systems theory, which involves a collection of successful application models, archetypes, stories and case studies, i.e. systems thinking as outlined and expanded upon by Peter Senge in The Fifth Discipline (1990). Senge et al. also refers to systems technology, which involves a set of tools, methodologies and learning processes such as causal loop diagrams, simulation languages and other software tools used in computer science.

In explicating and explaining systems thinking, Senge (1990) acknowledged that systems thinking was a powerful problem-solving tool, but that it was more powerful as a language, augmenting and changing the ordinary ways we think and talk about complex issues. In the broad sense, systems thinking encompasses a large body of methods, tools and principles, all oriented to understanding the interrelatedness of forces, and seeing them as part of a common process. As Senge (1994) points out, "the field includes cybernetics and chaos theory; gestalt therapy; the work of Gregory Bateson, Russell Ackoff, Eric Trist, Ludwig von Bertallanfy, and the Sante Fe Institute; and the dozen or so practical techniques for "process mapping" flows of activity at work (p.89)." Common to all these diverse approaches is the idea that behavior of all systems follows certain common principles, the nature of which are still being discovered and articulated.

The inquiring systems approach to systems thinking draws upon Churchman's (1971) five philosophically based inquiring modes for understanding how we go about gathering data, asking questions, solving problems and making decisions.

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 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).

2. Expediting the Mastery and Integration of the Five Disciplines: An Inquiring Systems Approach

The success of Senge et al.'s (1990, 1994 and following) work on the Learning Organization has inspired a plethora of related literature. But while much wisdom can be accorded Senge and his colleagues and supporters, the fact remains that many are overwhelmed by the massive amount of reading and study that is required by individuals and organizations to actually put these ideas into practice, let alone keep up with it all. And, as Senge points out, "During the last few years, a new understanding of the process of organizational change has emerged. It is not top-down or bottom-up, but participative at all levels - aligned through common understanding of a system" (Senge et al. 1994, p. 89). What is needed, therefore, is a more efficacious means by which people at all levels can accomplish the mastery, integration and application of the five disciplines. What is needed is priming for systems thinking and organizational change .

Therefore, just as systems thinking is fundamental to Senge et al.'s five disciplines that are converging to innovate organizations, it is here proposed that a necessary condition of learning and therefore of learning organizations is a system of inquiry. This system may be that of Locke, Leibniz, Kant, Hegel or Singer, or some combination thereof. Therefore, in principle there are 25 possible dimensions of the inquiry/learning space which, metaphorically speaking, constitute our table of periodic elements. Each relevant possibility will be discussed, showing how each approach or system of inquiry applies to each of the five disciplines. This will then be summarized in Table 1. Systems Thinking can thereby be more easily understood and practiced through the application of the five inquiring systems and their accompanying strategies. By completing the InQ and becoming aware of one's own preferred thinking profile, systems thinking is made meaningful at a personal level. From this personal frame of reference, one is then better able to understand and relate to the thinking and behavior of others at not only the individual level, but also at the group/team and organizational/community levels. How this all relates to Churchman's scientific perspective and Courtney, Croasdell and Paradice's 'Inquiring Organizations' is further elaborated on in the discussion and implications at the end. Such understanding and awareness can then be used to inform and expedite an understanding of the art and practice of the learning organization.

3. Systems Thinking Through the Five Inquiring Systems

According to Senge et al. (1994), "A good systems thinker, particularly in an organizational setting, is someone who can see four levels operating simultaneously: events, patterns of behavior, systems and mental models" (p. 97). Realist, Analyst, Idealist, and Synthesist respectively? And the Pragmatist, when competent in all of the systems, can flex between these systems, drawing upon whichever one (or combination thereof) suites the needs of the moment. Further insight into the Singerian Pragmatist approach and its application in learning organizations may be found in Croasdell, Courtney and Paradice (1998). As they explain, "Effective inquiring organizations create knowledge and learn new behaviors to adjust to changing circumstances" (p.1). Thus, the organization is propelled toward progress through what Churchman (1971, p. 201) refers to as heroic mood, which is created by the collective unconscious. Singerian inquiring organizations thereby immerse organizational learners in a process that engenders progress and fulfillment (i.e. higher levels of understanding) by promoting, sharing and refining knowledge.

The Synthesist inquiry mode, being based on Hegelian dialectic, is apparent for example, in the kind of thinking used for getting at the real problem (vs. the apparent problem) as described in the chapter on Systems Thinking (Senge et al., 1994, pp. 87-190). The Idealist mode of inquiry is interested in the whole - the world is one - and operates on a relational kind of logic, and naturally understands relational logic and the interrelationships on which systems thinking is based. Idealists understand that problems may be ill-structured and ill-defined, so that there are no clear "right answers" (see Roberts and Kemeny, in Senge et al. 1994, p. 91). The Analyst mode of inquiry, being interested in a "one best way," and in getting all the facts to ensure thoroughness, is represented in the Reinforcing loop (see Goodman, Kemeny and Roberts in Senge et al., 1994, pp. 114-117). Reinforcing loops involve a geometric process, and are not satisfied with minimal data in the way that the Realist is, with its single-loop arithmetic based process. Balancing loops which are based on a thesis-antithesis-synthesis process, serve to limit such processes of expansion or growth. Balancing loops are often found in self-correcting or self-regulating systems.

4. Personal Mastery

According to Senge et al. (1994), this is the discipline people are drawn to the most. As he points out, "Personal mastery gives you a compelling reason to reflect on how your underlying assumptions may block you from realizing your vision" (p.94). As he points out, business people want not only to increase their own capabilities, but to improve the capabilities of those around them.Yet, while we can set up and encourage a supportive environment for learning, it is up to individuals to ensure that their own learning and development continues. And learning only occurs in an enduring way if it is sparked by people's own ardent interest and curiosity (inherent motivation). Because each inquiring system is based on a different set of assumptions, knowing your relative preference for each of them can be helpful in understanding your strengths and liabilities, and the implications that has for realizing your vision.

"Practicing personal mastery is like holding a conversation within ourselves. One voice within us dreams of what we want for the future. Still another casts an (often baleful) eye on the world around us. A third voice, often well hidden, is willing to say, "I have chosen what I want and accepted that I will create it. (Senge et al. 1994, p. 196). Personal mastery requires that we hear all these facets clearly, for the power which pulls us toward our vision emerges from the relationship between them.

One attains personal mastery in one's own thinking and behavior when one is able to change at will - to be situationally responsive to approach a problem or make a decision in the most intellectually, ethically, morally, socially and aesthetically appropriate way. Continually clarifying and deepening our personal vision are enabled through the practice of the strategies of the Synthesist and Idealist modes. Focusing our energies is facilitated through the Synthesist and Realist modes. Developing patience is enabled through practice of the Idealist and Analyst modes. Seeing reality objectively is enabled using the fact-oriented Realist and Analyst modes. Intrapersonal development can be accomplished through activities and experience with the InQ augmenting and development exercises for those modes that we tend to neglect or to overuse or use inappropriately. (That is, to strengthen the Synthesist in you - examine your assumptions, practice negative analysis, ask what could go wrong, and speculate -ask what if and why not?). Interpersonal mastery is accomplished through the InQ exercises on working and communicating with, and effectively influencing others. That is, to work more effectively with a Synthesist, don't interpret argument as disagreement; rather, see it as useful exploration of the problem (Harrison and Bramson, 1982).

5. Mental Models

Mental models, like inquiring systems, can explain why two people can observe the same event and react to it or describe it differently. They simply pay attention to different details. As Senge (in Senge et al., 1994, p. 236) points out, because of the tacit nature of mental models, they are generally invisible to us. The fundamental purpose of this discipline, then, is to bring these mental models to the surface, so we can talk about them. Mental models are deeply ingrained assumptions, generalizations, or even pictures or images that influence our behavior and understanding of the world. They are like a pane of glass which frames and subtly distorts our vision. So, while we depend on the "mental maps" to navigate through the complex environments of our world, all of them are, by definition, somewhat flawed. We can then see the pane of glass and its impact on our lives, and thereby improve the mental models by which we organize and live our lives.

Senge identifies reflection and inquiry as the two types of skills that are central to this work. Through reflection we slow down our thinking process so as to gain greater awarenesss of how we form our mental models. The Analyst's propensity for logic and analysis would be helpful here in retracing our thinking process. Through inquiry we share our views and develop knowledge concerning the kind of assumptions we hold. This could be accomplished through the substantive, value-oriented and holistic approach of the Synthesist and Idealist. [According to Goodman and Kemeny in Senge et al. (1994, p. 164) "An archetype is nothing more than a mental model made visible." And since the inquiring systems are like mental models or paradigms, they are ideally suited to inform and facilitate the understanding of the Learning Organization. It would also follow that the InQ thinking styles, which serve to operationalize the inquiring systems, thereby become archetypes.] Therefore, inquiring systems are, for all practical purposes, mental models or paradigms.

As Churchman (1971) explains, an inquiring system is a symbol processor which identifies symbols, stores them in memory and retrieves them through memory. The symbols may be sentences, codes, a set of digits, pictures or some type of image. And since these inquiring systems are so fundamental to everything we think and say and do, there is tremendous potential for applying them to elucidate all other types of mental models.

One of the more popular mental models used by Senge et al. (1994) is referred to as the Left-Hand Column. It is based on a two column research method where the Right-Hand column contains the record of what you actually said, and the Left-Hand column records what you were actually thinking in the process of resolving a difficult problem. The purpose of The Left-Hand Column is to make us aware of the tacit assumptions which govern our conversations and block our purpose in real-life situations, and to provide for a way of talking about those tacit assumptions more effectively (Senge et al, 1994, p.247). The Synthesist strategy of getting at underlying assumptions is apparent here. The Realist inquiry mode, on the other hand, is action-oriented, efficient and concerned with the "facts," and is evident in the thinking behind Senge's Ladder of Inference. The Ladder of Inference is a metaphor which shows how quickly we can jump to knee-jerk conclusions with no intervening thought processes, as though rapidly scaling a ladder. The Ladder of Inference is helpful in improving communication through increasing our awareness of how we think and reason (reflection), making our thinking and reasoning more visible to others (advocacy) and inquiring into others' thoughts and reasoning (inquiry).

Ross and Roberts, in Senge et al. (1994) describe how our natural predilection towards the mental models of advocacy or inquiry can be balanced so as to provide for better relationships and for a reputation for integrity. The present author would suggest that advocacy seems to be more associated with putting forth the facts or questioning in a more rhetorical way (Analyst and Realist), to arrive at the correct answer or solution; whereas inquiry seems to be more associated with asking substantive, value-oriented questions (Idealist and Synthesist) which have no clear right answer. The Pragmatist, drawing from both ends of the scale, is most able to flex between a position of advocacy and inquiry to meet the needs of the moment.

6. Building a Shared Vision

According to Senge et al. (1994) building shared vision includes not only a vision or image of an organization's desired future, but also other components, including a set of governing values by which we define how we behave with each other, how we regard our customers, community and vendors and the lines we will and will not cross. By including values in the organization's shared vision effort, people are able to speak easier, to speak honestly, or to reveal information, when people know and understand these agreed-upon values. And the implications here are apparent for fostering the kind of supportive environment in which knowledge sharing can flourish.

The Idealist's concern with setting high standards and long range goals would be most appropriate for developing these components. Binding people together around a common identity and sense of destiny that enables them to excel and learn can be achieved through an appreciation of, and the right application of, the unique thinking styles that each brings to their group. As mentioned in personal mastery, visioning is particularly suited to Synthesist and Idealist thinkers, with Pragmatists, Analysts and Realists providing some practical, concrete, logical and realistic balance.

The purpose or mission that explicates what the members of an organization are here to do together is another component of the guiding aspirations or principles of the organization. The Synthesist's ability to identify underlying assumptions and get at the very essence of matters, would be most helpful in defining an organization's purpose.

Goals, which consist of the milestones we expect to reach along the way (and involve the short-term goals) are generally concerned with the barriers and obstacles that we must overcome to reach our vision. The Pragmatist's propensity for shuttle diplomacy and a tactical approach is most appropriate for this component. The action-oriented, efficient Realist's approach may also prove beneficial here.

By applying all five inquiring systems accordingly, you are able to keep your eyes on the stars, and your feet firmly planted on the ground.

7. Team Learning

Dialogue, which is fundamental to team learning, requires team members to suspend assumptions - the purvue of the Synthesist - and enter into genuine "thinking together," the purvue of the Idealist. By examining our assumptions, we are able to identify what is really essential to a problem or situation, to get beyond the apparent problem and to identify the real problem or issue. The Idealist system of inquiry is concerned with including everyone and is sensitive to the needs, feelings and contribution of each member. As Charlotte Roberts (in Senge et al., 1994, p. 355) points out, team learning differs from team building in that it goes well beyond traditional "team building" skills, involving the development or improvement of courteous behaviors, communication skills, working together, or building strong relationships. Because it is based on dialogue, team learning inspires more fundamental changes with enduring applications that affects the whole organization through a ripple effect. Through an interplay of Synthesist and Analyst strategies, the immense intellectual and conceptual power needed to penetrate to the very heart of issues can be accessed, bringing order out of chaos, and thereby enabling team learning to move beyond the more superficial requirements of team building. And, the Synthesist and Idealist modes, through a holistic, value-oriented and substantive approach, are particularly relevant for expediting an understanding of the importance of synthesising the group and raising their consciousness through the Idealist's high standards and attentive, receptive and supportive strengths. As William Issacs (in Senge et al., 1994, p. 358) explains, people learn to think together in the sense of occupying a collective sensibility, (also the consensus orientation of the Realist) wherein thoughts, emotions, and resulting actions belong to all members together. People can then start to move into coordinated patterns of action (Pragmatist), and the tedious process of planning and decision-making becomes unnecessary. They are then able to act in a coordinated way, each knowing what is best to do, just as a flock of birds does when it takes flight.

Table 1 below summarizes how the five inquiring systems apply to the sampling of concepts of the five disciplines of the learning organization as they have been described above.

Synthesist Idealist Pragmatist Analyst Realist
  • Mental Models
  • Identifying the Real problem vs. the apparent problem
  • Balancing loops (thesis-antithesis-synthesis)
  • Systems
  • Understands relational logic basic to Systems Thinking
  • A good Systems Thinker sees four levels at once
    1. Mental Models
    2. Systems
    3. Patterns
    4. Events
  • Patterns
  • Reinforcing Loop
  • exponential process (needs more data )
  • Events
  • Single Loop Processing (arithmetic process) (simple cause and effect)
  • Personal
  • Focus on underlying assumptions
  • Focus our energies
  • Continually clarifying and deepening our personal vision
  • Developing patience
  • Mastery of each inquiring system
  • The Master is the one who can change at will to be situationally responsive
  • Developing patience
  • Seeing reality objectively
  • Focusing our energies
  • Seeing reality objectively
  • Mental Models
  • Inquiry
  • Fundamental purpose is to surface mental models - so we can talk about them and improve them
  • The Left-Hand Column
  • Inquiry
  • Reflection
  • Flex to balance inquiry and advocacy
  • Advocacy
  • Reflection
  • Advocacy
  • Ladder of Inference
  • Building
  • Purpose or mission
  • Values
  • Visioning
  • High Standards
  • Long-range goals
  • Values
  • Goal achievement (tactical approach)
  • Method-oriented to achieve goals
  • Logic and sequence
  • Short-range goals
  • Team
  • Dialogue
    (suspend assumptions)
  • Dialogue
    (thinking together)
  • Coordinated patterns of action
  • S<----->A
    order out of chaos
  • Consensus
    Table 1. Applications of the Five Inquiring Systems to the Five Disciplines of the Learning Organization

    8. Discussion

    This paper is predicated upon the assumption that a necessary condition of learning and therefore learning organizations is a system of inquiry. The InQ reveals one's predisposition to use a particular method of inquiry. The "group profile" in turn determines the kind of learning organization that will result for any given group. One's approach to the five disciplines will differ, depending on the extent to which one prefers one or more of the inquiring systems. In order to better familiarize the reader with the five inquiring systems and how they apply to each of the five disciplines, each inquiring system will be discussed in terms of its defining characteristics and its strengths and weaknesses. We first discuss Systems Thinking, followed by Personal Mastery, Mental Models, Building Shared Vision and Team Learning.

    9. Summary and Implications

    Following the initiatives of Courtney, Croasdell and Paradice (1996, 1998) and Malhotra (1997), this paper outlines a readily accessible means by which to provide priming for systems thinking and organizational change (knowledge management) through an inquiring systems approach to the art and practice of the learning organization. A review of the five new component technologies (disciplines) that are converging to innovate learning organizations was provided. This was followed by a description of the inquiring systems approach (systems philosophy) to systems thinking which outlined an alternative means by which to, at the very least, prepare the learner for the systems theory/systems technology approach that Senge uses to make clearer the full patterns of the problems, issues and situations that confront us. The Inquiry Mode Questionnaire was then introduced as an expedient means by which to operationalize Churchman's inquiring systems at the level of the individual, and in turn at the level of Courtney, Croasdell and Paradice's inquiring organizations. Each of the five disciplines was then addressed in terms of how the five inquiring systems could elucidate and facilitate the acceleration and advancement of knowledge creation and utilization.

    An example of how the inquiring systems approach applies to knowledge management is provided by Mitroff, Mason and Pierson (1994). They envision the knowledge and learning center of the organization of the future as designed to collect, organize and disseminate information while also acting as a systemic control mechanism. As they explain, "the inquiry center is primarily designed to improve on, and then institutionalize an ongoing process for drawing upon various sources of information, knowledge, data and wisdom in order to bring them to bear on important decisions about the business (more than just vehicles)." (p. 51) Mitroff, Mason and Pierson extend the learning/inquiry notion that Zaltman and Barabba (1991) outlined in their book, "Hearing the Voice of the Market," in which they develop the idea of a chief information officer that is very close to what Mitroff, Mason and Pierson envision.

    How the five inquiring systems might be integrated for optimizing learning is made apparent by Mitroff and Linstone (1993). They provide a sequence whereby complex issues may be addressed through the judicious application of all five inquiring systems, with what they call "Unbounded Systems Thinking." They then delve further into the deeper aspects of this approach, thus enabling us to tie the five inquiring systems together for one integerated thinking process that has the scope to address problems ranging from the most simple and clearly defined to those of the most ill-structured, ill-defined, "wicked decision" variety, involving ethical, aesthetic and social issues.

    Implications exist concerning the way in which we actually go about gathering, acquiring and sharing information, and how the whole field of knowledge acquisition, creation, sharing and management can be better informed through an inquiring systems approach, than with the constraints imposed by the current IT formulations. In his definition of knowledge management, Yogesh Malhotra moves the thinking of corporate executives towards a strategic, nonlinear and systemic view of knowledge management. The significance of the Hegelian and Kantian inquiring systems in this process is apparent in this definition:

    "Knowledge management caters to the critical issues of organizational adaptation, survival, and competence in the face of increasingly discontinuous environmental change. Essentially, it embodies organizational processes that seek a synergistic combination of data and information processsing capacity of information technologies, and the creative, and innovative capacity of human beings." (Cited from "Knowledge Management in the New World of Business," 1998,

    In an interview with Japan's Maeil Business Newspaper (February 19, 1998) Malhotra explicated and explained the interrelationships of knowledge management, knowledge organizations and knowledge workers. The relevance of his insights for clarifying the significance of the individual for his or her understanding and application of the inquiring systems to Inquiring Organizations is apparent when he points out that "the creativity and inquiry driven learning and unlearning required of knowledge workers becomes possible only if they understand the implications of changes in their work contexts for the business enterprises in synchronizing the organizational 'best practices' with the external reality of the business environment." These implications, being at the more macro-level of the organization and society, become more readily apparent once one is aware of and understands the five inquiring systems and the strategies that accompany each one. The five inquiring systems, being so fundamental to all we think and say and do here in the western world, apply at the individual, group/team, organizational/community and societal levels. So, just as each individual has a unique and identifiable preferred style of thinking, or relative preference for the five inquiring systems, so too does each group or team, organization or community, and even whole societies. And when organizations talk about the need for a paradigm shift, those who understand their own personal preferences and their behavioral implications, are better able to identify their organization's current paradigm and the kind of changes they will need to make to shift their organization's paradigm.

    Churchman (1971) confirms the generic nature of the design of his inquiring systems when he states in his Preface that the book, while written from the rather individualistic and academic perspective of a research scientist, could also "... be read as a philosophy of organization theory, or of architectural or engineering design, or of operations research or of planning ( p.vii)." He also uses the design concept in its most generic sense to include "... all the other activities by which we consciously attempt to change ourselves and our environment to improve the quality of our lives (p.vii)."

    Tom Davenport, writing in the June 15, 1997 issue of CIO, makes quite explicit the need for a paradigm shift in our thinking, when he states that "...if you're spending more than 1/3 of your time on technologies for management, you're neglecting the content, organizational culture and motivational approaches that will make a knowledge management system actually useful." His advice is to "...use the technologies to store and disseminate real value-added insight-laden, wisdom giving knowledge." Again, the need for a shift in thinking from the fact-oriented, functional, typical technological ways of thinking and knowing (Locke/Realist and Leibniz/Analyst) to a more value-oriented and substantive perspective (Kant/Idealist and Hegel/Synthesist) is indicated.

    According to Drucker (1998) in his article, The Post Capitalist Executive, "Knowledge is power, which is why most people who had it in the past often tried to make a secret of it. In post-capitalism, power comes from transmitting information to make it productive, not from hiding it." This is what knowledge acquisition, creation, sharing, utilization and management in inquiring organizations is all about. And this all becomes readily accessible and operational once one understands and appreciates the art and practice of the inquiring systems approach to the learning organization.

    10. Conclusions

    The importance of making technological and social improvements or innovations available to the general public has long been a major concern of Churchman. As he points out on his URL:, too often such innovations/improvements are available to only the elite. In keeping with Churchman's (1994) goal of making technological innovations accessible to all, the InQ, being based on the inquiring systems approach, offers a means to making systems thinking more user friendly and widely available, especially when compared to the ever expanding, voluminous and at times overwhelming approach presented by Senge et al. And because it is based on one's relative preference for the five main philosophically based traditions of thought that we use in the western world; and because it is interpreted in terms of an overall thinking profile rather than one's preference for a single style, it guards against a simplistic and reductionistic interpretation and application of the results. Thus, one's low scores are taken into consideration in interpreting how one goes about collecting data, asking questions, solving problems and making decisions, as are one's high scores and one's more moderate scores. Workbook exercises have also been designed for modifying our propensity to overuse our strengths (high scoring styles), or to use them inappropriately. In addition, there are exercises to augment and develop our ability to draw on those strategies that constitute our liabilities (least preferred styles.) And while the InQ can expedite an understanding of the five disciplines of the learning organization, it also allows for and even enhances our utilization of the on-going developments on learning organizations of Senge et al. So, the inquiring systems approach, for knowledge management in inquiring organizations, can be implemented quickly and easily to leverage our knowledge assets and to bring about organizational change in a most expedient way.


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