The practice of systemic inquiry

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(Activity 2.4)

I want to use this post to pull together thoughts so far on Systemic Inquiry.  I am not sure whether I have thoughts of my own yet – it is all about distilling, making sense of and grasping what has been presented in TU812 course materials – Open University (2010)* and Ison (2010)**.

Starting with the first note I made about Systemic Inquiry from page 29 of the study guide

systemic inquiry…process for project or programme managing suited to some, but not all situations.[…]  Inquiry is a form of practice as well as a disposition and it is enhanced by acknowledging uncertainty from the start (Open University, 2010,29)

As Systemic Inquiry is itself a form of Practice, I want to consider it through the lens of the different elements that make up a practice performance.

The Practitioner

There are two aspects that I have picked up so far.

Firstly, the attitude or disposition that the practitioner must adopt – acknowledging uncertainty as per the quote above.

Secondly, there are capacities that users of systemic inquiry must have:

  • understanding situations in context (both current and historical)
  • appreciating multiple stakeholders and thus perspectives
  • addressing and clarifying questions of purpose
  • distinguishing what, how and why and clarifying when it is appropriate to address each
  • facilitating action that is purposeful and which can be judged as systemically desirable and/or culturally feasible
  • developing a means to orchestrate understandings and practices across space and time in a manner that continues to address social concerns when it is unclear at the start as to what would constitute an improvement
  • institutionalising on-going use of the approach in a manner that does not trivialise and instrumentalise the premises on which it is built


I think this is really important and resonates with my experience.  Some ‘tools’ for doing can create more harm than good in the hands of the wrong user.  I have seen some excellent methods used poorly and I particularly like the last bullet point because so many ‘tools’ end up being treated as an activity led by the documentation rather than with the original ethos.

Framework of ideas

Systemic Inquiry draws on:

understandings of systems thinking, theories of learning, action research, cooperative inquiry and adaptive management (Ison, 2010,246)

I particularly like the idea of social learning.  This is something that resonates with me – I lose count of the time that I say it is not the output (usually a document) that matters, it is the quality of the process by which you collectively got there.  Now, I have a word for what I have been trying to say.  In my role as a partnership coordinator, I’d can see a lot of value in achieving social learning.  From now on I will emphasise that good processes lead to:

  • convergence of goals […], criteria and knowledge leading to awareness of mutual expectations and the building of relational capital
  • co-creation of knowledge, which provides insight into the history of, and the means to transform, a situation.
  • change in behaviours that results from the understanding gained through doing […] that leads to concerted action
  • adapted from Ison (2010, 249)


Need to think of it as a meta-form of purposeful activity – a setting or context within which conduct programmes and projects.

Systemic Inquiry draws on Checkland’s Soft System Methodology.  It intends to create changes in understandings and practices i.e. it is action-orientated.  It involves a structured exploration of the situation as well as action.


proceeds by enacting a learning process with those who have a stake in a situation experienced as problematic or as presenting an opportunity (Open University, 2010,164)

If stakeholders undertake systemic inquiry together then learning (changes in knowledge/knowing) takes place – this is social learning.  Ah, I am back there again!


Systemic Inquiry is suitable to situations where there is uncertainty and complexity.  To me that is virtually everything I am involved in!

* Open University (2010), TU812 Managing systemic change: inquiry, action and interaction: Study Guide, Open University, Milton Keynes

** Ison, R. (2010), Systems Practice: How to act in a climate-change world, Open University/Springer, Milton Keynes/London.

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