In any area of management, you will hear phrases like being “on team” and “singing from the same hymn sheet” practically every day. The concept is simple and logical enough – managers and their reports are, or at least should be, working toward common goals and with the same interests. This is essentially what cooperative inquiry is all about.

Why inquiry?

It is easy to think of inquiry and research as something belonging to academics and consultants in research institutes, management schools and universities. The problem with this approach, however, is that a gulf can emerge between the theory and its practical applications.

Normal people who work “at the coalface” are equally capable of developing their own ideas and a cooperative inquiry group creates the perfect environment for this. The ideas that they come up with are likely to be pragmatic approaches to achieving positive change in their lives and their work. Fundamentally, a cooperative inquiry is concerned with assessing our understanding of the world around us and affecting transformations in our everyday practices.

What is a cooperative inquiry group?

The idea behind a cooperative inquiry group is to enable people to come together and explore the issues that are of concern and interest to them. Every member of the group contributes both to the activity that is being researched and to the ideas that they generate. Everyone should have an equal say in deciding what questions need to be addressed, how to explore them and what ideas might help to achieve positive change.

Crucially, everybody also has their voice heard when it comes to expressing the group’s conclusions. One of the key characteristics of cooperative inquiry is that the concept of researchers and subjects disappears, and those involved fulfil both roles in a communal process of self-analysis.


  • A team of medical practitioners formed a cooperative inquiry group to discuss the topic of holistic medicine in theory and practice. They constructed a simple theoretical model and performed real-world experiments to see how it performed in practice. They explored a variety of intervention skills, power-sharing with their patients. The study was fundamental in forming the British Holistic Medical Association.
  • A working group of obese and post-obese women formed a cooperative inquiry group aimed at exploring their experiences, with a specific focus on how society stereotypes obesity, particularly in women. They also decided to approach the difficulties of obtaining appropriate support and attention from doctors and medical practitioners. This is just one of several inquiries in which a group of individuals with a shared medical or physical condition have come together to take a degree of control over the way in which their condition is defined, treated and viewed by broader society.
  • A group of black social work teachers decided to establish inquiry groups among black social work practitioners, managers and students. These examined the relationships between black individuals at work, with a particular focus on the interactions between managers and their subordinates. It came up with tangible ideas for creating a better working culture.

Next week, we will take a look at the mechanics of how cooperative inquiry groups operate.

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