Appreciative Inquiry in Asia: a review

Seldom is a journal issue’s topic as timely as that of the August issue of AI Practitioner, with its key theme of Asian philosophies and values. Reading and reflecting on the essays took me back to a conversation a decade or so ago, when I asked David Cooperrider his thoughts on the future of organizational development (OD).

Candidly, he replied that he saw the future as an enormous opportunity to expand on OD, particularly applying Appreciative Inquiry (AI), with its strengths-based framework. In many ways, he went on to explain, we are being asked to create a new and ever-dynamic learning capacity on the planet—which he likened to a global brain. It would seem then that this very issue of the journal provides the impetus for advancing Cooperrider’s provocative proposition. The compilation of AI practices, models, and case studies brought together by editors Noel E. K. Tan and Fiona O’Shaughnessy not only contributes to our understand¬ing of ancient wisdom traditions of Asia, but also demonstrates the way in which AI dovetails nicely with Eastern culture by expanding our learning capacity in the way Cooperrider envisioned many years ago.

The essays are timely also in that they address a theme that emerged after the 2008 global financial meltdown. It was then that business schools began to take a hard look at their curricula in order to better prepare future MBA candidates to contribute to a more sustainable and equitable world. Out of this soul-searching came several international conferences with calls for papers on ancient wisdom traditions, from both the West and the East.

Approaches to change, East and West
Wendy Tan and Paul Wang make a particularly salient point when they propose the Chinese Yin-Yang as an appropriate philosophical underpinning for AI practice. They explain that in Yin-Yang theory opposites are viewed as continuously dynamic and complementary entities, and therefore black and white do not need to be seen as polar opposites. It is this dynamic quality that underlies the various approaches to strategy applied by the contributors to this issue. An important caveat for the reader is that there are two very different approaches to change: here in the West, change is viewed almost as an anomaly that threatens “order” and is always met with apprehension and fear, giving rise to a determination to harness or “manage” it. Not so in the East, for change there is seen as the “Way of the Tao”, in that it is an affirmation of chaos rather than its negation. Seen through this particular lens, change is a constant, organic phenomenon that settles not on a single-ordered cosmos, but the sum of the wholes of all cosmological orders, a view held by both Taoism and Confucianism (Hall, 1991, p. 61).

Operationalizing human wisdom
Confucianism has provided the basis of both institutional and cultural practices that hold true to the present day, not just for China, but also for Japan, along with Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong. That is, that individuals fulfill their participatory obligations not only through acquiring knowledge, but also by going beyond factual knowledge to wisdom. This pursuit of wisdom requires self-cultivation of the individual’s nature-endowed good qualities of benevolence and goodness, which become the markers of establishing and deepening right relationships in the home, the community, the world at large, and, ultimately, the cosmos. According to philosopher and China scholar Henry Rosemont, in its more philosophically and spiritually important occurrences,知 (zhi: “knowing, wisdom”) is perhaps best defined as “a sense of what it is most fitting to do in our interac¬tions with our fellow human beings, understanding why, performing those actions, and achieving a sense of well-being from so doing” (Rosemont, 2013, p. 32, italics in original). As he recently reminded me, the eventful world of the Chinese makes the idea of any “factual knowledge” suspect; there seems to be little concern for the that of things, but the relations between event-changing particulars – THAT IS from whence wisdom must come.1

An example of the discernment of wisdom in action is that modeled by the Master himself recounted in the Analects. When a disciple asks Confucius why he gives dif¬fering answers to two individuals for a similar situation, Confucius replies that his judgment was based on these distinguishing factors: first, to the individual whose personality was inclined to rash action, the Master advised a prudent restraint; for the second individual, to offset his natural reticent response, he instead encour¬aged him to take immediate action (Rosemont, 2013).

Zhi and AI
How then does zhi manifest in the Appreciative Inquiry process? One possible example is given by Laura Hsu in her case study of the merger of a Taiwanese com¬pany with a US company. Hsu observed that, after an AI intervention, the company that perceived change as “self-generated” was better positioned to move toward a positive future, whereas the other company required additional facilitation to guide its employees to reframe a mutually positive future.

Confucius placed a great emphasis on the importance of rites and rituals, and Neena Verma’s “7i Generative Mandala” although based on Hindu rituals, beautifully illustrates how the Sacred can penetrate into the Profane even at the corporate level.

The stories reflect the theme of ‘heart/mind” – from Vincent Hsu and Leo Mao’s work with the medical rescue first responders at the earthquake in western China, to Patricia Nunis’ work with women’s groups – each resonate with what Gallagher (1998, p. 139) refers to as “the ‘capacities of the heart’ in its strivings for wonder, searching, listening and receptivity”.

There are rewards to be had by not just reading once but rereading the articles again and again, for each time you do, more gems will be uncovered and revealed that is also in keeping with Eastern traditions. Indeed, in this, AI may be the ideal meeting point of East and West – after all, AI practitioners in the West find the selfsame rewards each time they “open” the eyes of their clients to see beyond the world of objective reality toward the rich possibilities that lie waiting to be discovered just this side of phenomenal existence.

1 Rosemont references Nathan Sivin, who has made detailed studies of Chinese, medical, astronomical, alchemical, mathematical and other sciences, to illustrate that it is the aesthetic, ethical and religious dimensions of our lives that make our lives truly human (See Rosemont’s Reader’s Companion, p. 34).

Ames, R. and Rosemont, H., trans. (1999) The Analects of Confucius: A Philosophical Translation (Classics of Ancient China). New York: Random House Publishing.
Gallagher, M. (1998) Clashing Symbols: An Introduction to Faith & Culture. New York and Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press.
Hall, D. L. (1991) “Modern China, Post-Modern West,” Culture and Modernity: East-West Philosophic Perspectives. In Deutsch, Eliot (Eds). Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
Rosemont, H. (2013) A Reader’s Companion to the Confucian Analects. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Access the full issue: http://www.aipractitioner. com/appreciative-inquiry-practitioner-august-2013

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