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Anatomy of Agile Enterprise

Janne J. Korhonen

Work Systems and Requisite Inquiry

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In my previous post, I expounded upon Hoebeke's (1994) notion that work is vertically organized as recursively interlinked work system domains and postulated a link between these structural domains and the ontological domains of the Cynefin framework (Kurtz and Snowden, 2003). In the following, I will further posit what the epistemological underpinnings of the work system domains would be. To this end, I will turn to Churchman (1971), for a systems point of view, and King and Kitchener (1994), for a developmental-psychological point of view. In the end, I will take a look at some practical implications of the ideas.

Churchman: Inquiring Systems

Churchman (1971) looked at the history of epistemology from a systems point of view and distinguished five archetypal inquiring systems -- epistemological viewpoints from which people inquire into knowledge and truth. He named these inquiring systems after great philosophical minds as Leibnizian, Lockean, Kantian, Hegelian, and Singerian.

Laske (2008) sees the Churchmanian inquiring systems as related by a developmental logic and hence contextualizable with Requisite Organization (Jaques, 1998), the metatheoretical backdrop for Hoebeke's (1994) scheme. I concur with the general notion, but differ slightly in the conjecture of how the inquiring systems would pertain to requisite strata, specifying that each vertical work system domain (cf. my prior post) would have its "requisite inquiring system" as follows:

  • Value-added domain: Lockean
  • Innovation domain: Kantian
  • Value systems domain: Hegelian
  • Spiritual domain: Singerian

(The Leibnizian inquiring system is a closed system with a set of axioms that, along with formal logic, are used to generate fact nets or tautologies. It is thereby a relatively uninteresting inquiring system from the organization's point of view.)

King and Kitchener: Reflective Judgment Model

As individuals are constitutive of the collective, their cognitive abilities must be on a par with the inquiring system they are engaging with. A commensurate model of epistemic position at the micro-level appears to be the Reflective Judgment Model (RJM) (King and Kitchener, 1994).

The Reflective Judgment Model describes the development of complex reasoning in late adolescents and adults, focusing on individuals' underlying assumptions about knowledge and how it is gained. The RJM identifies seven stages in the development of reflective thinking, each stage representing a qualitatively different epistemological perspective: what are the limits of one's knowing, what is the notion of truth, how are beliefs justified.

Laske (2008) also suggests a mapping between the Reflective Judgment Model and the inquiring systems of Churchman. With the aforementioned adjustment to requisite strata, I would align the two models with Hoebeke's (1994) work system domains as illustrated in Figure 1.


Figure 1. Work system domains (Hoebeke, 1994), stages of reflective judgment (King and Kitchener, 1994), and respective inquiring systems (Churchman, 1971).

Stages 4 and 5 of RJM represent quasi-reflective thinking. Knowledge is not simply accepted from others as in prereflective thinking of stages 1 to 3, but seen as an abstraction that is internally constructed. Uncertainty and evidence are recognized as parts of the knowing process.

Stages 6 and 7of RJM represent reflective thinking. Reflective thinkers understand knowledge claims in relation to the context in which they were generated, while remaining open to reevaluating their conclusions in the face of new evidence.

Requisite Inquiring Systems

In the following, I will discuss the requisite epistemological underpinnings of each work system domain (Hoebeke, 1994) in terms of the Churchmanian inquiring systems (Churchman, 1971) and the stages of reflective judgment (King and Kitchener, 1994).

Added-Value Domain: Consensual

A Lockean inquiring system (Churchman, 1971) is empirical and consensual. It is an open system that inductively learns from external observations. A network of increasingly more general "facts" is deduced from elementary sense data (Wood, 1990). The exploratory ways in which other concepts can be derived from the base concepts are not directly tied to empirical evidence or even logical inference (Laske, 2008). The guarantor of the system is the consensus by the Lockean community on the labels that are assigned to the system inputs (Courtney et al., 1998).

The convergent and consensus building emphasis of the Lockean inquiry system is suited for stable and predictable organizational environments (Malhotra, 1997), i.e. within the added-value domain (Hoebeke, 1994).

The view of knowledge is that it is uncertain, characterized by ambiguity due to situational variables (e.g. incorrect reporting of data, lost data, disparities in information access), and that knowledge claims are idiosyncratic to the individual. Beliefs are justified by giving idiosyncratic reasons and evidence. (King and Kitchener, 1994).

Innovation Domain: Contextual

A Kantian inquiring system (Churchman, 1971) synthesizes rationalism and empiricism, reconciling the Leibnizian and Lockean inquiry modes. It is able to interpret inputs and generate hypotheses based on what the system already knows and to create and incorporate new knowledge. The guarantor of the system is the fit between data and model (Courtney et al., 1998). However, due to multiple alternative models, an input is subject to different interpretations and there is no guarantee that the model represents the best solution. The plurality of complementary solutions may cause a "competency trap" (Malhotra, 1997).

Kantian inquiry systems are best suited for moderate ill-structured problems (Malhotra, 1997) that characterize the innovation domain (Hoebeke, 1994).

Knowledge is viewed as contextual, subjective and interpretative. It is filtered through a person's perceptions and criteria for judgment, i.e. Kantian categories. Beliefs are justified within a particular context by means of context-specific rules of inquiry and interpretations of evidence. (King and Kitchener, 1994).

Value Systems Domain: Constructive

A Hegelian inquiring system (Churchman, 1971) is dialectical in the sense that knowledge is created through a conflictual thesis-anti-thesis-synthesis pattern, which "is a soaring to greater heights, to self-awareness, more completeness, betterment, progress" (Churchman, 1971). The guarantor of the system is synthesis that opposes the conflict between the thesis and its anti-thesis (Courtney et al., 1998).

"Taken-for-granted" interpretations of "pre-packaged" best practices are problematic when multiple and contradictory viewpoints need to be generated. The Hegelian process ensures that knowledge is subjected to continual re-examination and modification vis-à-vis the changing reality (Malhotra, 1997) characteristic to the value systems domain (Hoebeke, 1994).

Knowledge is constructed into individual conclusions about illustrated problems based on cross-domain information. Interpretations are based on evaluations of evidence across contexts and on the evaluated opinions of reputable others. Beliefs are justified by comparing evidence and opinion from different perspectives and contexts. Categories of comparison and evaluation are constructed. (King and Kitchener, 1994).

Spiritual Domain: Considerate

A Singerian inquiring system (Churchman, 1971) is progressive like the Hegelian one, but more precise and explicit. Singer chose as his starting point metrology, the science of measurement. There are two basic principles guiding Singerian inquiry (Courtney et al., 1998): First, a system of measures specifies steps to be followed in resolving disagreements among members of a community. Second, the strategy of agreement intensifies the dialectical process: through refinement of measurement the inquiring system is brought to a stage where previously contrary hypotheses, both consistent at a specified level of refinement, will fail to be consistent (Churchman, 1971). "Sweeping in" new concepts, variables and laws governing them, inconsistencies in the model can be overcome.

To reconstruct the inquiring system, Singer calls for the "whole scope of inquiry", transcending any one discipline. As the Singerian inquiring system has no controller but authority and control are pervasive throughout the system, it must consider the whole breadth of inquiry in its attempt to authorize and control its procedures. As the inquiring system requires a cooperative environment, in which inquiry is needed to create cooperation and cooperation is needed to create inquiry, ultimately the design of a Singerian inquiring system becomes the design of the whole social system. (Churchman, 1971). This is the realm of the spiritual domain (Hoebeke, 1994).

Knowledge is the outcome of a process of reasonable inquiry, evaluating what is most reasonable or probable according to the evidence at hand, and it is reevaluated when relevant new evidence, perspectives, or tools of inquiry become available (King and Kitchener, 1994). The common ground of opposites is considered, and used to construct holistic perspectives (Laske, 2008). Beliefs are justified probabilistically on the basis of a variety of interpretive considerations, e.g. the weight of the evidence, the explanatory value of the interpretations, the risk of erroneous conclusions, consequences of alternative judgments, and the interrelationships of these factors. (King and Kitchener, 1994).

So What?

Each organizational work system and design artifact shall be conceived from the point of view of its meta-level epistemological foundations. The inquiring system must be at high enough level of abstraction, lest the modeling of the "object-level" system (van Gigch, 1993) can lead to dysfunctions and to system failures. The more wicked, or ill-structured, the problems faced, the higher level inquiring system is required.

Just as a scientific discipline must undergo a "revolution" (cf. Kuhn, 1962) to stay alive, organizational and social paradigms must evolve. Unless the very epistemological foundations are questioned, the inherent limitations of the hegemonic Weltanschauung cannot be surfaced and overcome. For instance, when the complexity of business environment mounts to the value systems domain in lieu of the innovation domain, context-specific knowledge falls short in the face of discontinuous change that calls for a more encompassing common ground, e.g. value innovation vs. product innovation -- a Hegelian inquiring system must then transcend the Kantian one.

Different vertical work system domains also place different demands on the people working in those domains. The cognitive development of a person along the epistemic dimension must be at a requisite level for him/her to adequately engage in the inquiring system of their predominant works system domain. For instance, a manager promoted to a higher level of complexity and abstraction may not be up to their task at the new level of inquiry. Working from his/her prior epistemic position in the more complex context may throw a monkey wrench into the work system and bring down the entire organization.

Strategic challenges of the organization are not effectively tackled with context-specific knowledge and understanding. The current predicament of the entire society is not addressed within any single discipline but requires a holistic, cross-paradigmatic approach and transdisciplinary measures. Recognizing the requisite inquiring system and respective epistemic demands for a work system at the level of its complexity and abstraction helps prevent systemic design faults and resulting dysfunctions.


Churchman, C.W. (1971). The design of inquiring systems: Basic concepts of systems and organization. New York: Basic Books.
Courtney, J.F., Croasdell, D.T. and Paradice, D.B. (1998). "Inquiring Organizations", Australian Journal of Information Systems, 6(1).
Gigch, J.P. van (1993). "Metamodeling: The Epistemology of System Science", Systems Practice, 6(3), pp. 251-258.
Hoebeke, L. (1994). Making Work Systems Better: A Practitioner's Reflections. John Wiley & Sons.
Jaques, E. (1998). Requisite Organization: A Total System for Effective Managerial Organization and Managerial Leadership for the 21st Century, Revised second ed. Baltimore, MD: Cason Hall & Co. Publishers.
King, P.M. and Kitchener, K.S. (1994). Developing Reflective Judgment. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.
Kuhn, T. (1962). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: Chicago University Press.
Kurtz, C.F. and Snowden, D.J. (2003). "The new dynamics of strategy: Sense-making in a complex and complicated world", IBM Systems Journal, 42(3), pp. 462-483.
Laske, O. (2008). Measuring Hidden Dimensions of Human Systems: Foundations of Requisite Organization. IDM Press.
Malhotra, Y. (1997). "Knowledge Management in Inquiring Organizations," in the Proceedings of 3rd Americas Conference on Information Systems (Philosophy of Information Systems Mini-track), Indianapolis, IN, August 15-17, 1997, pp. 293-295.
Ulrich, W. (1985). The Way of Inquiring Systems: "The Design of Inquiring Systems" by C. West Churchman, The Journal of the Operational Research, 36(9), pp. 873-876.
Wood, P.K. (1990). "Construct validity and theories of adult development: Testing for necessary but not sufficient relationships". In Commons, M.L., Armon, C., Kohlberg, L., Richards, F.A., Grotzer, T.A., and Sinnott, J.D. Adult Development, vol. 2. New York: Praeger.

1 Comment

I wrote the Encyclopedia of the Earth entry on Complex Systems to give an overview of the diversity of systems thinking models that developed over the past century. One of the great divides between them, looking broadly, is on whether "systems" are represented as mental constructs or addressed as physical things. http://www.eoearth.org/article/Complex_systems

It's remarkable how varied both ways of approach the subject are, and how generally disconnected, given that people are apparently all part of just one physical complex natural system. So I'm more interested in what might "tame the beast" of diversity so people can better understand what each other are talking about.

I do like the effort at discovering an overview of systems reasoning here. I also struggle with connecting the great esoteric natural philosophies with nature, while recognizing that others seem to struggle as much with my own approach, that uses direct references to individual working systems of nature as the subject matter of systems theory.

I think we have a problem to attend to, though, with a multiplication of non-connecting systems thinking languages. We need some kind of view that recognizes "knowledge" as a social construct which is easily confused with "reality". The way the history of systems science and practice have gone, like a bumbling professor loosing their pages of notes, the real system we are all studying and part of seems to keep getting left out! ;-)

Janne J. Korhonen provides insights into how information technology can be applied strategically to catalyze organizational change and responsiveness. Drawing from both theory and practice, he discusses agile enterprise and its governance.

Janne J. Korhonen

Janne J. Korhonen is an independent business and IT consultant,specializing in enterprise architecture, business process management,service-oriented architecture and pertinent governance models. He has over ten years of experience as an architect and consultant in a variety of extensive and mission-critical IT projects. With strong theoretical underpinnings, his consulting encompasses systemic co-development of business, organization and information technology.

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