Appreciative Inquiry: Reflections on ‘the other AI’


Sonny Coloma

“The wild future of artificial intelligence” was the catchy title of the Atlantic Daily newsletter’s email that prompted me to reflect on AI’s emergence in the forefront of the digital revolution. Associate editor Isabel Fattal and staff writer Derek Thompson talked about how “OpenAI’s impressive new artificial-intelligence chatbot, ChatGPT, has intensified the debate over what the rise of AI-generated writing and art means for work, culture, education, and more.”

A few days ago, I read an essay that was written entirely through AI. I was a bit underwhelmed; it was “plain vanilla” instead of “banana split” in terms of content and writing quality. But the Atlantic duo are more impressed and optimistic. Mr. Thompson gleans that “some of the breakthroughs in generative AI in 2022 (are) potentially akin to the release of iPhone in 2007, or to the invention of the desktop,” and notes: “I think we should be humbled – and humble about predicting just how wild this thing could get in the next few years.”

He then proceeds to illustrate how he could, with the help of ChatGPT, turn a C+ essay on a topic such as the mRNA Covid vaccine into an A-work as AI enables people to literally “incorporate this second brain into their job.” According to Ms. Fattal, AI would eclipse human writers only if people would become “unaspiring.” This goes to the core of what constitutes human creativity – or if this could even be trumped by machine algorithm.

Humans would need to “learn how to write the most clever and helpful prompts in such a way that gives results that are actually useful.” In the meantime, the college essay and academic writing get a reprieve – and creative writers are urged to tap into the depths of their innate talent.

And yes, there’s another AI in which practitioners of organization development like myself are interested in: Appreciative Inquiry. This field of study was initiated and developed by Dr. David Cooperider of Case Western Reserve University. According to an anecdote, he told his doctoral dissertation panel that he did not want to formulate his research topic as a “problem.”

With such mindset, he developed an alternative theory of Appreciative Inquiry described as a collective discovery process using “1) grounded observation to identify the best of what is; 2) vision and logic to identify ideals of what might be; 3) collaborative dialogue and choice to achieve consent about what should be; and 4) collective experimentation to discover what can be.” Thus evolved the 4D method of 1) Discovery; 2) Dream; 3) Design; and 4) Destiny. Evidently, this involves a highly affirmative and optimistic outlook that is dedicated to the attainment of cherished ideals.

Dr. Cooperrider and his colleague Dr. Suresh Srivastava challenged the conventional problem-solving approach as they deemed it to be counter-productive. Believing that organizations are constrained only by human imagination and the shared beliefs of their members, they argued that the most important force for change were new ideas.

Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is generative; it is a “quest for new ideas, images, theories and models that liberate our collective aspirations, alter the social construction of reality and, in the process, make available decisions and actions that were not available or did not occur to us before.” As pointed out by Professor Gervasse Bushe of Simon Fraser University: “When successful, AI generates spontaneous, unsupervised, individual, group and organizational action toward a better future.” In sum, “words create worlds.”

In my work as a management professor, I practiced AI through the application of the discussion or case method of teaching. This was emulated by the Asian Institute of Management (AIM) from the Harvard Business School.

Graduate students in business management were regarded as adult learners, capable of generating creative solutions to address real-world challenges in the workplace and in the social milieu. Professors did their best to educe, evoke, or generate ideas that would lead to the creation of much improved scenarios and realities. After all, the word education comes from the Latin educere, which means to draw from or elicit.

I could still vividly recall three illustrious professors – Gabino Mendoza, Gaston Ortigas and Meliton Salazar – who were excellent case method teachers at AIM, each with his own unique style.

They would just stand in front of the class and signal that they were waiting for the case discussion to commence. In the case of Prof. Gaby, there were instances when, during an entire 80-minute class, he would have uttered one solitary word, or question: “So?” With that one word plus his imperial demeanor, he would succeed in enabling the students to spontaneously generate concrete approaches toward resolving organizational dilemmas.

Prof. Gasty was known for just simple gestures such as repeatedly nodding while saying, “Aha, aha.” This was enough to encourage students to articulate approaches toward resolving the key issues in a case study. Prof. Mel also talked sparsely, preferring to ask questions. During our final session on business policy, he told us: “It is more important to know the right questions to ask. The answers may become irrelevant when swept by the tides of change; but knowing what questions to ask opens to new opportunities to learn.”

And that is why I believe in the power of AI: Appreciative Inquiry.