What is Grounded Action Inquiry?

In the current political and economic landscape, organisations are often confronted with volatile and changing environments where more is expected, more quickly, with fewer resources available. In this context it can be tempting to seek instant answers: however, these often provide transient solutions at best. The use of Action Inquiry (AI) as an organisational change tool is about identifying ways for organisations to name and tackle problems for themselves, in a way that is both transformative and sustainable (Ellis and Kiely, 2000).

AI is an iterative, cyclical process of improved knowledge through action, and new/improved action through reflection. It can be undertaken at three levels, which also inter-relate with each other. First-person AI is self-inquiry, a process of bringing awareness to our thoughts, feelings and actions in an organisational context. Second-person AI involves joint inquiry with others into issues of mutual concern. Third-person AI seeks to bring a wider community, such as an organisation, into these processes. AI initiatives often involve all three levels. For example, second-person AI requires all participants to engage in self-reflection. As their understanding develops, participants may want to influence a wider system, and thus adopt third-person approaches.

Third-person AI is a way of organising people, knowledge and resources to achieve reflection, increased clarity and new/improved actions across the domains of organisational mission, strategy, performance and outcomes. It supports the development of shared visions and strategies, embeds collaborative ways of communicating, and involves shared learning and decision-making about how to apply this learning to create the potential for organisational change. It also explicitly aims to create sustainability, and focuses on the effectiveness, integrity, identity, and adaptability of organisations as part of wider socio-political and economic environments (Torbert, 2004).

Third-person AI operates as a process of joint inquiry via groups or ‘sets’. These can be designed in many ways: for instance, through existing organisational communication structures such as team/management meetings, or through the formation of new groups. It creates opportunities for employees at all levels to take part and create their own knowledge and actions relevant to their own specific situation.  Employees shape the starting point(s) for inquiry and, through a process of reflective discussion, agree and take actions to enable change, and reflect on its impact. Fresh insights and understandings are developed through continuing spirals of action, and reflection on/evaluation of action (Carr, 1986). This cyclical process increases the capacity to support individual personal development, improved managerial practice, and creates possibilities for organisational change (Ellis and Kiely, 2000).

Our Grounded Action Inquiry methodology involves ‘grounding’ this Action Inquiry process in research data on institutional culture. Through this approach, Action Inquiry can be used in a targeted way to begin the process of cultural change. Grounded Action Inquiry involves a number of steps:

(1) Data collection on institutional culture using a simple survey and focus groups;

(2) Analysis of this data to come up with a description of the institution’s culture and themes for further discussion;

(3) An Action Inquiry process through which staff and students at all levels of the institution come together to discuss the themes and think about/try possible actions.

We piloted our Grounded Action Inquiry methodology, with much success, at Imperial College London. We are now developing resources to make this widely available throughout the higher education sector.


Ellis, J.H.M & Kiely, J.A (2000) The promise of action inquiry in tackling organisational problems in real time. Action research international
Torbert, B (2004) Action Inquiry: The Secret of Timely and Transforming Leadership. San Francisco: BK
Carr, W. & Kemmis, S (1986) Becoming critical: education, knowledge and action research. London: Falmer Press

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