The Human Capital Prism of Appreciative Inquiry: Generating New Practices for a Better Future
Appreciative Inquiry needs no introduction. It is a well-established field and has been used in many areas of organisational development and change. However, the use of Appreciative Inquiry by those in the HR profession has been relatively limited, because the entire HR ecosystem focuses on gaps and problem-solving.
Most HR consultants focus on gaps, partly because there is a greater commercial interest for ‘solutions’. Meanwhile, most business leaders are obsessed with gaps because they themselves are appraised on fixing problems. HR researchers and academics are fixated with gaps because the research paradigm is all about narrowing them, and HR-driven leadership programmes emphasise gaps because of the market demand.
“It is the 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."
According to Gervase R. Bushe, Professor of Leadership and Organisational Development at Simon Fraser University, “Appreciative Inquiry can be generative in a number of ways. It is the 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. When successful, appreciative inquiry generates spontaneous, unsupervised, individual, group and organizational action toward a better future.”
When we examined HR data analytics in Singapore, such programmes largely focus on HR problem-solving of human capital challenges or a perceived skills gap. Rarely do they focus on what is working well and on building the skills to ask the right questions. The effect of HR analytics when HR is disconnected from the business is well reflected in the quote below.
“Human resource (HR) analytics is touted to have the potential to bring great value to general managers’ and HR leaders' decision-making on human and organisation capital by supplementing intuition and experience with evidence. Yet, it currently risks becoming another management fad, because HR analytics has too often taken an "inside-out," HR-centric, and academic approach, being governed by a Center-of-Expertise (CoE) distant from the business.” 
We are not advocating an either/or orientation, and there is nothing inherently wrong with the "narrowing gaps" approach (we have done it ourselves). Our synthesis shows, however, that this is vastly overdone. It contributes to the amplification of "what's not working" and underplays the appreciation of "what's working well". In an era of rapid change, we need to balance the "gaps" approach that is grounded in change philosophy. What is working well may turn out to be the "solution" for what's not working well.
Appreciative Inquiry is a promising approach to take because it opens up pathways of rich possibilities and new thinking. There are two other reasons why Appreciative Inquiry is a valuable tool – and capability - for human capital practitioners.
First, appreciative questions can engage a broader segment of employees and balance out domineering C-suite voices – something that may cause discomfort for individual C-suite leaders. For example, what is seen as working well by employees may not be considered acceptable for C-suite leaders when it comes to providing a “solution”. But data is data, and this is probably more of a leadership issue.
Second, Appreciative Inquiry has the potential to unleash the energy of human capital because it focuses on positive emotions. This will work only if the question is asked in an appreciative, authentic manner and not just for the sake of being asked. Consider the two scenarios (using the annual performance meeting as an example) below. Which one is a more likely conversation in your organisation? Which one invokes higher positive emotions?
It is unlikely for the leader in Scenario B to link CRM changes with collaboration as an output. In this era of highly networked organisations, Scenario A would also provide valuable insights into what works, and what matters for the organisation.
^  Bushe, G. R. (2010) ‘Commentary on “Appreciative Inquiry as Shadow Process”.’ Journal of Management Inquiry, 19:3
^  Rasmussen, T., & Ulrich, D. (2015). Learning from practice: How HR analytics avoids being a management fad. Organizational Dynamics, 44(3), 236–242.