Adapting co-creation to improve inclusion

In business schools, collaboration and co-creation in teaching, research and enterprise activity are now central to the vision for how business and management knowledge creates impact in the world (BAM/Chartered ABS, 2021).

In this vision, business and management knowledge is (at least partly) co-created with governments, non-government organisations, and publics, to shape public value, in ways which are driven by responsibility and ethics. This may not be a new vision, given its resonances with the engaged scholarship model articulated over two decades ago (Boyer, 1996; Van de Ven, 2007), but it has received renewed and increasingly shared support from professional and learned bodies involved in shaping the business and management knowledge ecosystem (BAM/Chartered ABS, 2021).

There is no shortage of collaborative approaches which speak to the engaged scholarship model, and a crude simplification might characterise them as outside-in, inside-out, and third space approaches to engaging people and places.

Inside-out models are perhaps the most well established in business schools, and can involve taking ‘knowledge’ out to organisations and working collaboratively to create impact. Knowledge Transfer Partnerships are a good example that have maintained a 40 year longevity so far. The development of Management KTPs accentuates the need for co-creation and collaboration with others; perhaps more so than typical development and testing of new technologies (though of course this might not be true in the case of new artificial intelligence developments).

Outside-in models are now commonplace in business school teaching, for example, bringing in guest speakers from industry or bringing in live or living case studies from organisations (Grassberger and Wilder, 2015).  Entrepreneur in residence schemes have also become popular, along with innovative artist or philosopher in residence schemes which disrupt from the inside. Teaching, learning, and research approaches which engage business and management knowledge from the outside are perhaps more typical in executive education and postgraduate taught/research programmes. Here, approaches which engage and disrupt the experiential knowledge of managers include action inquiry, action learning, and collaborative or cooperative inquiry. Chandler and Torbert’s (2003) synthesis still provides a rich framework to indicate the diversity in practice.

In contrast, third spaces are perhaps less common in and around business schools. There are different theories about third spaces, but they typically refer to the idea of stepping out of pre-existing roles, places, and/or spaces to do things differently and drive change from those with a stake in that change (Scott, 2020). One example, is the Student as Partner movement, where students shift variably from consumer to equal alongside a range of other stakeholders in the learning relationship (Healey, Flint & Harrington, 2014 ). Another example is Appreciative Inquiry which remains uncommon in business schools. Appreciative Inquiry typically evokes an atypical third space partly because of the appreciative stance rather than a critical problem solving approach (Wall, Moore & Russell, 2017). It draws from the potential of positive emotion:

There is now strong evidence that positive emotions are worth cultivating, not only as ends in themselves but also as a means of achieving success and psychological growth, improved mental and physical health, more satisfying and lasting social and marital relationships, and even more societal changes (Quoidbach et al., 2015, p. 655).

Appreciative Inquiry was intended to flex and adapt to meet the specific change aspirations and context, but follows a process of discovery (what gives life, what’s working well?), dream (what might be an ideal?), design (what would need to be in place or how it would work?), and destiny (what needs to be done to deliver the dream – and then doing it) (Cooperrider and Srivastva 1987, Cooperrider 2017).

In working through such stages, it is possible to imagine applications in teaching (e.g. curriculum design), research (e.g. answering a research question through a collaborative process of data collection, analysis, and change implementation), and knowledge exchange (e.g. working collaboratively to design and deliver a mutually desirable impact intervention). When expressed in these ways, it is also possible to imagine that an Appreciative Inquiry intervention has all of these aspects as part of the process, but which are not described or experienced as teaching, research or knowledge exchange are typically understood. The focus can become the change itself.

Third spaces create ambiguous spaces where roles have to be re-established, but importantly, inclusion in these spaces is not automatic and reflects patterns of marginalisation in wider sociocultural systems in organisations and society. For example, in our recent British Academy project, we utilised Appreciative Inquiry to re-vision Decent Work for minority ethnic students and graduates in Vietnam (the study involved 1275 survey responses, 117 interviews plus 120 people in Appreciative Inquiry sessions across 3 areas of Vietnam).

We organised the Appreciative Inquiry as policy development workshops including minority ethnic students, graduates, employers and policy makers from government and NGOs. To put this in context, these were groups that represented some of the most privileged (policy makers from some of the powerful urban centres and institutions) with some of the most marginalised (minority ethnic young people from rural areas), and would not normally collaborate in such ways. Our aim was that collectively, through Appreciative Inquiry workshops, the participants would co-create a new vision for Decent Work across Vietnam and a plan to achieve it (this work will be published elsewhere soon).

Our learning highlighted that long-established marginalisation needed adaptations to our co-creation through Appreciative Inquiry which worked beyond the interactional design in the sessions. Here are some of the practical insights which might apply to other co-creation environments with groups with significant power differentials:

  • Unconditionally validating diversity outside of the co-creation space. From the start of the project we created a Youth Advisory Panel (YAP) which helped the project team make decisions about all aspects of the project. For example, YAP helped interpret the research that already existing about Decent Work in Vietnam, from their perspective, and guided how data would be collected.
    Within our approach, each individual needed to "feel felt", that is, that they felt that they and their needs were affirmatively understood as valid human beings. This was an important part of developing trust for them to feel they could speak up to the project team, something that they would not normally do. As part of this unconditional validation, the young people decided to celebrate the diversity of cultures through sharing stories and photographs of cultural celebrations on dedicated social media pages.


  • Building validation and confidence prior to the co-creation space. We realised that some young people were not familiar, nor comfortable, with openly talking in meetings. The team created multiple opportunities to develop the skills and confidence with the young people to build sufficient confidence and self-efficacy so they felt able to contribute confidently in the appreciative inquiry spaces. There were a range of mentoring opportunities including talking practise in the meetings, chairing meetings, mentoring and coaching from the project team, and ongoing encouragement and assurances.


  • Enabling individual voice in co-creation space. Each Appreciative Inquiry workshop was organised into tables with a group of up to 6 on each table, which were then facilitated through the phases of the process (e.g. discovery, dream, etc). Two main adjustments to the procedures were made to enable the young people to feel comfortable in speaking. First, we adjusted the balance of young people to stakeholders in the sessions: there was one policy-maker or employer per table of young people at any one time, and they rotated after a pre-planned time period, so that the immediate pressure of interacting was time-limited. Second, we designed the interaction so that the first step of each of the phases (e.g. discovery, dream, etc) would be individual reflection time where each individual would write or draw their reflections before sharing with the group. They would then relay this back to their table for dialogue and discussion. This aimed to manage the power dynamics of those who might otherwise dominate dialogue and discussion.


  • Visibly recognising individuals as powerful and insightful contributors in the co-creation space. We intentionally positioned and affirmed minority ethnic young people as people with powerful ideas and insights, and as leaders. We did this in two ways. First, we invited members of our YAP to offer their motivational stories about Decent Work to open or host elements of the Appreciative Inquiry workshops. Second, after individuals and tables had discussed their responses for each phase of the process (e.g. discovery, dream, etc), there was a whole group plenary. This often involved one of the minority ethnic young people sharing or synthesising the findings in front of the whole group. This was a symbolically important as it represented each young person as contributing positively to the voice of a wider collective which included powerful policy makers and employers. This would not typically be the case so was about reasserting a different perception to the young people themselves and to the policy makers and employers.

The results of using Appreciative Inquiry seem promising, as the young people have already told us about developing different aspirations for work, increased confidence and self-efficacy, and new behaviours relating to networking and finding opportunities. Some of the young people are starting new jobs and new ventures with the policy makers and employers involved. We are also learning about new policy movements as a result, revolving around the increasing connectedness of disparate policy practitioners and interventions that focus on employability empowerment.

Inclusion in creating such impacts through co-creation methods for teaching, research and knowledge exchange, is not automatic. It needs collective effort and time, especially in an individually constructed higher education system where there are tensions with collective outcomes.

For example, how do you balance the assessment of individual vs collective efforts in collaborative outcomes? How do you value different roles and contributions when they are all essential to achievement of change? How do you re-organise business schools to deliver change, despite decades of systemic marginalisation of those involved in teaching, learning, assessment, research and knowledge exchange? These are big, difficult questions which is perhaps accentuated in co-creation efforts.

These are not new and they are certainly not unsurmountable (Wall and Jarvis, 2015). Our lessons are inspired by appreciative ideas, moving from a deficit perspective (away from the idea of ‘fixing’ participants) to a recognition perspective (to value everyone’s voice in a room especially those who have been marginalised). This for us, has been an expression of the vision for how business and management knowledge can create impact in the world (BAM/Chartered ABS, 2021), and our continued learning about how to realise the broader social ambitions for Decent Work globally.



Boyer, E. L.(1996) The scholarship of engagement. Journal of Public Service & Outreach. 1 (1), pp. 11–20.

Grassberger, R. and Wilder, S. (2015), "Impacting student learning using a living case study", Higher Education, Skills and Work-Based Learning, Vol. 5 No. 4, pp. 369-382.

Van de Ven, A.H. (2007) Engaged Scholarship: A Guide for Organizational and Social Research, Oxford, Oxford University Press.


 By Professor Tony Wall CMBE, Liverpool Business School, Dr Ann Hindley, University of Chester Business School , Dr Minh Phuong Luong, Hanoi University, Dr Thi Hanh Tien Ho, Phu Xuan University and Dr Nga Ngo, Tay Bac University.