Action research and its application in a business-based organisational setting



Dulmanis, P., McKenzie, K., Krooglik, W., Pejnovic, D.





The paper briefly overviews the use of Action Research (AR) methodology with an emphasis on its potential application in the business setting. From its effective beginnings and the work of Lewin, AR has been extensively used in the area of behavioural science. As a phenomenological based methodology it can be associated with a number of other qualitative research methods including case study, ethnography, grounded theory, hermeneutics and participative enquiry. Its use in the government and institutional sectors does not appear to be matched by its application in the broader business and organisational context where issues such as market share, profits, operations management, productivity and financial management are issues of paramount importance (Gummesson, 1991). Given its applied research approach, AR has the potential to be an important business research tool in its own right or in conjunction with one or more other qualitative methodologies.


Applying Action Research to a Business - Based Organisational Setting


AR does not have a prescriptive methodology, but has prevailing methods such as placing an emphasis on practical problems in social science with a commitment to collaboration.


The characteristics of the most common types of AR can be summarised as (Neuman, 1997):


i. Those being studied or the objects of the research participate in the research process.
ii. Research incorporates ordinary or popular knowledge.
iii. Research focuses on power with a goal to empowerment.
iv. Research seeks to raise awareness.
v. Research is tied directly to political action.


To meet its goals of research and action, researchers try to equalise power relationships between themselves and the research subjects. They advance or improve the conditions of the subjects by empowering them to learn and take actions for improvement. Since the solution is tested, by acting on it, to see whether it produces the consequences it implies, action research, unites thinking and doing or theory and practice (Susman and Evered, 1978).


Potential attraction for business organizations


This immediacy of AR where knowledge is gained by linking with the role of the subject and converted to action usually in attempting to solve poorly structured problems, make it appear attractive for problematical situations in social systems such as organisational change programs in business.


However the use of AR in business, introduces potential complications and complexities. For example unlike other research methodologies where the entire research project is controlled by the researcher or practitioner, an AR project is an alliance or partnership between possibly four groups:


i. The sponsor ii. The practitioner iii. The research subjects iv. The scientific community


Like all true partnerships, this ideally infers consensus on goals and clarity of purpose, equal power, control and decision - making. These would appear to be achievable for the highly participative community social political action or classroom projects covered by much of the AR literature, such as feminist or environmental issues or oppressed minority causes. The position changes when business norms are added however typical business norms or imperatives would most likely be included into any substantive organisational AR project. These imperatives could include predefined project outcomes, value for money or payback for the sponsor, concern for totally open empowerment of the participants and the ethics and ultimate confidentiality of intimate project knowledge of data. The introduction of these would appear to immediately cause contention with an open sharing, collaborative AR project where outcomes are vague and the research focus and methodology require new definition as the project and findings evolve. This appears to introduce major complexity for any level of collaborative partnership between the four partners identified.


Summary recommendations


To minimise compromise and confusion of purpose within a broad stakeholder community, a business focused action research project can be considered as two projects: i. An action research ideology project ii. A thesis research methodology.


Essentially one variant of the project meets Organisational Development (OD), change agent or consulting goals and the other meets the needs of a rigorous thesis research methodology. Instead of one unlikely, compromised, partnership between four stakeholders, two collaborative special purpose partnerships are developed. The research problem or question may differ with a subset of the overall project actions or solutions used for the research.


The project write up for the thesis purpose would most likely contain greater insights to the methodology used, reflections on findings and their broader research implications rather than the solutions or actions.


The OD or consulting project report may follow conventions for a management or executive recommendation. Eden and Huxham (1997) provide a comprehensive outline along with a series of guidelines for the need to separate AR research objectives from consulting or OD objectives.


Further Action Research Readings and Reference Article Summaries


The following summaries provide a broad range of AR overviews as well as social and business applications within the government, institutional and business sectors.


Aguinis, H. (1993) "Action Research and Scientific Method: Presumed Discrepancies and Actual Similarities" in Journal of Applied Behavioural Research, Dec. 93, Vol. 29, Issue 4, pp.416-432.


This article attempts to bridge the action research methodology and scientific method methodology by reviewing their common roots and by analysing the assumptions underlying three frequently noted discrepancy between the two forms of enquiry:


1. The treatment of (multivariate) causality

2. The setting of the experiment or intervention (Field versus laboratory) and the use of a control group

3. The use of qualitative versus quantitative data.


The evidence presented suggests that despite the differences between AR and SM, these three presumed discrepancies are actually similarities. In addition, AR and SM seem to be less distant philosophically than some recent comparisons have recognised. The article provides a good brief summary of both methods before highlighting the differences based upon literature review. The author then focuses upon the three above key areas to examine where apparent differences can be seen as similarities. This article is useful to gain a fuller understanding of the action research (and scientific methodology) and provides a solid bibliography to act as a launching pad for further reading.


Clark, Peter A. (1972) "Action Research and Organisational Change" Harper & Row, London.


This book, although a little dated, has some valuable insights into the use of the behavioural sciences to facilitate organisational change. In particular it focuses on action research as a strategy for facilitating and learning about organisational change. Clark contends that "the context of the organisation into which an innovation is being introduced requires careful mapping to reveal its actual structural and attitudinal profile so that the method of implementing the innovation can be matched to the situation", and provides some insight on this matter. In relation to organisational change, he discusses the controversies on issues such as selecting points of intervention, characteristics of problem ownership and degree of formalisation of the problems. He presents seven case studies that illustrate different approaches to organisational change. Discussion is given on the role of the sponsors and that of the practitioners who undertake parts of the diagnosis and change program. A collaborative model for this relationship is tendered. The role of the practitioner is vital for it may determine the point of intervention and the process of action research.


Cunningham, J. Barton, (1995) "Strategic Considerations in Using Action Research for Improving Personnel Practices". Public Personnel Management, Winter 95, Vol. 24, Issue 4, p515.


The paper examines the achievements and the action research methodology used to improve human resource procedures and managerial practices in a Canadian community services organization over a period of fifteen months. The discussion covers the broad concepts and methodology behind action research but its main focus is grounded in the practical application and the final outcomes of the process itself. These include the development of job descriptions, a performance appraisal system, a strategic plan, an integrative employee relations process and a team management process. The paper emphasizes the importance of identifying and selecting the appropriate strategic approach and choice in terms of addressing a number of issues. These included, top versus bottom-up change, information gathering versus facilitation, changing people versus organizational structures, resolving technical versus people problems, using power versus a participatory approach and defining the relationship between organizational versus active research activities. Overall, the paper provided an extremely practical and relevant template for using the active research process in a particular environment to generate a number of successful outcomes.


Eden, C. and Huxham, C. (1997) "Action Research for the Study of Organizations" in Clegg, S.R., Hardy, C & Nord, W. R. (ed), Handbook of Organizational Studies, Sage Publications, London.


While action research is gaining popularity as a research method to study organizations, it may in fact be gaining negative connotations from its loose definition, wide ranging use, lack of repeatability and possibly lack of rigour. The authors focus on this context by detailing 15 characteristics that in their view can qualify an action research project as robust research. Given the complexity and pressures of the real world, conforming to the 15 characteristics is acknowledged as a major challenge however the authors argue this should not be a deterrent. This highlights some real world issues. Action researchers are close relatives to consultants. It is highly possible that consultancy can confuse and conflict with research standards. Academics value their ability to consult as way of informing and legitimising their teaching and receiving additional income. Consultancy to achieve desired outcomes may not coincide with good research. The sponsoring organization may be concerned with the outcome and getting value for money and not the research. The 15 characteristics are described in considerable detail and provide important research integrity checkpoints, particularly for a participatory researcher also acting as a consultant to the project under study.


Israel B.A. and Schurman, S.J. (1992) "Conducting Action Research: Relationships Between Organisation Members and Researchers" in Journal of Applied Behavioural Science, Vol. 28, Issue 1, pp. 74-102.


Action research in an organisation setting draws the researcher and the employees involved into a joint process aimed at meeting both research objectives and intervention objectives. This article examines the relationship issues surrounding action research methodology in relationship to the researcher and participants, and points out that this relationship will have an effect on the outcome of the research. It examines the changing nature of the relationship over time as the research project passes through its different cycles. The author examines role-related tensions that may arise out of the issues of values and interests, resources and skills, control, political reality and costs. A six-year action research project inside an organisation was used to gather data and draw conclusions around relationship related issues. The author concludes with practical suggestions relating to the issues studied. In addition, the article has a useful comprehensive summary of the action research methodology including the issues surrounding this research type. This article is useful for a researcher to understand the issues related to relationships in the action research process and is recommended for any one considering this methodology. It is available on the EBSCO host at the Swinburne library.


Kemmis, S. (1992) "Action Research in Retrospect and Prospect" The Action Research Reader, Deakin University.


This article focuses on the application of action research within education. It attempts to bridge the gap between "those who poses knowledge which claims to be of vital importance in the development of practice (the researcher), and those who must have it for their work". On the one hand researchers ought to be at arms length to encourage objectivity and on the other hand need to be involved to better understand the lived experience that they intend to interpret.


Action research is a way of bridging this gap as it allows the researcher to gain feedback on the interventions that may be proposed. In the right situation, the receiver of the knowledge, in this case teachers, can themselves function as researchers. Reference is made to the works of Kurt Lewin, the acknowledged founder of action research and this provides a useful historical background.


Lederman, NG. and Niess ML., "Action Research: Our Actions May Speak Louder Than Our Words", School Science and Mathematics, December 97, Vol. 97, Issue 8, p 397.


This article is education system based and aims to facilitate the development of reflective practitioners who can make professional decisions through continuing enquiry. Action research is viewed as an established methodology for research with rigorous conventions but distinguished from traditional research by its general purpose and the involved role of the researcher. It alerts us to the importance of training the novice researcher who might otherwise carry out an inadequately designed investigation and include anecdotal data collection and analysis. Whilst this provides good warning, the article does not prescribe the right way. Despite its educational based leanings, the article can provide some contribution to the researcher considering action research.


McNiff, J. (1988) "Action Research: Principles and Practice", MacMillan Education Publishing, UK, (Only Chapter 1 Reviewed).


The first chapter of this book introduces action research describing it as "an increasingly popular movement in educational research". The focus is on teaching and the educational research applications of this methodology. It emphasises a differentiating characteristic of the methodology with the phrase "it is research WITH, rather than research ON". The chapter article is a good initial reading on AR for the uninitiated as an introduction to the methodology as the language is plain and simple, apparently focused upon an audience of practicing teachers interested in using this approach for the first time. It would be of little value for researchers already well versed in the methodology.


McTaggart, R. (1992) "Action Research: Issues in Theory and Practice" Keynote address to the Methodological Issues in Qualitative Health Research Conference, November 27,1992, Deakin University Geelong.


The paper provides a brief but definitive overview of the historical evolution and broader meaning of "action research" from its earliest identifiable beginnings in 1913 and the work of J.L. Moreno to its evolution and recognition as a research methodology through the efforts and contribution of K. Lewin. Of particular interest is the intellectual and practical examination of the traditional concept of "action research" in the Lewinian tradition and the newer concept of "participatory action research". The paper touches on the differences between "knowledge production" through action research and the concepts of action learning. The author provides a useful overview of the more salient traditional and post modern criticisms of action research whilst at the same time pointing out the benefits of the methodology through citing specific action research projects and their outcomes. The paper is of great benefit in terms of its overall incisive but thorough approach to examining and defining the concepts, evolution and benefits of "action research" methodology.


Morgan, G. and Smircich, L. (1980) "The Case for Qualitative Research", Journal of Management Review, vol.5 , No. 4, pp. 491 - 500.


Within the debated divide between quantitative and quantitative research methods, Morgan and Smircich argue that the dichotomy between the two rival methods is rough and oversimplified. In their view the debate is not about the choice of adequacy of the right method for collecting and analysing data, but understanding the researcher’s core assumptions about the nature of the phenomena to be investigated. These phenomena are human nature, ontology or the theory of reality, epistemology or the study of gaining knowledge and methodology. The phenomena are categorised into a spectrum of views about human beings and their world as held by social scientists from early history (Plato, Descartes etc.) through to the currently repeated challenges between the "scientific" view of knowledge and the "humanistic" one. Morgan and Smircich depict this spectrum in a table with subjective approaches (learning from senses or experiences) at one extreme and objective at the other (I believe there is an answer). As researchers we have a choice about how we view our subject of study. If we view it within an objective or concrete process frame, then this infers a closed world with network of determinate relationships that allow accurate observation and measurement (a machine metaphor). This position infers an appropriate use of quantitative methods as used in natural sciences and translated into social science context.


Towards the other end of the spectrum, the ontological assumptions are relaxed and the world is viewed in a frame where the subjects of study are not only difficult to measure accurately but also contribute to changes in a surrounding open environment. This infers that different approaches for research and study are required that possibly tend towards qualitative methods. This paper strongly puts forward the case for aligning the research method to the chosen view or assumptions held by the researcher. The spectrum concept reinforces the view that the categories are not distinct binary definitions or boundaries and therefore the research method decision need not also be a binary choice between quantitative and qualitative.


Prideaux, G. (1990) "Action Research, Organisation Change and Management Development", Australian Health Review, vol. 13, No. 1.


Action research simultaneously combines action with research. Prideaux stresses the point that action research and its family member, action learning are powerful activities that should be used in organisational settings rather than educational institutions. He presents a simple diagram that defines its objectives in this setting.


From his experiences in working with action research to effect change within organisational settings, Prideaux alludes to the difficulties of linking management responsibility with effective action research based programs due to impacts such as multiple sources of change and in his reported case a "loosely coupled" organisational structure which complicated coordination and control. Other impacts include dealing with the shadow side of organizations and the priority given towards technical systems change over the accompanying human or people change issues.


Practical experience added further insights to theory such as:


·      Because real change in real organisations is involved, the research needs to be dynamic as many events are not predictable.