Action Research and Organisation Development

Introduction of Action Research and Organisation Development

Action research attempts to meet the dual goals of making the action more effective and building a body of scientific knowledge around that action. Action in this context refers to programs and interventions designed to solve problems and improve conditions. Kurt Lewin, is a consummate applied social scientist and motivated methodology for behavioral science.

Lewin believed that research on action programs, especially social change programs, was imperative if progress were to be made in solving social problems.

Action Research: A Process and an Approach

Action research may be described as a process, that is, as an ongoing series of events and actions. It may be defined as follows:

Action research is the process of systematically collecting research data about an ongoing system relative to some objective, goal, or need of that system; feeding these data back into the system; taking actions by altering selected variables within the system based both on the data and on hypotheses; and evaluating the results of action by collecting more data.

This definition characterizes action research in terms of the activities of the process. First, the researcher takes a static picture of an organization.

Based on “what exists”, hunches and hypotheses suggest action; these actions typically entail manipulating variables in the systems that are under the action researcher’s control, which often means doing something differently from the way it has always been done.

Later, the researcher takes a second static picture of the system to examine the effects of the action. These steps are similar to the steps OD practitioners use when they execute OD programs.

Several authors have noted the importance of viewing action research as a process. In a study of the Tremont Hotel in Chicago, William F. Whyte and Edith L. Hamilton described their work as follows: What was the project?

It was an action-research program for management. We developed a process for applying human relations research findings to the changing organisation behavior. The world process is important, for this was not a one-shot affair.

The project involved a continuous gathering and analysis of human relations research data and the feeding of the findings into the organization in such a way as to change behavior.

The study by Whyte and Hamilton is a cogent example of the relation of action research to OD. Action research is a process in two different ways.

It is a sequence of events and activities within each iteration (data collection, feedback, and taking action based on the data); and is a cycle of iterations of these activities, sometimes treating the same problem several times and then moving to different problems.

Action research may also be described as an approach to problem-solving, thus suggesting its usefulness as a model, guide, or paradigm. Used in this way, action research may be defined as follows: Action research is the application of the scientific method of fact-finding and experimentation to practical problems requiring action solutions and involving the collaboration and cooperation of scientists, practitioners, and laypersons.

The desired outcomes of the action research approach are solutions to immediate problems and a contribution to scientific knowledge and theory. Viewing action research from this perspective reveals additional important features.

In viewing action research as an approach to problem-solving we note the following features: the centrality of objectives, and the different role requirements of the consultant/change agent vis-à-vis the clients.

Three additional features deserve discussion: first, the elements of the action research model that link it to the scientific method of inquiry; second, the collaborative relationships among scientists, practitioners, and laypersons that often is a component of action research; third, the increased richness of knowledge derived from action research programs.

These steps for the scientific method are identical to the steps outlined by Corey for action research:

The significant elements of a design for action research are:

  • The identification of a problem area about which an individual or a group is sufficiently concerned to want to take some action.

  • The selection of a specific problem and the formulation of a hypothesis or prediction that implies a goal and a procedure for reaching it. This specific goal must be viewed as the total situation.

  • The careful recording of actions taken and the accumulation of evidence to determine the degree to which the goal has been achieved.

  • The inference from this evidence of generalizations regarding the relationship between the actions and the desired goal. The actions and the desired goal.

  • The continuous retesting of these generalizations in action situations.

If the problem under attack is one of concern to many people, or if it is likely that the experiment will affect many people, action research should involve these people. It then becomes cooperative action research.

An example of applying action research to a typical organizational problem might be helpful. Suppose that the problem is unproductive staff meetings-they are poorly attended, members express low commitment and involvement in them, and they are generally agreed to be unproductive.

Suppose also that you are the manager in charge of both the meetings and the staff and that you desire to make the meetings more vital I and productive. Following the action research model, the first step is to gather data about the status quo. Assume the data have been gathered and that the data suggest the meetings are generally disliked and regarded as unproductive.

The next step is to search for the causes of the problem and to generate one or more hypotheses from which you deduce the consequences that will allow you to test the hypotheses. Say you come up with the following four hypotheses. Note that an action research hypothesis consists of two aspects: a goal and an action or procedure for achieving that goal.

  • Staff meetings will be more productive if I solicit and use agenda topics from the staff rather than have the agenda made up just by me.

  • Staff meetings will be more productive if I rotate the chair of the meeting among the staff rather than my always being chairperson.

  • Staff meetings will be more productive if we hold them once a week instead of twice a week.

  • I have always run the staff meetings in a brisk “all-business no-nonsense” fashion; perhaps if I encourage more discussion and am more open about how I am reacting to what is being said, then staff meetings will be more productive.

Each of these action research hypotheses has a goal, (better staff meeting productivity), and each has an action, or procedure, for achieving the goal. Additional work would be done to clarify and specify the goal and the actions.

Another distinguishing feature of action research is a collaboration between individuals inside the system clients and individuals outside the systems-change agents or researchers.

History of Action Research

John Dewey translated the scientific method of problem-solving into terms understandable to practitioners and laypersons that incorporated the ideas into action research several years later. Collier called this form of research action research.

Taking effective actions requires research that is directed at important problems. Also, the solutions must be relevant and feasible.

To be able to implement a good action plan requires the cooperation of the client. Action research afforded a means to mesh these diverse elements. The other major source of action research, social psychologist Kurt Lewin, was profoundly interested in applying social science knowledge to help solve social problems.

In the mid-1940s and early 1950s, Lewin and his students conducted action research projects in many different behavioral domains: Lewin applied action research principles to improving intergroup relations and to changing eating habits; For the Lewin group, action research linked experimentation and application, and the same time, people of science and people of action.

Varieties of Action Research

Action research projects may be directed toward diverse goals, which gives rise to several variations of the model. Lewin, for example, suggested two broad categories of action research: the investigation of general laws and the diagnosis of a specific situation.

The study of general laws leads to contributions to theory and practice, and generalizations about natural phenomena; the diagnosis of a specific situation leads to solving immediate, practical problems. Raymond Katzell identified three “varieties” of action research in the refinery action research project he conducted.

He found three types of situations in which the research consultant staff were providing data feedback to managers. The first situation was described as “adventitious,” that is, the research group happened to have already collected data that turned out to be quite useful to someone at a later time.

The second situation represented preplanned, systematic data collection on a refinery-wide basis, that is, a periodic pulse taking of the organization. The third situation was to work intensively with a small “demonstration” group, continuously collecting data on all sorts of topics and feeding them back to the group as needed.

Chein, Cook, and Harding describe four varieties of action research-diagnostic, participant, empirical, and experimental. In diagnostic action research, the scientist enters a problem situation; diagnoses it, and makes recommendations for remedial treatment to the client.

Participant action research, in which the people who are to take action are involved in the entire research and action process from the beginning. This involvement increases the likelihood of carrying out the actions once decided upon, and keeps the recommended actions feasible.

Empirical action research is that in which the actor keeps a systematic, extensive record of what he or she did and what effects it had. A fourth variety of action research, the experimental, is controlled research on the relative effectiveness of various acting techniques. There is almost always more than one possible way of trying to accomplish something.

The problem is to find which is the best. This is research on the action in the strictest sense of both words. Argyris promotes action research under the label of “action science,” and he believes action science (action research) is more appropriate and effective for studying social change and social action than is “normal science.”

He criticizes traditional scientific methods for focusing on trivial problems, distorting human subjects and researchers alike, generating unreliable data, and being generally unable to answer questions about everyday life. According to Argyris, Lewin’s action research was characterized by six features:

  • It was problem-driven,

  • It was client-centered,

  • It challenged the status quo and was simultaneously concerned with

  • Producing empirically disconfirm able propositions that

  • Could be systematically interrelated into a theory designed to be

  • Usable in everyday life.” All six characteristics should be present in action research programs but often are not.

Another variation of action research is “appreciative inquiry.” David Cooperrider and Suresh criticize current action research as too problem-centered, too action-oriented, and not sufficiently concerned with creating theory. They propose Appreciative Inquiry (AI) to augment contemporary action research and introduce their article with these words:

For action research to reach its potential as a vehicle for social innovation it needs to be advancing theoretical knowledge of consequence; that good theory may be one of the best means human beings have for affecting change in a postindustrial world; that the discipline’s steadfast commitment to a problem-solving view of the world acts as a primary constraint on its imagination and contribution to knowledge; that appreciative inquiry represents a viable complement to conventional forms of action-research; and finally, that through our assumptions and choice of the method we largely create the world we later discover.

Appreciative inquiry advocates four principles for research on organizations: research should begin with appreciation, should be applicable, should be provocative, and should be collaborative. Several other varieties of action research exist.

The concept of grounded theory in sociological research appears to be similar to action research, as does Edgar Schein’s clinical inquiry.

Shani and Pasmore, and Shani and Bushe present good reviews of action research. The final variant of action research comes from the quality movement. The action research model is similar to the Shewhart cycle of “plan, do check, act”-a virtual mantra in Total Quality Management (TQM) programs. Walter A.

Shewhart was the “father” of statistical process control and TQM. Shewhart advised that to improve quality you should: plan a test or change intended to improve something; do a small-scale test; check the effects of the test: and act on the new learning.

Then plan new tests based on the knowledge gained and repeat the cycle again and again. This ongoing process was the road to continuous quality improvement, he asserted. It looks a lot like action research.


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  • Kurt Lewin, ‘Frontiers in Group Dynamics,’ Human Relations.

  • Wendell French, Organisational Development: Objectives and Strategies, Assumptions.

  • Lewin, Action Research and Minority Problems.

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