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Global Experience, Locally Available

Making Space Consulting

What is Action Research?

From Researchers to Co-Researchers

Action research is research used by actors in a situation as a means of their own self education and as a tool of problem solving.

Action research is contrasted with the more usual consulting model. In many consulting interventions, the consultant comes in, does a study, reports findings, makes recommendations, and leaves. Usually not a lot is done with the recommendations and little or nothing changes.

In action research, the consultants and the actors in the situation become co-researchers. The consultant brings knowledge of organizational research methods and the actors in the situation bring knowledge of the local situation. The consultant enlists the local people in jointly planning a study of their situation; jointly collecting data and processing it; jointly interpreting the results; jointly formulating recommendations to themselves; and taking out commitments to try the recommendations, evaluate the results, and make adjustments.

From Management to Grass-Roots Participation

It seems everyone today is talking about teams, flattened management, quality circles, and other forms of participative effort. Participative change efforts reap benefits in getting people committed to making them work. But they do more than that.

Most modern management is based on the principles of Scientific Management put forth by Frederick Taylor early in the last century. Those methods were not the best way of transforming routine work of making and moving things, but they worked. When dealing with today’s knowledge workers doing non-routine work, scientific management won’t work. Today’s work is so complex the people who do it must be involved in the transformation just to get the transformation right.

Functional decomposition and hierarchical command and control do not provide usable structures for complex work. As Peter Senge says, “Enormous detail complexity renders any rational explanation inherently incomplete.”

From Involvement to Participatory Democracy

The basic values of action research are that the actors in the situation have the political right to participation, democracy, and diversity. These are valued for practical and ethical reasons equally: allowing people these rights is the only way to make real change, and the only way to put the people before the change. The change is in service of the people, not the other way around.

From Facilitation to Action Research

Action research as defined here sounds much like ordinary facilitation, and indeed the methods and values have much in common. The difference often lies in the aims, length, and depth of the intervention. Action research applies much attention, research rigor, and energy to creating ongoing structures which address deep-seated issues in organizational culture, community development, and social change. Facilitation often works on the problem as presented; action research may be needed to address the underlying problem. Making Space Consulting can help you diagnose your situation and recommend whether an Action Research approach may be appropriate.