Covering all the major qualitative approaches in business studies (including case study research, ethnography, narrative inquiry, discourse analysis, grounded theory and action research), this practical how-to guide shows how qualitative methods are used within management, marketing, organizational studies and accounting. Within each approach, the authors consider crucial issues such as framing the research, generating research questions, getting access, collecting empirical materials, reporting the results and evaluating the research. Original case studies drawn from around the world are included throughout to demonstrate the practical applications of the methods discussed.
This chapter will give you information on:
- the elements of action research;
- how to do action research in business settings;
- the differences between the various types of action research;
- the roles of research objects and researcher in action research;
- the data gathering methods used;
- ways to analyse data in action research.
What is action research?
Business research is very often related to practical questions and issues of organizations, marketing, financing, accounting, development and growth of business activities, and in general to research questions arising from these settings. Therefore, it is an often-occurring phenomenon that researchers not only obtain their research questions from the practical, everyday life of businesses, but that they also collaborate, actively engage with and work within businesses in order to help them solve specific problems, develop some parts of business or organizational activities, give insight to strategic questions and make businesses work more efficiently. This sort of research, where close collaboration with the research object and its practical problem solving is part of the research process, is often termed action research. The term tells us about involvement and actions taken. But what does action research mean as research design and as a method? Is it simply to walk in, fix the problem, describe the procedure in the research report, and call it an action research study?
Action research is thought to be especially suitable when the research question is related to describing an unfolding series of actions that are taking place over time [Page 194]in a certain group, organization or other community. Also, if the research question is related to understanding the process of change, development or improvement of some actual problem, then, in order to learn from it, action research is an appropriate application for research.
Think of a situation where a medium-sized business-to-business company is in the middle of a high growth period, acquiring new customers and expanding its activities from a national to an international level. This new opening up of markets and international business situations puts the company in need of recruitment of new personnel and, in general, in need for more attention for human resource development (HRD) and human resource management (HRM) activities. You are offered a position as a project assistant to the HRM manager in reorganizing and developing of the HRD and HRM activities. As you are also at the same time planning your PhD thesis within this specific field, the position of working at the company would give you a brilliant opportunity to gather empirical data for your PhD work on HRD. But, if you accept the position, you will also be deeply involved in the HRD/HRM assistant work in the company, and you really wonder if you can combine the two.
It is important to understand that, in action research, there is no big difference between the researcher and the researched group/community/organization; they are not separate entities, even if they have clear differences. In action research, researchers are often seen as outside facilitators who bring in change to an organization, and who also promote reflection over the change, and finally do research on this specific case. Often, the differences between the researcher and management consultant diminish and even disappear, as academic research is geared towards achieving understanding of the real-life problems related to business activities and producing change processes and solutions for these problems. The researcher is supposed to be involved in the activities they are doing research on, to some extent.
Schein (1999) presents two roles or metaphors for this helping activity: one is the expert model as in the doctorpatient model, where patients go to a doctor and are given both the diagnosis and the prescription to cure the ‘disease‘. In that role, ‘patients’ remain somewhat distant from the ‘doctor‘. The other role is a more process-oriented consultation model where assistants facilitate the inquiry into one's own organization, work and work environment, the issues and problems within it, and create and develop solutions jointly with the clients (Schein, 1995, 1999). The latter role or metaphor resembles more the idea of action research and researcher as ‘helper’ and facilitator.
In business research, action research can also be classified in general as a collaborative approach to research that provides persons, organizations and businesses with the appropriate solutions or means to resolve specific problems autonomously. The degree of involvement of researchers thus varies relatively much, and there is not one way to define the right degree of involvement. Rather, the role of the researcher and the degree to which they get involved with the organization/community/group in question should be mutually negotiated, renegotiated during the process and also [Page 195]mutually agreed upon. This is also required by the general standards of research ethics (see Chapter 6 for more). It is typical for action research that theoretical interests do not usually guide the research planning or design, as most research questions are practical by nature. Sometimes, the theoretical interests are very closely related to the practical questions of a specific group/community/organization, but many times they are not. This simply shows the applied nature of business as a social science disciplinary field.
The origins and key ideas of action research
Action research originates from social psychology, but also from anthropological and social anthropological community research, where researchers have actively been part of the community they have researched, provided them with new knowledge and enabled them to tackle problems of various kinds. As a specific research approach, action research was originally developed by several researchers. Most histories give credit to social psychologist Kurt Lewin (18901947), Elton Mayo (18801949) and especially to sociologist William Foote Whyte (19142000), whose wide scope of research (e.g. 1955) influenced methodologies in a range of disciplines. Credit is given also to the Tavistock Institute and its work (Trist and Murray, 1993), and to the industrial democracy research tradition that has been especially prominent in Scandinavia (Greenwood and Levin, 1998, 2001).
Since its original development and use, the action research approach has been used and developed by researchers, among others, within the fields of community research, feminist research, pedagogical research and nursing studies (e.g. Holter and Schwartz-Barcott, 1993; Reinharz, 1992). In Nordic countries and in the UK, some of the social work research in different communities and social groups has adopted the principles of action research. The key point in Kurt Lewin's original idea of action research was that social problems should have priority in giving the key impulses to social research. Thus, the modus vivendi, the driving force, in the research should always be the real-life-problems, not theoretically driven or theoretically interesting research questions as such. This original idea of action research draws it closer to the realist paradigm than constructionist way of knowledge creation.
The variety of labels used in action research, such as action inquiry, participatory inquiry, critical action research, industrial action research and participatory action research, also refer to the twofold aims in research: first, to the improvement of and finding solutions to some problems; second, of the involvement of researchers in that activity. Furthermore, the idea of reciprocal activity is important: the information produced in the process should be useful to a group of people, organization or community in question. Action research strongly involves active participation and improvement of social situations and problems. In this sense, action research also empowers individuals and groups of people. But what does the participatory action mean in practice in research?[Page 196]
Action research is most often described as being an enquiry with people, rather than research on people. This definition refers to the interactive research design and approach that consists of a group of research methodologies, rather than just one or two methods, which pursue action and research at the same time.
Action research is not technically a research ‘method‘; rather, it should be understood and addressed as an approach to such research that requires involvement, a close relationship to the research object and participation as key starting points for research activities, and uses different methods in acquiring knowledge, in the research process and in problem solving. But what kind of involvement and participation are usual for research in this approach? There are several models for describing how and in what ways the action research project and involvement should be carried on in research.
In his publications, Kurt Lewin developed a systematic model of research which included several interconnected parts, such as interconnected cycles of planning, acting, observing and reflecting (writing up). Several models and forms of inquiry have been developed since Lewin's original idea, especially in the fields of organizational development and work life research, but most of them apply the cyclical four-step process of planning, taking action, evaluating the action leading to further planning, etc., where the participative activity is crucial and not all results and outcomes are intentional; that is, unintentional outcomes can occur and should be learned from.
Altricher et al. (2002: 130) and Kemmis and McTaggart (1988) refer specifically to two points which are crucial for an action research project: when the people in the situation gain further understanding, reflect on, change and improve their own work situation (through jointly initiated research activities, for example), and when they are increasingly participating in the data collection, power sharing and learning processes in research, and gain empowerment in return. These aspects of action research also relate it to critical theory (e.g. Argyris et al., 1985; Argyris, 1990), even if critical theory and its assumptions are not necessarily present in action-oriented research.
Different types of action research
Action research consists of several loosely related approaches to research that share the above-mentioned key elements and principles, but which vary with the research settings, the grade of involvement and emphasis on a variety of aspects, such as learning, for example. As action research is used in different fields of science, differences in specific emphases in research emerge. The differences in the approaches are not necessarily large: some differences are partly related to the degree of focus on problem solving, vis-à-vis focus on participation. There are also differences in the ways in which the local members of the community/organization/group of experts are involved in the research. In the following, some key types of action research are mentioned.
Participatory research, or participatory action research, in social sciences is most often related to shared ownership of research projects, commitment to social, [Page 197]political and economic development of community, and orientation towards action (e.g. Greenwood and Levin, 2001; Kemmis and McTaggart, 2005). The issue of joint practices that are embedded in social interactions gears the research interest into open and shared communications and actual practices, instead of abstract levels of theorizing about these practices, for example. Critical action research, or critical participatory action research, includes the previous aspects of participatory research and also the reflection of the language used in the participation and in research reflecting these activities.
Action research has traditionally had a strong tradition and position in education research, where classroom action research especially has included the aim to improve practices of teachers’ work and practical understanding of that work (Kemmis and McTaggart, 2005).
Action learning is as closely related to a community-engaged learning activity as possible within the action research tradition. Action learning is often implemented in managerial settings in different organizations, and the idea is to bring people together to learn from each other's experiences. The aim to learn from each other includes relatively equal positions from where to discuss and open up one's own experiences; this can best take place only among peer equals. Action learning focuses on inquiry, but more often is based on the perceptions of the participants rather than on systematic data collection and analysis about the situation through other means. Action learning has a close relation to action science, where specifically organizational psychology is used to solve the practical problems of organizations (Argyris, 1990; Kemmis and McTaggart, 2005).
While a soft systems approach and an industrial action research as specific types of action research are perhaps more closely related to the organizational features of industrial organizations, new varieties of action research have emerged that take larger, more complex problems into account. A variety of methods can be applied, such as focus groups in developing relevant questions for further analysis.
Gummesson (2000) distinguishes four different types of action research for management. He calls them societal action science, management action science, realtime action science and retrospective action science. Gummesson's classification is not based on exclusive classes or empirical research, but more on classifying existing research traditions anew. As such, it does not offer a new classification in comparison with the earlier one presented here, but it opens up action research as especially suitable for marketing research (e.g. Perry and Gummesson, 2004).
Another way of classifying the types of action research is according to how they differ from each other by their ways of looking at the importance and meaning of solutions: whether they are seen as technical or collaborative by nature, whether they are seen as more practical by nature, or whether the solutions have an emancipating role in the researched organization or among the persons or group of people researched.
The new diversity among action-oriented research also includes more political policy-oriented ethnographies, where the aim is often close to influencing issues such [Page 198]as legislation, community environment, politics, etc. In some countries, such as in the USA, researchers in the field of educational research doing participatory action research have had a close relationship with activist-oriented applied anthropology, where the aim of research is strongly political and rights oriented (e.g. Foley, 2002). Thus, action research gets close to ethnography, and sometimes the distinction between the two is even rather artificial.
How to design an action research project?
Let us go back to our example of you as a PhD student involved in work as an HRM project assistant. One of the features of action research is that it is a collaborative approach that provides the people/company/organization with the means to take systematic action themselves in order to resolve specific problems or develop some activity within the workplace/organization or group. In order to get there, the first step for you as a researcher is to get an idea of the field, to design the project as research in action through iterative activities and identify the research questions. For that purpose, both general and practical knowledge of the field and prior theoretical knowledge are needed.
Often, mere access is not enough; a more formal, written research contract for you as an action researcher within an organization is needed, to gain recognition within the organization and among the group of people you will be working with. For that contract, information of the key stakeholders in organization, their expectations and possibly differing opinions should be recognized, as changes are not always wished for by all members of an organization. For example, Bartunek et al. (2000) provide a complex case of a manufacturing company where the development of an integrated manufacturing system through action research did involve major changes in how the firm operated its business; the role of researcher can get very complicated when suggesting possible changes but not having the power to control the changes or their effects.
The roles in the research object in action research depend on a variety of things. Access is one of them: it is not always easy to get access to an organization if you are not part of it. There are a growing number of action research projects being done and reported where practising managers themselves are undertaking the action research project in and on the context of their own organizations (e.g. Bartunek et al., 2000), e.g. when enrolled as participants in academic education programmes and MBAs. This has also evoked criticism towards action research. The question of who defines the problems in organizations and companies to be investigated has been put forward, especially within accounting research, where there has been a longer tradition than within the marketing discipline with action research (e.g. McSweeney, 2000).[Page 199]
Framing the research question and action-oriented activities
It is important to note that your own research question for the PhD work and the specific problems of the individual/company/organization are not necessarily the same. Quite often they are close enough to each other, but quite often these two diverge at some point in the research process. It is equally important to understand that your task, first of all, if your research follows the logic of action research, is to solve or help find solutions to the specific problems of the company/organization and, in that process, engage persons involved in the process of finding solutions. The question of who selects the topic and range for research is important, and very often the action researcher can have a steering group as a ‘helping hand‘, both providing the inside knowledge and history of the organization and helping in planning, gathering the meetings, implementing and reflecting the project.
When you start to work as a project assistant for the development of human resources and plan your project, you should also have some pre-understanding of the company environment. Pre-understanding also refers to the knowledge that you as a researcher bring into the project. Is there a difference between action research and more grounded-theory-inspired research? A need for a pre-understanding of theoretical issues and an active role in the research most likely direct your interest away from the possibility of adopting the grounded theory approach, as described in Chapter 11. Action research is specifically useful when researching process-related problems in organizations, such as learning and change. Gummesson (2000) stresses the need for business and management research to be in touch with the practice, and there is not always a big difference between the roles of academic research and management consultant.
Implementing action research
When you develop the research plan, you should remember that, in action research, the whole research process is iterative: The planning is followed by acting, observing and reflecting, with a revised plan, acting, observation and reflection following again, most often in real time and not retrospectively. Many times, corrective and additional measures are needed as a consequence of the revisions. This process is often described as a spiral of self-reflection, leading to new cycles of replanning, new actions taken and reflecting again, etc. In reality, these stages often overlap and the process of research consists of overlapping activities, where one stage is not clear-cut from the next one. Even if the parts do become partly overlapped, the iterative nature of action research is an important part of the research project, as the change in the researched setting or the data-gathering process are impossible to finalize in a short period of time and with only a short interval of data gathering at the site. Therefore, the actual research process can take much longer than originally anticipated in the research design process.[Page 200]
A retrospective approach is possible, e.g. a when real-time case is being written retrospectively, and used as an intervening learning in the organization (Kleiner and Roth, 1997). Action research, it is hoped, will lead eventually to ‘re-education‘, changing patterns of thinking and action. This depends naturally on the participation of research subjects in identifying new courses of action. It is intended to contribute both to academic theory and to practical action. The characteristics most often are defined in terms of outcomes and processes.
Coughlan and Coghlan (2002) distinguish the pre-step activity (1) (understanding the context and purpose) from six main steps (2), which are (a) to gather, (b) to feed back and (c) to analyse the data, (d) to plan, (e) to implement and (f) to evaluate the actions taken (Box 13.1), and finally from a meta-step (3), which is the academic research, e.g. the dissertation phase. The rationale for the pre-step comes from the empirical surroundings and the ‘academic’ reasoning for why it is important to study the phenomenon in question.
What about persons working in the company where you are about to develop new HRM standards and practices? How and to what extent should they become part of your research project? According to Kemmis and McTaggart (2005: 563), ‘if practices are constituted in social interaction between people, changing practices is a social process‘. Action research focuses on actual practices and processes, and in that sense the real material world with specificities and practices that are rooted in specific situations is present. Thus, in your action research, the HRM practices that need to be changed will necessarily involve the persons working in those departments, with the tasks concerned in your research. Therefore, their informed consent is necessary for your research project. In action research it is particularly important to ask for informed consent from all participants, not only from management.
Action research most often involves the kind of learning process with material changes following that learning. Most often it is the researcher who initiates the action research project, not the organization; but, during the course of the research project, expert knowledge of the theories and research field in question and local knowledge of the members meet beneficially.
Data gathering and analysis
As already mentioned, action research is not technically a research ‘method‘; rather, it should be addressed as a systematic approach to such research that takes involvement, a close relationship to the research object and participatory or even emancipating actions as key points of departure for research. But what kind of involvement and participation activities are usual for research in this approach?
Data are gathered in different ways, depending on the research context and research problem in question. Data-collection instruments thus represent a wide mixture of expert knowledge and the local information needed in the project. Methods and data used in action research range from surveys to observations[Page 201]
Box 13.1 Six main steps for action research
There are several ways of gathering the data in action research; most importantly, the data should be gathered through a variety of procedures and all gathering of data should be related to your research interests. Observations are natural data if your research project allows for this sort of data gathering, but other types of data are possible. Indeed, interviews seem to be very often the most typical form of data gathering in action research.
As part of the action research project, data feedback for the analysis in the ‘client’ organization/group/community is often one crucial step for researcher to take in the action research. Data can be gathered and reported by the researcher, but also by the researched group. Data feedback means allowing the researched group to be involved in the analysis to join the next step, i.e. the data analysis and action planning and evaluation procedures.
Typical, but perhaps not in business studies very often occurring, is that data analysis is done collectively with the researched group. The idea behind this collective analysis is to provide the researched community with ‘seeds for development‘, and to use their expertise in the analysis, as they know their organization/community/group best. Some method authors claim that clients’ involvement for the analysis is critical for the success of the action research (Coghlan and Brannick, 2001).
The action plan follows from the previous steps in action research and strongly involves the key informants or core individuals from the ‘client’ organization. This is to ensure that the different steps for change, i.e. actions, resistance, commitment, etc., are closely followed through and that the action plan is developed for all the different dimensions needed.
A client organization/community/group implies that a practical plan be developed for action. The implementation plan can be very detailed, e.g. retraining programme, and implementation can take time.
Evaluation most typically focuses on actions taken during the research process, and implemented. Both the intentional (aimed and planned) and [Page 202]unintentional (sudden forms of resistance, conflicts, problems, etc) consequences within the organization/community/group are analyzed by the researcher(s). Evaluation is often thought of as a key element for the learning process and the successful action research project in general. Depending on the nature of your project, evaluation can have several layers, from practical evaluation to theoretical aspects of evaluation.
and interviews, focus groups, action experiments and participant-written cases and narratives. Other materials from organizations or local sites can also be used, such as any kinds of operational statistics, sales reports, figures and numbers, policy documents, etc.
It is typical for action research, that research materials are gathered through active involvement of the researched organization or group. Most often in action research, data gathering requires more resources than in other research settings. Why is this? As action research grew out of a need to learn more of the social systems while changing them, it also set the criteria of mutual understanding, and joint data gathering and problem solving with the researched community. Developing this sort of activity takes time and resources.
There are different, formal and informal openings to gather materials in organizations, and most of them include the issue of informed consent. Social researchers follow the ethical principles of voluntary and informed consent. The question of consent becomes important in a new way when researchers enter the organization or business: to whom, how and to what extent do they tell about their presence, role and aims? From whom do they ask for permission? The questions of ethical and unethical, informing the settings and one's own role in the research activity become important when a researcher enters the field and works in the ‘natural settings‘. Therefore, it is crucial that, for example, the social and informal settings, where materials are available, such as over lunch or beer after work hours, the informants are aware of both the gathering and the use of such materials, as well as being made aware of the gathering of observational materials in the meetings. Informed and voluntary consent should take place before gathering and using such materials, in order to follow the research ethics.
One of the challenges of action research in comparison with many other ‘research methods’ is that the data analysis is often done collaboratively with the organization, group of people or community involved. This is to ensure the closeness of results to the organization/group/community in question. At the same time, the analysis needs to fulfil the ‘academic requirements‘, thus often including both language and tools not known to ‘laypeople‘. Therefore, it is important to add the transparency and translation of the analysis of the data to the aim of interventions planned and action planning. As action research does not necessarily make a huge difference between research and action, it may give an imprecise and unclear impression of research as a process. It can be argued that it is precisely here where action research has [Page 203]its power: when it remains ‘close’ to its research objects and is based on reciprocal activities, when done properly, it also can empower its participants, not just the science community.
Different types of inquiry are possible in action research. The most typical inquiry involves a simple follow-up of what is taking place in an organization, and how the persons involved in activities see these activities. In addition to the ‘pure inquiry’ as classified by Schein (1999), other forms of inquiry also exist, such as ‘exploratory diagnostic inquiry‘, where the logic of actions are explored, and ‘confrontational inquiry‘, where translation of researchers’ ideas is done by researchers to participants, and dialogue is encouraged.
The data gathering and analysis process inevitably needs to include an assessment of the quality of the action research project, in business studies especially, due to its closeness to a consulting project (Kemmis and McTaggart, 2005). One of the critiques towards action research sometimes put forward in business research implementations is related to this specific issue. Therefore, the issue of validity claims in research also needs to have more attention perhaps than in some other forms of qualitative research methods. Questions such as partiality and impartiality and the validity of the narration given in the research need to be addressed explicitly if the aim in the research project is to give a valid presentation of what has taken place in the organization/group/community that has been studied.
Box 13.2 Getting your action research project through
The need to increase the validity of your action research project can gain from focusing on the following issues:
- Explicitly state your position, your aims and your research interests for all audiences in your report.
- Explicitly give arguments for why the action research approach is needed in this particular problem solving (the value added from the action research approach to your research project).
- Explicate the goals of your project. This is important both for academic purposes and for the practical needs of the researched organization/community/group.
- Illustrate the possible points of inferences, including your own attributions and opinions, and the kind of dialogue this has evoked in the researched organization/group/community. This shows the knowledge level you have gained from interactions. [Page 204]
- Explicate the learning and/or change processes achieved during the different stages of your action research project in a detailed manner.
- Keep in mind the complexity of action research activities, such as changing of an organization, and reflect the intended and unintended consequences of the project, if possible.
How to increase the validity of your research project?
As has become apparent, the nature of problem solving varies a lot within action research, and no one single claim for validity can be put forward alone for the project (Box 13.2). However, as mentioned earlier, the ‘closeness and interrelated nature of a research project and solving real-life problems‘, and slowly emerging research questions and results can cause more voiced claims for validity in action research than with other qualitative research projects. In spite of the general applied nature of business research in general, strong research streams in business research exist that do not see that the role of business research lies in the practical problem solving of business life, but in theory building without close connections to ‘real life‘.
There are several advocacies for the close relationship between consultancy and research, while others argue that there are differences that need to be taken into account. Some even argue that ‘action research is masqueraded consulting’ with little connections to research. The aim of making the line between, for example, participatory action research and consulting more clear-cut is demanded, for example, within critical ethnography. Gummesson (2000) puts forward four points regarding differences between consultancy and an action research project:
- Research requires theoretical justification, whereas consultancy requires empirical justification. Therefore, they cannot be the same.
- Consultants who work with action research need to implement more rigorous inquiry and documentation. In that, they gain professionally, but research remains ‘intact’ in that process and cannot be ‘harmed’ by consultancy.
- The difference between consultancy and action research is in their ways of dealing with the process of the project. Whereas consultancy is linear, action research is cyclical, and requires more time.
- Consultants work with a tighter time budget. Consultants move to the next case after one is solved, whereas researchers might remain attached to their materials and revisit their case over time.
The closeness of actions to research and the interrelated nature of research and action make it impossible to draw a clear-cut line between the two. This puts perhaps more emphasis on the clarity of the conceptual-based arguments that you need to develop within your action research project. Action research has also been found to be [Page 205]an important empowerment tool within groups of people who are disadvantaged or do not have a voice for expressing their needs. Education research, as well as migration research and feminist research are all examples of field, where action research has been used actively and successfully.
How to proceed and finalize your project?
How then to proceed with your research project, given that you have access to your organization and consent to work with your project? In your project you should be able to focus on practices in a concrete and specific way that makes them visible for discussion and reflection and, thus, also visible for change in your target organization. It is quite usual that action research is a practically and collaboratively oriented research activity, and that it engages people in exploring their own practices of communication, production, co-working and co-organizing their activities. You should, therefore, have built a trust relationship within the organization, have the informed consent of the people who are engaged in different HRM activities and be involved in organizational settings in order to have sufficient knowledge and insight of the key activities that need to be developed further.
It is easiest to think of action research as a process. The first task is to get the researched organization/group/community to discuss ‘internally’ their possible problems or issues that need to be developed. This often requires a lot of work and open and good meetings and gatherings, as it is not easy to get the time and space for reflection organized within a busy group of people.
Thinking of your HRM PhD project and work as an assistant, it is probable that, by examining the previous ways of taking care of and organizing HRM activities, by knowing of the key events and critically examining earlier activities, and by making a plan for development and change, it is possible to open up discussion on the ways for improving previous ways of dealing with HRM questions and developing new practices and introducing HRD activities. You can gather materials for your project and for the development action in the company by interviewing, observing, analysing the existing documents, etc. You can also use focus group discussion in producing relevant questions. One leading question you would need to put forward for discussion could be of the type ‘what kinds of problems do you face in HRM activities?’ The variety of possible materials also suggests that there is no single way to do action research and gather research materials for it.
Your task would then be to gather information, analyse it and interpret the information you have gathered. The analysis will depend on the data-gathering methods you have used and the way you approach your action research project. For example, ways to analyse interview data from focus groups and ethnography are discussed in Chapters 12 and 10 respectively.
Business research questions are often based on ‘real-life’ cases; therefore, action research as research mode is seen as a rather ‘natural’ choice for a research approach, especially when research has some relationship to activities, where new perspectives, [Page 206]developmental work, new practical tools being implemented, or researchers’ view of the business activities are needed. The roles of consultancy and researcher are thus not often very far from each other in business and management sciences, as many of the research questions originate from and have a close relationship to the ‘real life of the business world‘. Therefore, action research might be a good choice for those students who aim to work outside academia and do research work simultaneously. A mild word of caution is put forward in the following, though.
Action research is not by any means an ‘easy’ research approach, especially not in the sense that it will require close cooperation between the researcher and the organization/community/group of people as ‘target’ of research. In order to achieve trust within the organization/community/group in question, you must have confidence in your own knowledge, skills and aim and abilities as a researcher. Especially important are the social skills for understanding, analysing and managing the often very complex social situations in the target organization, and the overall interactive nature of an action research project. A novice researcher might not be able to convince in all these activities. In addition, as a researcher you should have enough knowledge of the ‘target’ organization to tackle the multitude of data and its layered nature that arise in the action research project and, more importantly, the ‘action activities’ that need to take place in the researched organization. Action research can lead, at its best, to a great insight of organizational life and, thus, produce the kind of research materials few researchers have the ability to achieve otherwise. At its worst, action research is a time-consuming and muddled process. If you, as researcher, lose the ability to steer the process clearly, then the project might never end as planned.
Action research is especially situational by nature, as all data are contextually embedded and interpreted. The validation process in action research is a conscious and deliberate enactment of the research cycle. The report writing in action research needs to take all the above-mentioned features into account (Box 13.3).
Often, the process nature of action research requires personal notes, diaries and follow-up of various processes in the research case. All of this material can be used when writing up the report.
One key element in action research is the way the empirical materials are communicated to stakeholders. One way of doing this is to write a summary of the materials analysed which condenses the key characteristics, ranging from the problem statement to the results and to the solutions found. Sharing the results with the researched community/group/organization is part of the empowerment process that is so crucial in action research. The multi-voiced nature of reporting is important, i.e. whose views and expressions are used, whose solution (if not jointly found) was supported, etc. The sharing can take place in different phases of the spiralling research process, and various methods can be used for this purpose. Such methods include the use of focus groups, where persons with similar interests discuss some parts of the findings (see Chapter 12 for more on focus groups). Also, informal meetings and group meetings can be used for this purpose. So-called in-group forums consist of people from[Page 207]
Box 13.3 How to write the action research project and how to communicate it to stakeholders
There are several possible ways of structuring the action research report (e.g. Kemmis and McTaggart, 2005). Often, the reporting adopts the following logic:
- The expression of the purpose, aim and rationale of your research.
- The description of the context, relating the project into a wider field, be that the surroundings, personnel questions, the company/organizational situation, etc.
- Explication of the methodology and methods that you will use in the study. This follows the general logic of any PhD work.
- Description of the story; and, depending on its complexity, this can extend to several chapters, e.g. in a PhD thesis.
- The self-reflection and learning processes, personal, but also extending to the organization/group examined.
- Reflection of the story in the light of theory and experience. The reflection can extend to several chapters, depending on the role and position of theories in your PhD thesis.
- Feedback to the larger research community. This can take different forms, extending from newspaper articles to a company journal, lectures, talks and other forms of participatory involvement (e.g. Stringer, 1999).
a single-interest or stakeholder group that gather together to discuss particular issues (Stringer, 1999).
Writing and evaluation of action research
What can be said of action research report writing? Most action research processes follow the spiral process, i.e. the circularity described in Chapter 3. The researchers have full academic ‘freedom’ to use any stylistic elements they wish, and often the ethnography and narrative forms are also used in writing the action research reports. However, the reporting in action research carries an extra duty, as it should include the participants of the field study and all stakeholders identified. The sharing of results with stakeholders is an integral part of the writing process, but you should also remember the integrity of PhD work if you are working on that. Other types of material, such as photographs, can also be used in the report.
One aspect of evaluating an action research project is that it is most often a unique situation where practical problem solving goes hand in hand with research. [Page 208]Therefore, the most usual evaluation criteria, such as generalization, might not be best suited for evaluation. Some researchers readdress generalizations in action research as necessitating a process of reflective action. Greenwood and Levin (2005: 55) note that it is important to understand ‘the contextual conditions under which the knowledge has been created‘. Second, they list the transfer of the contextualized knowledge to another setting, where context might differ. Hence, generalization becomes an active process of reflexivity.
Practice and practical problem solving knitting the research integrally to the problem solving has always been close to practice-oriented knowledge production of business research. Action research produces knowledge and actions that can be directly useful to a group/community/organization; and through those actions, research can empower people in many ways, especially by providing knowledge and raising their consciousness. Through actions, research is seen to make a difference to practices and processes of individuals, groups and larger communities. In this, action research fulfils some of the principal ideas of critical theory research, where the practical element is often missing. In action research, many of the barriers between researcher and research object are lower than usual, and this can only favour the researched field. It is up to the researcher's skills as to whether that experience also benefits the scientific community.
Key points of the chapter
- Action research is originally based on practical problem solving and systematizing that experience to research. The various forms of action research all have in common that they are highly interactive research approaches, doing research with people, rather than on people.
- Action research uses a variety of research methods and methodologies, where involvement is suitable. Informed and voluntary consent, mutual trust and high ethical standards are required from the researcher when working closely with the researched community/group/organization.
- Action research has varying connections to consultancy, but there are differences as well. An action research project seldom can be done within a short period of time, but it requires a length of time used for learning, co-learning and mutual reciprocal working before the research project is finalized.
- Action research enables the researched community/group of people/organization to express their views during the research process as collaborators in the project.
Action research is a rewarding, but simultaneously often demanding, way of doing qualitative research if the research setting is dynamic or complex.
A good introduction to recent discussion concerning action research is the chapter by Greenwood and Levin (2005) in The Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research; it presents and possibilities the research faces within action research.
Exercise 1 Research design for action research
The purpose of this exercise is to teach you to think about two issues simultaneously in action research: your own research plan (research design) and problem-solving scheme for the company/organization in question. With this exercise, you will learn to think about the facets (academic and practical) of the same phenomenon that are in close and intimate contact in your research and work in the target organization/group/firm.
Write a research design and research plan for the PhD student's action research project described in this chapter. Take the following questions into account when writing your plan and try to answer them indirectly and/or directly while writing your research design:
- What kinds of task should the student need to describe first, and what steps should be taken in planning the project?
- What kinds of materials would need to be gathered for the action research project and, possibly, how would the researcher be able to identify what kinds of problem the company possibly has in its HRM.
- Who would the researcher need to get involved as members for the steering group from the company?
- What type of HRM development plan would the researcher come up with during the research process?
- Who should the researcher contact within the company?