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This action research project is designed around helping two organizations to improve their performance. Action research has been defined as "an orientation to knowledge creation that arises in a context of practice and requires researchers to work with practitioners" (Huang, 2010). These projects will give the researcher the opportunity to use action research as a means of gaining insight into organizational change. One enterprise is a not-for-profit entity and the other is a family-run small business. The consultant will work with each to understand the business, and run through solutions working with the management teams at these two organizations.
The research will span for several months, during which time there will be several iterations or cycles of research. Different ideas will be tested over this time, and the feedback from each cycle will be incorporated into the next cycle. One of the primary objectives of action research is to allow the researcher to learn from the practitioner and vice versa, and this will come about through the close consultations during these many cycles. The researcher is this case is specifically seeking insights about management, most especially the topic of organizational change. Both of these organizations have objectives that they have to this point been unable to achieve, and by working with the researcher they hope to see the sorts of improvements in their respective organizations that would otherwise be difficult for them to achieve on their own.
In her definition, Huang (2010) notes that action research is essentially "an umbrella term that represents a family of practices." Some of these are given their own names -- appreciative inquiry, action science and more -- and can be differentiated from each other in subtle ways. Action research arose from multiple academic disciplines, drawing heavily on the work of John Dewey and Kurt Lewin. Over time, the methods of action research coalesced into a coherent family of techniques bound by a common principle of the researcher and the practitioner working together in a democratic manner to derive results (Brydon-Miller, Greenwood and Maguire, 2003).
Researchers work as consultants to organizations, and this creates the democratic nature of action research. The researcher needs a high level of knowledge about his or her subject matter, and imparts this knowledge on the company. Hypotheses are developed and implemented in conjunction with management during this process, and then the results are measured. As with most action researcher, this project will encompass several iterations or cycles of action research, where a hypothesis is tested, adapted based on the feedback, and then the new, amended hypothesis is tested as the next cycle (Senge & Scharmer, 2001).
Process consultation is another of the types of action research that have developed. Edgar Schein (1995) argues that process consultation is not part of action research at all, but should be driven by the needs of the client because there is inherently an intervention from the very beginning of the process. Schein (1990) had earlier sought to elaborate on process consultation as having specific attributes of helping based on key assumptions and that "the central concern of consultants should be to improve the ability of clients themselves," rather than helping the researcher to learn.
Appreciative inquiry is a form of action research that focuses on the positives, wherein the researcher attempts to affect change by focusing on the strengths and positive attributes of the organization. Proponents of appreciative inquiry argue that it has a positive effect on organizations, and is associated with increased productivity and innovation (Whitney & Trosten-Bloom, 2010). This form contrasts with generic action research in that it only focuses on the positives of the organization in order to derive change and differs from process consultation is that the latter implies specifically helping people to get better at things, while appreciative inquiry may involve only using the skills that the clients already possess to drive the change.
For this project, action research is the chosen method. Appreciative inquiry has a certain appeal, because I think that we all are apt to respond to positive feedback, but its rejection of the negative is needlessly limiting -- no constraints should be placed on finding the optimal solution. Process consultation, for all of Schein's efforts, seems ill-defined. He struggles to distill process consulting to its essence in a manner that would be easy for me to follow. As the researcher, I have to work with a system that I feel comfortable I understand, and that is action research.
The project will be conducted using a prescribed approach. There are a number of different elements that contribute to action research. The first of these is the entry. I have already contacted two organizations that have agreed to participate in the research. Preliminary discussions have been held and these organizations understand the nature of the research that I will be doing. Indeed, they are eager for me to start. So this accounts for the entry component, and some informal data collection. I am more concerned with formal data collection at this point, as I feel that informal data collection might bias me towards certain conclusions -- a dogmatic approach to gathering information will serve me better. Only when I have access to a lot of quantitative and qualitative data will I begin the initial diagnostic process. Contracting comes before this part -- I have to ensure that the research subjects are well aware of their obligations and roles within this process, and that there is informed consent from them to be part of a research project.
One of the most important steps in the process is the formation of the grand objective. The grand objective must be formed with the client in mind. Obviously, there are going to be different learning objectives for the researcher, but it will not serve the researcher well to fail. Thus, the overall objective should be client-focused. There should be goals that are concrete, achievable and measurable and success of the project should include reaching these goals. In the event that these goals are not reached, success can be defined in terms of learning objectives (i.e. learning what did not work). Gaining knowledge about organizational change is a critical component of this project.
The sub-objective comes next. The grand objective is probably going to be many steps away from the first changes that are made in the organization, and it could be a significant amount of work to achieve the grand objective. Thus, there needs to be a diagnosis of a primary objective. This is the first objective that needs to be achieved, or the first problem that needs to be solved. After the initial gathering of information, the first sub-objective can be identified and the first actions taken to bring the organization towards this sub-objective. The process will naturally be repeated many times, with many sub-objectives, through the different cycles, to deliver the final result.
The planning phase is something that occurs early in the process. When meeting the client, the planning will encompass a diagnosis of what the priorities are, and then explaining to the client what the first steps are going to be. Any changes to the client system need to be outlined at this point.
The key values of action research are to involve the client in a democratic manner in the action phase. The researcher, however, needs to take the lead in guiding this process -- if the client was able to solve their own problems, they would not need the researcher to help. The action phase will be an action plan to implement the changes needed within the organization to bring about the first sub-objective. The action plan should also incorporate specific targets against which success will be measured. The client will need to be fully committed at this point in the process to implementing the changes as they have been identified, as this is essential. Action research is not a controlled experiment, and things can still be learned if the client does not properly implement the action plan, but the research will be more valuable if the hypothesis can be said to have been tested.
The research will be structured in a manner that there is time for the action phase, and then when this phase is complete there will be a short window of opportunity, maybe 1-2 weeks, for evaluation. This is the reflection phase. The quantitative and qualitative outputs of the action plan will be evaluated. The reflection phase will also include a brief consultation with the client, to determine their feedback about the project. New knowledge should have been acquired and this is the point where the new knowledge can be applied to the project, building towards the next cycle or iteration.
The self as instrument is a principle by which we understand our role in the consultation process as using our own abilities to change things. While there are many tools and instruments available, both the consultant and the people within the organization should…[continue]
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