ACTION RESEARCH & ORG. MIRRORING IN OD Action research is a reflective process of progressive problem solving led by individuals working with others in teams or as part of a “community of practice” to improve the way they address issues and solve problems. Action research can also be undertaken by larger organizations or institutions, assisted or guided by professional researchers, with the aim of improving their strategies, practices, and knowledge of the environments within which they practice.
Kurt lewin described action research as “a comparative research on the conditions and effects of various forms of social action and research leading to social action” that uses “a spiral of steps, each of which is composed of a circle of planning, action, and fact-finding about the result of the action”. Action research is an interactive inquiry process that balances problem solving actions implemented in a collaborative context with data-driven collaborative analysis or research to understand underlying causes enabling future predictions about personal and organizational change.
Action research challenges traditional social science, by moving beyond reflective knowledge created by outside experts sampling variables to an active moment-to-moment theorizing, data collecting, and inquiring occurring in the midst of emergent structure. “Knowledge is always gained through action and for action. ACTION RESEARCH IN ORGANIZATION DEVELOPMENT Wendell L French and Cecil Bell define organization development (OD) at one point as “organization improvement through action research”.
If one idea can be said to summarize OD’s underlying philosophy, it would be action research as it was conceptualized by Kurt Lewin and later elaborated and expanded on by other behavioral scientists. Concerned with social change and, more particularly, with effective, permanent social change, Lewin believed that the motivation to change was strongly related to action: If people are active in decisions affecting them, they are more likely to adopt new ways. “Rational social management”, he said, “proceeds in a spiral of steps, each of which is composed of a circle of planning, action, and fact-finding about the result of action”.
Lewin’s description of the process of change involves three steps :Unfreezing: Faced with a dilemma or disconfirmation, the individual or group becomes aware of a need to change. Changing: The situation is diagnosed and new models of behavior are explored and tested. Refreezing: Application of new behavior is evaluated, and if reinforcing, adopted. Figure 1 summarizes the steps and processes involved in planned change through action research. Action research is depicted as a cyclical process of change.
The cycle begins with a series of planning actions initiated by the client and the change agent working together. The principal elements of this stage include a preliminary diagnosis, data gathering, feedback of results, and joint action planning. In the language of systems theory, this is the input phase, in which the client system becomes aware of problems as yet unidentified, realizes it may need outside help to effect changes, and shares with the consultant the process of problem diagnosis. The second stage of action research is the action, or transformation, phase.
This stage includes actions relating to learning processes (perhaps in the form of role analysis) and to planning and executing behavioral changes in the client organization. As shown in Figure 1, feedback at this stage would move via Feedback Loop A and would have the effect of altering previous planning to bring the learning activities of the client system into better alignment with change objectives. Included in this stage is action-planning activity carried out jointly by the consultant and members of the client system.
Following the workshop or learning sessions, these action steps are carried out on the job as part of the transformation stage. The third stage of action research is the output, or results, phase. This stage includes actual changes in behavior (if any) resulting from corrective action steps taken following the second stage. Data are again gathered from the client system so that progress can be determined and necessary adjustments in learning activities can be made. Minor adjustments of this nature can be made in learning activities via Feedback Loop B (see Figure) [pic] Major adjustments and reevaluations would return the OD project to the first, or planning, stage for basic changes in the program. The action-research model shown in Figure 1 closely follows Lewin’s repetitive cycle of planning, action, and measuring results. It also illustrates other aspects of Lewin’s general model of change. As indicated in the diagram, the planning stage is a period of unfreezing, or problem awareness. The action stage is a period of changing, that is, trying out new forms of behavior in an effort to understand and cope with the system’s problems. There is inevitable overlap between the stages, since the boundaries are not clear-cut and cannot be in a continuous process). The results stage is a period of refreezing, in which new behaviors are tried out on the job and, if successful and reinforcing, become a part of the system’s repertoire of problem-solving behavior. Action research is problem centered, client centered, and action oriented. It involves the client system in a diagnostic, active-learning, problem-finding, and problem-solving process.
Data are not simply returned in the form of a written report but instead are fed back in open joint sessions, and the client and the change agent collaborate in identifying and ranking specific problems, in devising methods for finding their real causes, and in developing plans for coping with them realistically and practically. Scientific method in the form of data gathering, forming hypotheses, testing hypotheses, and measuring results, although not pursued as rigorously as in the laboratory, is nevertheless an integral part of the process.
Action research also sets in motion a long-range, cyclical, self-correcting mechanism for maintaining and enhancing the effectiveness of the client’s system by leaving the system with practical and useful tools for self-analysis and self-renewal. The action research technique for organizational development is a five-step process that is perhaps the most popular technique for companies today. The five steps to this technique include the following: Identify an issue and develop a research question. Learn more about the issue; research. Develop a strategy for the study. Gather and analyze data.
Take action and share results. The action research model is a popular technique to obtaining organizational development because it identifies one specific area or issue and deals with that one issue. ACTION RESEARCH IN ACTION To illustrate the value of action research to the practice of OD, the following section describes a real-life case example of how the action research approach can be used. This account details specific actions taken by both the client and consultant during each of the seven phases of a nine-month consulting engagement. The primary client group in this example was an
IT organization within a regional insurance agency, and the initial presenting issue was a lack of collaboration and teaming across the organization. Entry After being presented with a viable business lead, the consultant arranged for an initial phone conversation with the client sponsor. While this first component of the action research approach only lasted approximately forty-five minutes, the consultant successfully gained some clarity on the presenting problems and primary concerns of the client. To summarize, the client suggested that there was a lack of collaboration and teaming across the organization.
She also expressed a desire to have the consultant further assess the situation and recommend specific strategies for improving this unproductive work culture. In conjunction with the consultant learning about the client situation, the client sponsor also took advantage of the opportunity to question the consultant about his professional background and relevant work experiences. Questions like “Can you give me an example of when you worked on a similar project? ” and “What would your first step be in this situation? ” helped her understand what value the consultant would bring to the organization.
The client also gained a tremendous sense of confidence in the consultant’s abilities due to his strong responses. As with any relationship, this is a critical step in building a positive working relationship early on in the Entry phase of the project. While this short conference ended on a very positive note, it took approximately six weeks for the two individuals to speak again. The delay occurred for two primary reasons: first, a change in client priorities due to competing projects and second, the consultant’s ongoing commitment to another client.
While this may create some tension between client and consultant in some engagements, it is actually quite common within an action research framework. Both parties must be ready to move to the next stage of the relationship before any work can proceed, and in this case, the two quickly confirmed their interest in pursuing the relationship further when they did reconnect. Contracting The Contracting phase of action research can begin as soon as the client and consultant agree to work together. In this case, it began as soon as the two reconnected and discussed the actual scope of the project.
During a face-to-face meeting with the client, the consultant asked some probing questions to better understand the client’s expectations. She repeated some of the same key phrases he heard before, namely “to help the group work better as a team” and “to help create a team identity”. At this point, the consultant began clarifying the primary target audience and proposing some potential activities to get the project started. Thus, the foundation of the engagement contract included the following: _ Project objective – design and implement customized management training and development programs that improve anagement skills and foster stronger team leaders _ Current scope – management training and development for the seven members of the management team only _ Potential future scope – broader training programs for nonmanagers as well as organization realignment or business process redesign initiatives _ Project approach – phased approach including high-level activities, such as assessment, feedback, and intervention, over a specific timeline and with key project milestones and deliverables; requires active participation and involvement from key members of the client organization, including he client sponsor, each of the seven managers, and many of the employees during the data gathering and evaluation phases specifically After this information was clearly documented, the consultant presented it to the client for review and approval. With a shared understanding of the project confirmed, the client then signed off on the contract. The importance of this action cannot be emphasized enough if you plan to follow an action research approach. Data Gathering and Diagnosis Having defined the scope of the project during Contracting, the consultant and client sponsor were now prepared to begin gathering data.
In true action research form, both parties played an active role in completing this task. The client sponsor provided key organization data to the consultant to help him understand the environment, and then the consultant initiated more targeted data gathering activities. Many members of the client organization participated in the process. All of the managers completed two different personality inventories, including the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, and participated in a 360-degree feedback process. They also participated in one-on-one interviews with the consultant so he could learn more about their ersonal strengths, areas for improvements, and their beliefs about the work condition. In addition, many of the employees participated in focus group sessions to share their feelings about the organization and complete a leadership effectiveness survey. After completing these activities, the consultant assumed more of an “expert” role during the diagnosis part of this phase. There were two primary reasons for this decision: first, the client sponsor and her direct reports were all extremely busy with other project commitments, and second, the consultant had ore experience with performing such analysis, and especially with using the diagnostic tools. Feedback When the diagnosis was complete, the consultant actively engaged the client, and the entire management team, in the feedback process. For the change to be successful, it is vital to share these findings with the client and guide them in determining the next steps, as opposed to deciding for them. They must direct the process if they are ever going to accept the change. Thus, the consultant presented a summary report of the findings as well as his conclusions and recommendations for moving forward.
In general, the findings did support the original contention that there was a lack of collaboration and team identity within the organization. More specifically, employees indicated that there was very little teamwork within or between units and that there was no reason to develop stronger team relations since the individual projects were so diverse in scope. One person actually stated, “I have no team… [This organization] is a series of fiefdoms. ” Once presented with these findings, all of the managers contributed to an open dialogue about the information and possible strategies to address the situation.
For the most part, the managers reacted positively, voicing their agreement with the results as if they were almost expected. Some managers, however, did react a bit more defensively and questioned whether or not specific findings were truly indicative of their units or if they were more a generalization of the rest of the organization. For example, one manager felt that she did seek input from her employees and included them in the decision-making process. The summary results for the entire organization, however, did not suggest that employees felt they were able to contribute in such a manner.
Instead, they expressed a concern that they had very limited knowledge of the long-term vision for the organization and were somewhat unclear of how their individual projects supported the future direction of the group. In the end, each of the managers agreed on the next steps of the engagement and suggested several potential activities that would address the specific areas for improvement discussed in the meeting. In parallel to this work, the consultant also shared the results of the personal assessments with each of the managers during individual feedback sessions. The individual results, similar to he team findings, suggested that the majority of the managers did not openly communicate about the organization’s future direction or inspire commitment to a shared vision, that they did not inform employees of how their work contributed to the organization’s goals. The results also indicated that the managers were very weak in the areas of performance evaluation and performance management, that they did not encourage performance discussions with their employees or provide any regular feedback regarding work performance. Again, the collaborative relationship between client nd consultant becomes critical if the individual managers were going to take any responsibility in addressing these concerns or promoting their own personal development. Planning Change The goal of the Planning Change phase is to create an action plan that will guide the next phase of the process, Intervention. For this reason, planning change is not about implementing the solutions being discussed. Instead, it is an opportunity to explore the potential solutions further and determine exactly how the intervention will proceed. In this case, the management team identified two levels of ntervention: one focused on the management team and the other focused on the individuals within that team. The teambased intervention was a management training program that involved a comprehensive curriculum of courses to address their specific developmental needs. The key aspects of planning this type of change, then, were to define the curriculum and coordinate all of the logistics for delivering the training, including preparing instructor and participant training materials, scheduling the training sessions, and ultimately facilitating the training. The second intervention was aimed more directly at the ndividual managers and was intended to support the team training experience. Towards this end, the consultant co-developed personal action plans that focused on one or two critical leadership skills with each manager. While these plans varied from individual to individual, many focused on addressing the concerns with performance evaluation and performance management and all specified certain developmental activities, target completion dates, as well as any resources that may be required to achieve the developmental goal. Intervention The Intervention phase is where the lan is executed and the solution is actually implemented within the client organization. Unlike the Diagnosis phase where the consultant often accepts responsibility as the expert, this is one time in the engagement where the consultant can take more of a “facilitator” role. It is the consultant’s goal to support the client’s development, but the client must be accountable. The client organization is what must change, and only actual members of this organization (i. e. , the client) can be “experts” of this environment. During the intervention, the consultant facilitated several essions to encourage the learning process. Topics ranged from recognizing great leadership to understanding how to become a more effective leader and were intended to help each of the managers improve in the key areas agreed to during the feedback process. As the consultant presented strategies for: _ Being a positive role model for others _ Being a coach and mentor to those you manage _ Providing the right mix of tools and resources to enable the team to achieve its goals the managers actively discussed how to apply these strategies to their organization.
Beyond the management team training, the consultant also continued to work with the individual managers on their personal development plans. Similar to the roles during training, the consultant merely supported the managers’ actions, but the managers were responsible for taking the action. To understand the importance of this balanced relationship, consider those managers who did not actively pursue their plans – they did notrequire dedicated support from the consultant. This proves the point that both parties play a critical role in the process, otherwise the arrangement will not work.
Evaluation In an informal manner, evaluation occurred during every phase of work during this engagement. For example, the consultant and client co-evaluated the results of the Contracting phase before moving on to Data Gathering and Diagnosis. Does the contract clearly define the scope of the project? If so, are there shared expectations between both parties as to how best to perform the work? If simple questions such as these are not adequately answered, then the individual parties must reconsider whether or not they are ready to move forward.
In addition, the consultant also performed a more formal review of the project. The consultant developed a standard protocol for measuring the success of each activity and then interviewed each of the managers to gather their thoughts and perceptions. Based on these responses, the consultant synthesized the data and presented it back to the client for review. The consultant also presented some basic recommendations for prioritizing future activities based on not only the achievement of previous goals but also the development of a more capable management team.
Future scope activities may include developing a training strategy for non-managers or creating a more formal communications plan to share information more regularly across the organization. In essence, this evaluation, then, actually serves to start another iteration of the consulting process, one that begins with more advanced client problems now that the original concerns have been addressed. Od Action Research (Step Wise Example) Step -1 : Top management perception of the problem Company ABC grew from 20 people to 500 in the past 3 years.
Recently, the company developed from being regionally based to becoming a national organisation, with three divisions and four corporate service groups. These subgroups comprised seventeen people from four areas: delivery services, sales support, production planning and invoicing. There were three team leaders. The sub groups were reluctant to get together. There was frustration; unmet expectations and negativity between the different teams. Some team members felt special and others felt invisible, and this is causing friction and reduced effectiveness in the organisation.
Step -2 : Consultation with Behavioural Science Consultant At this point the consultant was called upon to suggest and work out the solution seeking the following outcomes from the project: • To develop a happy and functional team so that staff want to come to work • That staff cope well with the changes ahead including the shared physical environment • Staff are comfortable with each other and understand their different responsibilities, and deliver to both internal and external customers • That staff support each other as a new team.
Step -3 : Data gathering & preliminary diagnosis of the problem Knowing that some of these people have worked together for a number of years it was difficult to understand the reported negativity and reluctance to get together. Consultant suggested exploring the existing network of relationships and the informal lines of communication.
A series of discussions with team members were held to discover their way of thinking, and some of the skills, experience and attributes they are bringing to the new team. Step -4 : Feedback to the key clients or client group The meetings were lively and open. Staff wanted to see five outcomes achieved: • Clear definition of responsibilities – “the grey areas to be defined, especially where it’s…