Action Research Model

organization development  Action Research Model

The action research model focuses on planned change as a cyclical process in which initial research about the organization provides information to guide subsequent action. Then the results of the action are assessed to provide further information to guide further action, and so on. This iterative (iterate means to repeat) cycle of research and action involves considerable collaboration among organization members and OD practitioners. It places heavy emphasis on data gathering and diagnosis prior to action planning and implementation, as well as careful evaluation of results after action is taken. Action research is traditionally aimed both at helping specific organizations to implement planned change and at developing more general knowledge that can be applied to other change and settings. Although action research was originally developed to have this dual focus on knowledge, it has been adapted to OD efforts in which the major emphasis is on planned change. Figure 2.1 (B) shows the cyclical phases of planned change as defined by the original research method. The main steps involved are:

1. Entry (Problem identification): This stage usually begins when a key executive in the organization or someone with power and influence senses that the organization has one or more problems that might be solved with the help of an OD practitioner. Contact between the consultant and client is what initiates the entry phase. After the contact, the consultant and the client begin the process of exploring with one another the possibilities of a working relationship. During this process, the consultant assesses:

a.The probability of relating with the client

b.The motivation and values of the client

c.The client’s readiness for change

d.The extent of resources available

e.Potential leverage points of change

2. Contracting (Consultation with a behavioral science expert): During the initial contact, the OD practitioner and the client carefully assess each other. The practitioner has his or her own normative, developmental theory or frame of reference and must be conscious of those assumptions and values. Sharing them with the client from the beginning establishes an open and collaborative atmosphere.

Unlike other types of contracts, the OD contract states three critical areas:

a.What each expects to get from the relationship

b.How much time each will invest, when, and at what cost

c.The ground rules under which the parties will operate

  1. Diagnosis (Data gathering and preliminary diagnosis): This step is usually completed by the OD practitioner, often in conjunction with organization members. It involves gathering appropriate information and analyzing it to determine the underlying causes of organizational problems. The four basic methods of gathering data are interviews, process observation, questionnaires, and organizational performance data (unfortunately, often overlooked). One approach to diagnosis begins with observation, proceeds to a semi structured interview, and concludes with a questionnaire to measure precisely the problems identified by the earlier steps. When gathering diagnostic information, OD practitioners may influence members from whom they are collecting data. In OD, “every action on the part of the consultant constitutes an intervention” that will have some effect on the organization.
  2. Feedback (Feedback to a key client or group): Because action research is a collaborative activity, the diagnostic data are fed back to the client, usually in a group or work-team meeting. The feedback step, in which members are given the information gathered by the OD practitioner, helps them determine the strengths and weaknesses of the organization or the department under study. The consultant provides the client with all relevant and useful data. Obviously, the practitioner will protect confidential sources of information and, at times, may even withhold data. Defining what is relevant and useful involves consideration of privacy and ethics as well as judgment about whether the group is ready for the information or if the information would make the client overly defensive. At this point, members discuss the feedback and explore with the OD practitioner whether they want to work on identified problems. A close interrelationship exists among data gathering, feedback, and diagnosis because the consultant summarizes the basic data from the client members and presents the data to them for validation and further diagnosis. An important point to remember is that the action research process is very different from the doctor-patient model, in which the consultant comes in, makes a diagnosis, and prescribes a solution. It is important to note that the failure to establish a common frame of reference in the client-consultant relationship may lead to a faulty diagnosis or to a communications gap whereby the client is sometimes “unwilling to believe the diagnosis or accept the prescription.” That is the reason one

may find that most companies have drawers full of reports by consultants, each loaded with diagnoses and recommendations which are either not understood or not accepted by the ‘patient’. A feedback session generally has three steps.

First: the consultant provides a summary of the data collected and some preliminary analysis.

Next: there is a general discussion in which questions of clarification are raised and answered.

Finally: some time is devoted to interpretation. At this stage some changes may be made in the consultant’s analysis and interpretation. Thus, the consultant works collaboratively with the client to arrive at a final diagnosis that accurately describes the current state of the system.

Case Example:

An OD practitioner conducted interviews with the senior management group. He asked four general questions;

1.  What are the strengths?

2.  What are the weaknesses?

3.  Are you in favor of the off-site meeting?

4.  What should be the objective of the off-site meeting?

1. What are the strengths?

  • Senior management is highly experienced in business (7)
  • Commitment of work force (5)
  • Good people throughout (3)
  • Last four years we experienced success in many areas (3)
  • Technological superior & a market leader (3)
  • Creativity (2)
  • Managers think entrepreneurially (2)

2. What are the weaknesses?

  • Marketing & Servicing System (6)
  • Do not establish priorities (3)
  • Organizational priorities are always secondary to individual managers (3)
  • Lack of management depth (3)
  • Little planning (3)
  • Structure (2)
  • High Costs (2)
  • Overly change-oriented (2)
  • Poor reward system (2)
  • Low morale (2)
  • Internal competition (2)
  • High degree of mistrust (2)

3. What should be the objective of the off-site meeting?

  • Agree on the regional structure (7)
  • Set financial objectives for next two years (6)
  • List of things we need to do & stop doing (4)
  • Must hear from the GM about his team notions, ideas, expectations (4)
  • Some ventilation of feelings needed (3)
  • Must come together more as a top management team (3)
  • Establish standards for performance (3)
  • Increase mutual respect (2)
  1. Planning Change (Joint action planning): Next, the OD practitioner and the client members jointly agree on further actions to be taken. This is the beginning of the moving process (described in Lewin’s change model), as the organization decides how best to reach a different quasi-stationary equilibrium. At this stage, the specific action to be taken depends on the culture, technology, and environment of the organization; the diagnosis of the problem; and the time and expense of the intervention. Once the diagnosis is understood and deemed accurate, action steps are planned. Good diagnosis determines the intervention. The purposes of this planning phase are to generate alternative steps for responding correctively to the problems identified in the diagnosis, and to decide on the step or order of steps to take.
  2. Intervention (Action): This stage involves the actual change from one organizational state to another. It may include installing new methods and procedures, reorganizing structures and work designs, and reinforcing new behaviors. Such actions typically cannot be implemented immediately but require a transition period as the organization moves from the present to a desired future state. Examples of interventions at the individual level are: job redesign and enrichment, training and management development, changes in the quality of working life, management by objectives, and career development. Examples of interventions at the group level are: team building, the installation of autonomous work groups or quality control circles.
  3. Evaluation (Data gathering after action): Because action research is a cyclical process, data must also be gathered after the action has been taken to measure and determine the effects of the action and to feed the results back to the organization. This, in turn, may lead to re-diagnosis and new action.

Termination of the OD Effort:

An organization has a constant need for periodic, objective diagnostic check-ups by external consultants – a need that exists, incidentally, whether or not the organization’s managers see it. Termination is not an applicable phase for internal OD practitioners. Although they may conclude specific programs and projects with their clients, they should not terminate the relationship. A primary role of internal practitioners is to serve as guardians of the new culture. They may help to regulate the social change that has become a new routine in organizational life. When OD practitioners follow the action research model, they generate new data for further diagnosis and action. The process is cyclical, and since an organization is both dynamic and naturally follows the entropic process, there is always a great deal of consultative work to be done.

Phases not Steps:

Phases are a more appropriate term than steps for describing the flow of events in OD work. Steps imply discrete actions, while phases connote a cycle of changes. Although it is useful for our understanding of OD practice to conceive of distinct phases, in actual practice they blend, overlap, and do not follow one from the other. Diagnosis, for example, comes early in the OD process and intervention later, but when one is collecting information from the organization for diagnostic purposes, an intervention is occurring simultaneously; when the OD practitioner begins to ask questions about the organization and its members, he or she is intervening. Phases are an appropriate term also because of the cyclical nature of the OD process. As the process continues, new or undisclosed data are discovered. These data affect organization members, and the members react, creating additional information for diagnosis. Further action is then planned as a consequence of the new, perhaps more refined diagnosis.

Contemporary Adaptations of Action Research:

The action research model underlies most current approaches to planned change and is often identified with the practice of OD. Recently, action research has been extended to new settings and applications, and consequently researchers and practitioners have made requisite adaptations of its basic framework. Trends in the application of action research include movement from smaller subunits of organizations to total systems and communities. In those larger contexts, action research is more complex and political than in smaller settings. Therefore, the action research cycle is coordinated across multiple change processes and includes a diversity of stakeholders who have an interest in the organization. Action research also is applied increasingly in international settings, particularly in developing nations in the southern hemisphere. Embedded within the action research model, however, are “northern-hemisphere” assumptions about change. For example, action research traditionally views change more linearly than do Eastern cultures, and it treats the change process more collaboratively than do Latin American and African countries. To achieve success in those settings, action research is tailored to fit cultural assumptions. Finally, action research is applied increasingly to promote social change and innovation, as demonstrated most clearly in community development and global social change projects. Those applications are heavily value laden and seek to redress imbalances in power and resource allocations across different groups. Action researchers tend to play an activist role in the change process, which is often chaotic and confliction. In light of these general trends, action research has undergone two key adaptations. First, contemporary applications have increased substantially the degree of member involvement in the change process. That contrasts with traditional approaches to planned change, whereby consultants carried out most of the change activities, with the agreement and collaboration of management. Although consultant-dominated change still persists in OD, there is a growing tendency to involve organization members in learning about their organization and about how to change it. Referred to as “participatory action research,” “action learning,” “action science,” “self-design “or” appreciative inquiry,” this approach to plan change emphasizes the need for organization members to learn firsthand about planned change if they are to gain the knowledge and skills needed to change the organization. In today’s complex and changing environment, some argue that OD must go beyond solving particular problems to helping members gain the competence needed to change and improve the organization continually. In this modification of action research, the role of OD consultants is to work with members to facilitate the learning process. Both parties are “co-learners” in diagnosing the organization, designing changes, and implementing and assessing them. Neither party dominates the change process. Rather, each participant brings unique information and expertise to the situation, and they combine their resources to learn how to change the organization. Consultants, for example, know how to design diagnostic instruments and OD interventions, and organization members have local knowledge about the organization and how it functions. Each participant learns from the change process. Organization members learn how to change their organization and how to refine and improve it. OD consultants learn how to facilitate complex organizational change and learning. The second adaptation to action research is the integration of an “interpretive or “social constructionist” approach to planned change. Called “appreciative inquiry,” this model proposes that words and conversations determine what is important and meaningful in organizational life. Take, for example, the work group whose daily conversations are dominated by management feedback that its costs are too high. Even if the group performs well on quality and customer satisfaction, the focus on cost problems can lead group members to believe that the group is a poor performer. Accordingly, this approach to change involves starting new conversations that drive new shared meanings of key goals, processes, and achievements. Proponents of appreciative inquiry point out that most organizational conversations are focused on poor financial results or on how the organization could be better, on the gap between where the organization is and where it wants to be, and on the problems it faces. Metaphorically, organizations are like problems to be solved and the conversations among members dwell on the organization’s faults. Appreciative inquiry challenges that assumption. It suggests that the most important change an organization can make is to begin conversations about what the organization is doing right. Appreciative inquiry helps organization members to understand and describe their organization when it is working at its best. That knowledge is then applied to creating a powerful and guiding image of what the organization could be. Broad involvement of organization members in creating the vision starts a new conversation about the organization’s potential and creates a new focus and positive expectation. Considerable research on expectation effects supports this positive approach to planned change. It suggests that people tend to act in ways that make their expectations occur: a positive vision of the organization’s future energizes and directs behavior to make that expectation come about. Planned change emphasizes member involvement and starts with which organization features to examine. For example, members can choose to look for successful male-female collaboration (as opposed to sexual discrimination), instances of customer satisfaction (as opposed to customer dissatisfaction), particularly effective work teams, or product development processes that brought new ideas to market especially fast. If the focus of inquiry is real and vital to organization members, the change process itself will take on these positive attributes. The second step involves gathering data about the “best of what is” in the organization. A broad array of organization members is involved in developing data-gathering instruments, collecting information, and analyzing it. In the third step, members examine the data to find stories, however small, that present a truly exciting and possible picture of the future. From those stories, members develop “possibility propositions”—statements that bridge the organization’s current best practices with ideal possibilities for future organizing. That effort redirects attention from “what is” to “what might be.” In step four, relevant stakeholders are brought together to construct a vision of the future and to devise action plans for moving in that direction. The vision becomes a statement of “what should be.” Finally, implementation of those plans proceeds similarly to the action and assessment phases of action research described previously. Members make changes, assess the results, and make necessary adjustments, and so on as they move the organization toward the vision.

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