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How to... carry out action research

Options:     Print Version - How to... carry out action research, part 2 Print view

Article Sections

  1. What is action research?
  2. Research design and data collection
  3. Exposing action research
  4. Action research resources

Research design and data collection

Like any research approach, action research has its own development cycle, its links with theory, what may rather grandly be termed its epistemological stance (i.e. whether it aims to build on or build theory) and its preferred data collection methods. This is all part of research design, and this section will look at how to design an action research project in a thorough and effective way.

Link with participants

As we saw in the previous section, what really distinguishes action research from other forms of research is that the participants have a much more direct role. This will influence the design from start to finish. For example participants will:

  • need to be involved in the planning process, in order to ensure that the research asks questions that are relevant to their concern,
  • possibly have a hand in data gathering, and definitely an interest in the results,
  • look for practice related, as opposed to research, outcomes, and a change in their own practice.

Action research has been compared with consulting in that it is concerned with development of practice; the difference is that it is cyclical rather than linear, the cyclical element being concerned with reflection, designed not only to improve practice but also to generate theory. The time-scale is often longer, and the budget larger.

The theoretical connection

For all that action research is concerned with improvements to practice, the theoretical angle is also important as all research seeks to build theory.

Action research is generally inductive rather than deductive – that is, the data collection builds rather than tests theory. The researcher may start with a particular theoretical position, but should be open to what the research yields, and to open reflection.

This openness, however, does not negate the importance of immersing oneself in the relevant literature, both content and methodology, in order to give a context to the problem.

The unique nature of action research interventions, and their non repeatability, means that they are not good for rigorous theory testing. On the other hand, they are good at testing theoretical frameworks, or theories as related to other theories. Hence their usefulness in organization studies, where such frameworks apply.

The important thing is for the particular research to have results which extend beyond the confines of the particular project and have a general application, whether as a test of theoretical frameworks as described above, as theory which informs more robust practice, or a tool, model, or method which can be used in a range of situations.

In "Making a difference. Sustainability reporting, accountability and organisational change" Adams and McNicholas (2007) conclude their study of sustainability reporting thus:

"Our study has shown that, through action research, academics can assist organizations in bringing about improvements to their sustainability reporting processes, accountability and sustainability performance. Action research might also contribute to academic literature and theorizing by improving our understanding of: what drives organizations to provide an account of their sustainability performance; what determines the level of accountability attained; the complex nature of the interactions and relationships between organizations and their stakeholders on sustainability issues; and the manner in which sustainability reporting processes impact on organizational change towards improved sustainability performance."

In "Action research as culture change tool" Marcinkoniene and Kekäle describe a programme of change in post-communist Baltic schools. They use the literature to describe the prevalent culture, and conclude that it would be possible to apply a similar action research intervention in other post-communist states, where schools are likely to have a similar culture.

Action research takes the researcher and the organization through a cyclical process of deepening understanding, both of the organizational problem and the research question, in which reflection happens not just at the beginning and the end, but throughout the process. This reflection yields a greater sense of empowerment for participants, who feel themselves more in charge of decision-making processes and more able to see problems clearly.

The iterative nature of the reflection process makes action research similar to grounded theory, which involves going back into the field after looking at data with a clearer understanding of the key issues, and developing further understanding through more research.

In "The quality of an action research thesis in the social sciences" Zuber-Skerrit quotes her own theoretical framework of action research – the CRASP model. Action research is:

  • Critical (and self-critical) collaborative enquiry by
  • Reflective practitioners being
  • Accountable and making the results of their enquiry public,
  • Self-evaluating their practice and engaged in
  • Participative problem-solving and continuing professional development.

Collecting data – multiple sources of evidence

The great advantage of the case study (and most action research, as we have seen, takes place in a case study environment) is that it can yield data from many different sources. Many action research studies use a combination of artefacts, document studies, surveys, interviews, focus groups, discussions, participant observation, group work, performance measurement. In addition, hard data may be available as in the following example.

Example

Adams and McNicholas (2007) report on the data collection methods, which supplemented discussion, observations in meetings and interviews, with hard data such as operational statistics, financial accounts, marketing reports, sustainability reports, as well as detailed study of the website, annual reports etc.

The most striking thing about action research, however, is that much of the data is supplied by the individuals themselves as part of feedback on how the object of data collection helps them in their work and lives.

In "" Hales et al. (2006) describe the testing of a method for improving decision making at the shop-floor level. The method was tried out on the shop-floor with interviews being conducted with users and observation of people using it.

Andersen et al. (2006) describe how the researchers were involved in bringing about changes in a bank, and deployed a number of methods to identify shortcomings and suggest improvements, including:

  • interviews with all employees in the bank;
  • observation of employees' interaction with customers in customer meetings and other situations;
  • interviews with customers, both those observed in interactions with service personnel and those who had not been in contact with the bank in a while;
  • performance measurement of some key factors, e.g. customer flow in the bank office;
  • group work among the bank employees to analyse problem areas and develop improvements; and
  • the use of tools like business process analysis, root cause analysis, and similar techniques to shed light on problem areas.

Beard et al. (2007) used action research because it was participatory, encouraging researchers to seek views which they did through online questionnaires and subsequent interviews with a number of participants, and which they triangulated with data on online use.

Gapp and Fisher (2006) describe how the traditional course evaluation questionnaires were supplemented by focus groups as an additional way of finding out how to improve the course.

References

Adams, C.A and McNicholas, P. (2007) "Making a difference. Sustainability reporting, accountability and organisational change", Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal, Vol. 20 No. 3, pp. 382-402.

Andersen, B., Henriksen, B. and Aarseth, W. (2006), "", International Journal of Productivity and Performance Management, Vol. 55 No. 1, pp. 61-78.

Beard, J., Dale, P. and Hutchins, J. (2007), "The impact of e-resources at Bournemouth University 2004/2006", Performance Measurement and Metrics, Vol. 8 No. 1, pp. 7-17.

Gapp, R. and Fisher, R. (2006), "", Quality Assurance in Education, Vol. 14 No. 2, pp. 156-166.

Hales, D.N., Siha, S.M. and McKnew, J.I. (2006), "", International Journal of Operations and Production Management, Vol. 26 No. 8, pp. 866-881.

Marcinkoniene, R. and Kekäle, T. (2007), "Action research as culture change tool", Baltic Journal of Management, Vol. 2 No. 1, pp. 97-109.

Zuber-Skerrit, O. and Fletcher, M. (2007), "The quality of an action research thesis in the social sciences", Quality Assurance in Education, Vol. 15 No. 4, pp. 413-436.