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How to... carry out action research

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Exposing action research

The advantages of action research will have become clear. It allows the researcher to work on a problem, not only yielding answers to the problem but also informing theory. It empowers participants, enables change, and creates opportunities for organizational learning. It yields rich data from multiple sources. It creates solid theory about practice, and hence leads to improvements.

Despite these benefits, action research is not without its limitations and critics. The latter point to the lack of validity and generalizability, on the ground that the intervention is a one off and not repeatable. Perhaps more seriously, however, is the fact that it is not perceived as mainstream, and will therefore not be welcomed by the gatekeepers of the all important mainstream international journals.

The advantages of action research will have become clear. It allows the researcher to work on a problem, not only yielding answers to the problem but also informing theory. It empowers participants, enables change, and creates opportunities for organizational learning. It yields rich data from multiple sources. It creates solid theory about practice, and hence leads to improvements.

Despite these benefits, action research is not without its limitations and critics. The latter point to the lack of validity and generalizability, on the ground that the intervention is a one off and not repeatable. Perhaps more seriously, however, is the fact that it is not perceived as mainstream, and will therefore not be welcomed by the gate keepers of the all important mainstream international journals.

How to improve the validity of action research

Validity can be ensured by applying rigour in the research methodology and design. In particular:

  • Using the relevant literature, both method and content, to situate the problem, and then to reflect on findings.
  • Using measures and methods that are well respected in the literature.
  • Using standard tools to increase reliability – for example a written protocol for interviews.
  • Writing up the research in a well argued and well documented manner.

The case study approach, and focus on the particular (organization, problem, etc.) encourages multiple sources of data. This in itself increases validity, as evidence is coming from a range of sources, and allows for triangulation – checking of one source against another.

At the end of their article, "The impact of e-resources at Bournemouth University 2004/2006", Beard et al. comment:

"Action research has proved to be an appropriate methodology for this type of research, as it allows quantitative and qualitative data to be used and learning to occur through action and reflection. Triangulation enables the views of a diverse community of academics and students to be considered alongside data from management information systems".

Triangulation in action research, however, is not merely a matter of being able to check one set of results against another; it is also possible to check differences in data from observation, personal accounts, etc. over the passage of time. However, the researcher here is looking for difference, not similarity, and for the opportunity to reflect on the different perspectives the former reveals.

Validity is also increased by having several researchers on the project, which gives greater objectivity. Hales et al. (2006) describe how they tested a method one of them had developed for improving tactical decision making. They used multiple sources of evidence – including open-ended interviews with senior managers, supervisors and workers, and observation – as a way of validating data, and four researchers to increase objectivity. The first author developed the method, the second and fourth authors conducted the interviews, which were analysed by the third, who also reviewed research logs. Three of the authors carried on participant observation.

Dissemination

Dissemination is obviously an excellent way of generalizing research. According to Eden and Huxham (2002), action research calls for book length, owing to the incremental nature of theory development, the need to provide background and the complexity of the data itself. Doherty and Manfredi (2006) believe that despite the growing popularity of action research, it is disdained by "mainstream" management journals which favour more traditional methodologies.

Failure to benefit from the top publication outlets (i.e. top American journals) hits both UK and US based scholars. The former are in hock to the Research Assessment Exercise, which provides top ratings for international (and mostly American) journals which promote a conventional, positivist, research ethos, and in any case treats with suspicion any research that is not mainstream. The latter can only receive tenure if they publish in the aforementioned top journals. For a young scholar, doing action research can be just too much of a risk.

That notwithstanding, much action research does get published in journals – for example, a fulltext search for the phrase "action research" in Emerald's database yielded over 1,300 entries (search as of January 2008).

Students using action research as a method for a doctoral thesis may also experience problems, taking longer to complete, and having difficulty finding a supervisor who understands (Zuber-Skerrit and Fletcher, 2007). According to the latter, a good action research thesis should solve a real and complex problem, benefit from top level commitment in the organization the student is researching in, and the reflection should be to find out what is the gap in knowledge that will earn the doctorate.

There is quite a bit of advice on writing an action research thesis, as will be explained in Section 4 "Action research resources".

Zuber-Skerrit and Fletcher (2007) advise that a quality action research thesis is one which:

  • solves a real, complex problem – it is necessary to get the cooperation of top level management,
  • contributes to both practical and theoretical knowledge –- above all, identifying a gap.

This quality is achieved by:

  • a carefully designed, explained and justified methodology,
  • an original contribution which provides relevant support and validation and which is well argued,
  • the use of relevant literature, both methodological and content, aligned to the topic,
  • a clear, concise and accurate piece of writing, free from errors.

References

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.

Eden, C. and Huxham, C. (2002), "Action research" in Partington, D (Ed.), Essential Skills for Management Research, Sage Publications, London.

Doherty, L. and Manfredi, S. (2006), '', Women in Management Review, Vol. 21 No. 3, pp. 241-259.

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.

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.