Action research projects can vary along many different dimensions, and the set up of such projects need to be carefully thought through. Here are some of the things I think about when setting up a new action research project.
- Be very explicit about what will be done by you, and what the difference is between an action researcher and a consultant. You can for example not be the project leader of their project, since that will not support them in their change.
- Make sure that the people you collaborate with understand what action research is, and have a discussion about what kind of knowledge will be gained through the collaboration.
- Be open about what publications you will write based on the work.
- Invite people in the organisation to write publications with you. Doing research with people is really worth the effort!
- Organisations and structures cannot be changed by you in person. The change process needs to be driven by people inside the organisation.
- Be willing to do things that are a part of the change process, and spend time on doing them well. But do not be the driver of change, and leave that role to the people in the organisation.
Good luck with your action research work 🙂
Action research as a methodology is not good in all situations, and there are a few disadvantages with the approach as I see it.
- Few know what it is, especially in areas such as medicine. This can cause som confusion, and you have to explain the foundations of the approach. Often this is met with some scepticism, though, and people wonder about the objectivity of your research when you are doing research together with people in a project instead of on people in a project.
- Too close to consulting. Another disadvantage that I have run into is that sometimes being an action researcher is a bit too close to the consulting business.
- Difficulties planning the research is at least an obvious disadvantage in any IT related research as IT project seldom follow a given time plan (or perhaps any plan :-P.
- Time consuming. Participating in meetings and being a part of a change process takes time, and you need to find a good balance between this and the writing and analysing of data.
Despite these “disadvantages” I really appreciate being an action researcher, and for me the interesting research questions are closely connected to trying to improve practice.
If you want to know more about action research there are many books and papers on the topic. I especially like this one: Action and Interactive Research: Beyond practice and Theory, Shaker Publishing, 2006.
So what are the advantages of working with action research? Well, action research can be a good choice if you are interested in research questions that are related to change and you want to understand change without being a fly on the wall but be a part of the change process. Kurt Levin is said to the the father of action research, and he said:
“If you want truly to understand something, try to change it.”
I also think that action research on for example the launch of medical records online in Sweden (through the Dome consortium) is more ethical than taking the “fly on the wall” approach where you observe what happens without affecting it. During the first years of the Dome project when we had funding from Vinnova we were very actively engaged in the development and launch of the system, trying to launch research studies that would make us better understand the effects of the system. One such example was the launch of a study on cancer patients and how they reacted to the system since this was a pressing issue for health care professionals. We hence tried to be more agile than most researcher are and adapt our studies to the needs of the project.
For me one advantage with action research is that I am motivated by trying to make a difference, and to make things better. One example of this is the Ladok project, or the KiA project that we had with Uppsala University. In these research projects we work closely together with skilled practitioners trying to figure out how to launch ICT in organisations with a focus on creating a good work environment where people can work efficiently and make use of their competence through a new ICT system.
I have also been the practitioner working with researchers regarding gender equality in academia. Here I have very much experienced the advantages, and I have had the opportunity to work closely with gender equality specialists who support and scaffold our attempts to create a better work environment for all with a gender perspective. Nina Almgren has acted as my personal coach when it comes to working with gender equality, and through her I have learned extremely much.
Being an action researcher is not easy, and I even overheard a very well known British researcher claiming that it is far too difficult to be something you do during your PhD studies. And I can admit that I have seen many PhD students who think that the task i too demanding and requires too much. I have so far been very lucky and both my PhD students cope with action research brilliantly. But I know for sure that it is not an easy task to write your PhD in action research projects!
Professional Competence in the Area of the Project. Action research requires that the researcher both has the professional competence to work in the area of the project, such as development of IT in organisations, and can handle the complexities and conflicts of real software development projects. In this you are required to take all possible roles imaginable such as: The driver of change, the listener, the student who learns new things, the teacher, the organiser, “the bad cop and the good cop”, the one who says NO or the creative solution finder. Change projects often cause turbulence, and ICT projects far too often fail so this is not an easy job.
Research Competence. The researcher also needs to be a skilled researcher and be able to set up, carry through and write up research from the projects in parallell to the work. This includes knowledge of theory and methods related to the area of study, and also knowledge about where to publish and disseminate knowledge.
Time Management. One of the most challenging aspect of action research is the time management of the researcher. There is always more to be done in the project where you do your research, and there is always more to be done when it comes to analysing, writing and reading in the area of your research. Here it is imperative that the researcher finds the time to do the writing up of the studies, and see to it that this is not postponed due to more pressing matters on the agenda.
I have worked with action research in different projects since 2002, and I have also worked in more traditional research projects. I thought that I would write a short series of blog posts describing perspectives on action research. This first blog post aims at describing what action research is and some of my experiences. The blog posts are aimed at those who would like to know a bit about action research, and who don’t know that much. Or who are just curious of what we do in our action research projects. 🙂
Action research is a kind of research where the researcher works closely together with practitioners trying to understand and improve a situation or organisation in some specific way. The researcher is not “a fly on the wall” who observes things, but takes part in the change process to a large or small extent. Action research projects can indeed vary quite a lot and the term is more an umbrella concept for a whole family of approaches.
The name action research reveals that it is both about action (change) and about research (knowledge). Action research is hence closely connected to researching change, and change processes and at the same time trying to understand them and create new or improved understandings.
There are also a large number of action research dimensions, and projects can be very strong in some of these dimensions and not so strong in others. These dimensions can be related to the level of participation, the level of change as well as the size of the project.
Also the role of the researcher can vary quite a lot throughout the action research project, which makes the work in action research projects very demanding and you need to be a competent professional.
I have experiences from action research projects in the following areas. I will describe some of the different projects more in detail in later blog posts.
- Implementing ICT in organisations, in for example the launch of the New Ladok system in Sweden.
- Gender equality in academia through the FESTA project. Here I was a practitioner working closely together with Nina Almgren who is an experienced gender expert and researcher.
- Education and improvement of learning environments for the development of professional competencies.
- Establishment of user centred methods and perspectives in organisations (the area of my PhD) in many different public organisations.
- The launch of medical records online for patients in Sweden in the DOME consortium since 2012.