Setting Up a Network of Action Research to Overcome Systemic and Cultural Issues

The world is changing faster than systems can keep up. This is seen in business, industry, education, health care, banking etc. The basic problem faced by managers is much the same across all of these ways of doing business: the owners and managers believe they see where the company needs to move but have difficulty explaining or motivating current staff to make the necessary changes. Sometimes management are up against cultural issues, and while they fully understand since they also come from those cultures, it is even more difficult because the change goes to the very fiber of their countries or ideals and yet are necessary if their organization is to survive. An example of this is seen in education in the Arab world where spokespeople such as her Majesty, Queen Rania Al Abdullah of Jordan and Crown Prince H.H. Shaikh Salman bin Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa of Bahrain actively pursue a dramatic change in education away from graduates who want and expect the government to hire them and to take care of them for the rest of their lives as has been the case for a very long time. In much of the world the government has always been the best employer and now economic pressures insist on a change to an entrepreneurial society, one that creates economic growth in the new knowledge based economic environment. Using this example, we see several complex layers of issues that need to be tackled simultaneously in order to bring about systemic change. These layers include:

  1. producing a cultural mind shift from being taken care of by the government to fast-paced entrepreneurial endeavors
  2. encouraging a shift from seeking only safety to being willing to take risks
  3. needing to incorporate the “soft” skills required in modern business into the standard curriculum
  4. providing professional development for teachers so that they can model these new skills, ones that they don’t currently have or understand
  5. finding the time to release all the staff for this training and this retooling while still continuing the work that is going on
  6. finding a way so that the change is embraced by the people rather than engendering resentment

As is true with most complex issues, facing these issues directly makes many experienced leaders and managers quail under the likelihood of potential failure. We have all seen reform efforts gone bad. Every new idea that does not get implemented properly, leaves behind it a residue of resentment and skepticism, eventually souring the entire culture of our working world. Many Western environments have seen this already, with employee morale dropping dramatically and productivity coming to a halt upon announcement of mergers, reorganization, etc.

The good news is that networked participatory action research (PAR) can overcome many, if not all, of these challenges. This article lays out the general format that can be used by leadership, in tandem with a good PAR facilitation, to develop teams of staff who will study the issues and develop solutions, taking ownership of the changes required by the complex situation rather than subtlety opposing all change.

How do you begin? The first step for management is to work what personal incentives can be used to encourage people to take on the extra work that is being asked of them. This is a common problem for businesses, nonprofits, and public administrators, who generally expect that this kind of work should just be done under the normal auspices of a person’s employment. We have found that incentives bring success and without them complex reforms of this nature are much more likely to experience a failure rate of somewhere around 50%. Here’s why. This PAR process will require that these teams work outside of their normal business day to gather data, have meetings to discuss actions and measurement, implement new steps, and measure their success. Consider them pilot projects in each of your major hubs of activity. If you were paying consultants to work out a pilot for you, you would pay them. In this case your own staff should be treated with the same respect you would give those consultants. The change in their attitude will seem remarkable. When you are asking them to step up as experts in what they do and help you redesign their own working environment to better meet the needs of outside pressures to change, to pilot new ideas, and you show them respect by paying them extra for their extra work, they are much more likely to give it their full attention.

What are you asking them to do? To participate regularly in an action research project and to write up the results in a final report that will be available to you for publication. This involves a discovery cycle where they analyze what needs to change in order to make your vision come true, present ideas as to which steps can be taken and measure the outcomes of those first steps, and then to come back and reflect with you on what they are finding. This will then start another round of discovery, measurable action, and reflection, a process which continues until you see real and sustainable change. In this manner they will take ownership of the changes you need them to make, feel transformed in their new roles, and, over time, you will be amazed at how much can be done, and what positive attitudes will develop. The requirement for a final report is a necessary capstone to this kind of change process. We have found that the two elements that create success are the incentives and the requirement for a final report that will be published. The first shows respect, the second sets a high professional standard.

What is the structure and timetable of this activity? Picture a central hub, with smaller circles attached to it through lines, and more lines making a web between the smaller circles. That is the general design of networked participatory action research to address complex change. First, small working groups are formed in each of the hubs of activity that need to address the change. For instance in education, you would bring together working teams that included Principals and key teachers from schools where the reform needed to be put in action. In business, the decisions of the online on where the reform needs to be put in action. So, if you’re strategic plan requires a retooling in some fashion across several working groups, you ask the heads of those working groups to select two or three partners and they form what we will call the local participatory action team.

Once these small teams are formed, (becoming the smaller circles in our imaginary diagram) you bring them together on a regular basis, facilitate their understanding of action research, their understanding of the challenges your wider organization faces, and what is expected of their individual subgroups. Then their team goes back to their area and proceedings with a cycle of action research. This includes discovering what is the currently in the way of the change and measuring it. Then they come back to the hub for another day’s work as you facilitate their next steps which include designing and planning the implementation that will begin to create the change you desire. Because they are held to a standard that requires later reporting, each step along the way as measured, and as the process continues as they grow in their professional understanding of the scientific approach to problem solving and change.

The timetable starts with management assigning the work to their managers and the managers choosing their teams, then these teams or hubs of activity come together with the facilitator to learn about action research and to plan the rest of the change effort. The will be meeting as a larger group for one full day about every two months for approximately one year after the first meeting. In total, and including initial planning and final celebration, the facilitated group meets for 8 – 10 working days. The teams will put in about three times that much effort in their local context. We have studied groups using this design and have found consistently transformational results – both from the teams in the hubs of activity and in the total organization as a whole. Generally a year of facilitated activity and another year where the people involved in the initial teams disseminate what they have learned and engender change in their local environments will demonstrate remarkable differences. The following quotes participants at the end of this design demonstrate the results you might expect in your organization.

The cycles of participatory action research have certainly given us exciting results. Motivation in our organization is an ongoing research topic, and we realize that we have a duty to pass on this information to the entire community. We all need to raise our expectations as to our ability to achieve better results, but we have proven to ourselves that we are up to the task.

The action research process has pushed all of us to continue to refine our practice of acquiring usable information. As we went through this cyclical process, we gained clarity on the data needed to be most helpful to those we work with and our employers. Everyone assisted by seeking information and we created an environment where all were successful. The process supported us and caused us to grow beyond out wildest dreams. While at time frustrating, it also creates an effective model for successful implementation of change.

Future articles will discuss the facilitation issues and other specifics of the design.