The Key Role of Participant Observation in Organizational Consultation: "Participant Observation Is a Well-Established Research Technique That Can Be Used to Support the EA Core Technology of Organizational Consultation."

By Hughes, Daniel | The Journal of Employee Assistance, October 2010 | Go to article overview

The Key Role of Participant Observation in Organizational Consultation: "Participant Observation Is a Well-Established Research Technique That Can Be Used to Support the EA Core Technology of Organizational Consultation."


Hughes, Daniel, The Journal of Employee Assistance


Employee Assistance Core Technology was introduced in the mid-1980s to identify those methods, techniques, and activities that were distinct to the field of EA practice (Roman and Blum 1985, 1988). Although the field has changed significantly during the past 25 years, little attention has been paid to shifts in the utilization of core technology. Recent research suggests that certain EA core technologies are being used more frequently than others (Warley and Hughes 2010).

More specifically, assessment and referral continue to be routinely employed by most EA practitioners. However, training, constructive confrontation, and organizational consultation are used less frequently. Accordingly, this discussion will explore the well-established research strategy of "participant observation" and its role in advancing the core technology of organizational consultation.

Participant Observation

Participant observation has a long history in social and behavioral science research, particularly in the field of anthropology (DeWalt, DeWalt and Wayland 1998). It is also well established in the fields of sociology, social psychology, and communication studies. Simply stated, participant observation is a research method by which rich data is collected through direct observation and participation with the individual, group or system being studied. It requires close contact over continuous periods of time. The result can be a deeply "grounded" understanding of the object being studied (Glaser and Strauss 1967). For EA practitioners, participant observation is a technique that can be used effectively to explore productivity issues, and therefore influence the organizations we serve.

Typically, Employee Assistance Programs provide their client organizations with quantitative data such as utilization rates, problem classification data, outcome metrics, and various "return on investment" calculations. However, these types of reporting capture only a portion of the information available to an EAP, and they often fail to support the sophisticated and critical core technology of organizational consultation. Organizational consultation, however, involves the sharing of valuable information related to the health, well-being, and productivity of an organization. Typically, it is based both on professional expertise and the first-hand information collected by EA practitioners in the course of their activities as participant observers. It includes information concerning organizational trends including stress, conflict, risk management, and safety. This is based on the direct observations of the EA practitioner and reflects the credibility they have acquired through the process of relationship building.

My understanding and appreciation of the role of organizational consultation has grown during the course of my career in the employee assistance field. Over the years, I have had discussions with a variety of organizational stakeholders regarding various issues, including gaps in employee health insurance coverage, the impact of downsizing, behavioral risk assessment, critical incident management, shifting workforce demographics, and high-performance work groups, to name a few. These discussions have provided me with the opportunity to define EA practice broadly as a professional service rather than as a commodity. They have served to demonstrate value and increase organizational support for the EAP. To a large extent, this has been facilitated by the research technique of participant observation.

Internal practitioners are naturally positioned, as employees, to be participant observers. It is a clear, implicit strength of the internal model. External practitioners can easily serve as participant observers through on-site service agreements. However, such understandings need to be discussed with organizational stakeholders and included within contractual agreements.

Accordingly, the external practitioner will obtain both informed consent and compensation for professional service.

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