Minimize Costly Implementation Surprises: Conduct Action Research to Test Organizational Design

By Williams, Hadley; Boettcher, Kevin | People & Strategy, March 2011 | Go to article overview

Minimize Costly Implementation Surprises: Conduct Action Research to Test Organizational Design


Williams, Hadley, Boettcher, Kevin, People & Strategy


Organization design practitioners can relate to some variation of this popular military phrase. Implementation introduces one's carefully planned design intentions to unexpected social, cultural and practical realities, including the possibility that it does not work as we thought it would. As we anticipate the implementation phase of our work, we may ask ourselves some of the following questions:

* Will the new work process support the business strategy the way we thought it would?

* Did we miss a critical detail?

* Does the design foster collaboration across organizational boundaries as we intended?

* Will employees feel comfortable engaging in their new cross-functional teams?

* Are the hand offs between process steps smooth?

When design changes affect minor modifications to an organization's current state, one can make midcourse corrections and improvements during implementation because the risks can be contained and managed. However, when planning a major transformation, especially in today's hypercompetitive marketplace, that approach can be costly. Minimize disruptions to productivity and keep employees engaged, as they get accustomed to a new way of working. To minimize organizational disruption, identify design flaws and prepare the organization for a coming shift in organizational functioning. We propose using action research methodology prior to implementing the change. Doing so allows us to:

* Test critical design issues, e.g., the degree to which the new design supports business strategy;

* Discover unintended consequences of the design--both positive and negative;

* Engage employees affected by the design changes in helping to identify gaps and improvements before wide-scale implementation occurs; and,

* Contribute to implementation success by reducing the financial and psychological impact of costly implementation surprises.

We will briefly discuss action research and then use a case illustration to discuss our recent experience in using it to test an organizational design. We conclude with perspectives and guidance for practitioners who would like to apply action research methods to their design work. In this way, we hope to advance the practice of what we think is a promising addition to the design practitioner's toolbox.

Action Research--an Introduction

Action research (AR) is a methodology that seeks practical, evidence-based solutions to organizational problems (1). Kurt Lewin first introduced AR to the field of organization development in 1948 when he set out the following general guideline:

"What is required for meaningful action research is that it should proceed in a spiral of steps, each of which is composed of a circle of planning, action, and fact finding about the results of the action.'"

Action research is a methodology that parallels conventional research in some fundamental ways. Namely, it is based on one or more research questions, has a defined subject group, a systematic intervention, requires data collection and analysis, and results in formation of conclusions and recommendations. However, AR differs from conventional research that emphasizes researcher objectivity and experimental controls. In AR, the separation between researcher and the researched is frequently minimized. For example, the action researcher is not only an objective data collector; he or she often takes an active role in the intervention by:

* Facilitating dialogue between participants that empowers them to solve a real organizational problem during the intervention and,

* Encouraging participants to become their own experts--discovering new knowledge and new ways of approaching an issue or problem.

Another significant difference is the absence of control groups in AR. As AR strives to answer questions such as, "What new knowledge can we the participants contribute to the area of inquiry? …

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