Action Research: Building the Capacity for Learning and Change. (Overview)

Article excerpt

Why does action research help organizations improve the success of problem solving? Action research uses theory to guide change. But theory is often based on generalizations derived from many cases. The application of theory requires a deep knowledge of local realities. Even if the design of a desired change is robust, organizations may experience problems in implementation that preclude success. Action research avoids or addresses some of these problems by involving key stakeholders in making sense of a problem, defining and framing the research, sometimes in collecting and interpreting data, and in trying out and adjusting solutions. Action research helps an organization or system to develop its capacity to learn how to change structures, culture, climate, and practices that stand in the way of successful implementation. Over time, lessons learned across many organizations build better theory and increase knowledge for action in many different settings.

Although action research may require more resources in the short run--time and human investment as well as money--it often results in a greater pay off and impact in the longer run because it helps organizations to:

1. Get critical input from key stakeholders, whose often-different viewpoints across complex systems are essential to an accurate read of the problem and robust design of a workable solution.

2. Increase the likelihood that studies will be implemented successfully because the implementers were involved in developing them.

3. "Fail fast" in unknown terrain by incremental testing of solutions, documentation of results, and use of lessons learned to design next steps.

4. Build individual and organizational capacity by creating habits and practices of continuous learning from experience and knowledge sharing for action.


Action research grew out of efforts to increase knowledge about social systems while changing them. Kurt Lewin (1946), often credited as the "father" of action research, noted that there is nothing so practical as a good theory. Lewin "began his studies by observations of real life.... (He) connected all problems, no matter how small or temporary, large or long lasting, to theory. No problem was studied that would not be a test of theory. Theory was not formulated that could not be tested through the study of problems." (Argyris, 1993, p. 8) Rather than study a single variable within a complex system, Lewin preferred to consider the entire system in its natural environment. After Lewin's death in 1947, action research became integral to the growth of the theory and practice of organization development (Burke, 1994) and central to much organizational research.

Action research is classically described as "a cyclical inquiry process that involves diagnosing a problem situation, planning action steps, and implementing and evaluating outcomes. Evaluation leads to diagnosing the situation anew based on leanings from the previous activities cycle" (Elden & Chisholm, 1993, p. 124). Peters and Robinson (1984), as cited in Elden and Chisholm (1993), reviewed 11 action researchers to identify common features: "(a) problem focus, (b) action orientation, (c) cyclical process, and (d) collaboration/participation."

The cyclical nature of action research recognizes the need for action plans to be flexible and responsive to the environment. Overlapping of action and reflection allows changes in plans for action as people learn from their own experience. Coghlan and Brannick (2001) argue that two parallel action research cycles operate in any project. The first is the cycle just described of diagnosing, planning, taking action, and evaluating in relation to the problem that prompted the project. The second is a reflection cycle aimed at diagnosing, planning, taking action, and evaluating how the project itself is going and what one is learning from it. This reflection cycle enables action research to be more than everyday problem solving. …