Academic journal article International Journal of Action Research

Participatory Hierarchies: A Challenge in Organisational Action Research

Academic journal article International Journal of Action Research

Participatory Hierarchies: A Challenge in Organisational Action Research

Article excerpt


Initially, we describe some positive, practical results in different, Danish OAR projects that might indicate that all was well:

In 1995 at Bang & Olufsen (known for its audio-visual products), an OAR project with management and development engineers initiated a new way of organising and training management as mentors. These mentors would supervise the long-term, personal, and professional development needs of their employees to reduce labour turnover among software engineers. The project contributed to increase employee satisfaction and reduce personnel turnover (Kristiansen & Bloch-Poulsen, 2005).

In 2001, at Lego (known for its production of toy blocks), an OAR project with management and employees paid by the hour resulted in the company halving its number of unplanned machine breakdowns and reducing employee stress levels (Bisgaard & Bloch-Poulsen, 2002).

In 2008, at Danfoss (known for the production of thermostats), an OAR project with management and engineers produced a model of co-creating knowledge at transition points between projects so that employees would not waste time repeating the same errors in new projects (Clemmensen, Kristian-sen, & Bloch-Poulsen, 2009).

In 2009, within a public, citizen service municipality, an OAR project with management and employees resulted in a new model of organising work that gave employees more time to focus in-depth on urgent tasks (Kristiansen & Bloch-Poulsen, 2010).

These as well as other projects have produced theoretical and methodological results beyond the above mentioned practical ones (Kristiansen & Bloch-Poulsen, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014).

All of these OAR projects were based on a participatory endeavour where we tried to practice action research as a combination of action, research, and participation (Greenwood & Levin, 1998; Reason & Bradbury, 2008). This meant that everybody should have a voice, i.e. the opportunity to express their points of view, thoughts, and feelings, as well as a choice, i.e. the opportunity of taking part when it comes to decision-making (Cornwall, 2011; Saxena, 2011).

In this article, we argue that action research processes in practice are seldom as participatory as the above-mentioned practical results might indicate. The article shows how participatory hierarchies between employees and between employees and action researchers are constructed in one private and two public OAR projects, respectively.

Based on these examples, the article has three purposes:

The first, empirical purpose of the article is to show that unintentionally, participatory OAR approaches may create hierarchies that can maintain or reinforce existing ones or create new hierarchies among partners and researchers, leading to new inclusions and exclusions. We define a hierarchy as a frozen and unequal distribution of voices and choices among parties (Diefenbach & Sillience, 2011) and understand the three cases in this article as examples of 'participatory hierarchies'. This concept can be understood as an apparent contradiction, because etymologically, hierarchy means that somebody or something else decides. Paradoxically, participation seems to create its opposite, i.e. a hierarchy.

The second, theoretical purpose of the article is to show how participatory processes can be understood as contextualising mechanisms whereby all parties position themselves and each other by means of their ways of talking, acting, and organizing in changing and emergent processes (Davies & Harré, 1990, 1999). Simultaneously, participation in OAR projects is embedded in larger organiational, political, and societal systems (Bums, 2007). This means that participation in OAR projects works in the interface between communication and organisation and between 'power to' and 'power over' (Göhler, 2009).

The third, methodological purpose of the article is to show how handling of participatory hierarchies ought to become a goal in OAR projects on par with producing practical and theoretical results. …

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