Academic journal article Electronic Journal of Business Research Methods

Action Research: Intertwining Three Exploratory Processes to Meet the Competing Demands of Rigour and Relevance

Academic journal article Electronic Journal of Business Research Methods

Action Research: Intertwining Three Exploratory Processes to Meet the Competing Demands of Rigour and Relevance

Article excerpt

1 Relevance and rigour: competing demands

The tension between rigour and relevance is intrinsic to practice-based research and the subject of continuing debate. The literature on the rigour-relevance debate describes these criteria as either complementary, competing yet reconcilable, or incompatible.

Andriessen (2014) defines rigour and relevance as two dimensions of practice-based research and provides an impartial overview of the choices researchers have in terms of orientation, quality criteria and methodology. He is less impartial about the concept of 'applied research' that assumes a linear model of knowledge generation by conducting basic research followed by applied research. Andriessen rejects this idea of applied research, using Schön's metaphor (1983) of the "swampy lowlands" of practice where everything is insecure, complex, unstable and full of value conflicts, implying that if research is to be relevant to practice, it should engage with that "messy" reality from the outset.

As a discipline, organisational development, change and learning is concerned with the messy reality of organisations. Most action researchers in this field assert that rigor and relevance are complementary (e.g. Cummings & Worley, 2009; Lüscher & Lewis, 2008; Argyris, Putnam & McLain Smith, 1985). Yet the complementarity thesis covers up some real contradictions between rigour and relevance. One is the demand that the choice of intervention be based on empirical findings indicating that intended outcomes can actually be produced, while knowledge of intervention effects is, even after 40 years, still at a "rudimentary stage of development" (Cummings & Worley, 2009: 152). Four decades of OD work has proven practically relevant without that knowledge, so it seems warranted to ask how crucial it really is to making effective interventions. In practice, interventions may not need to be so rigorous to be effective. Even Lüscher and Lewis (2008), whose AR reports are among the few published in an eminent academic journal, simply say their contract did not include studying the effects on performance. Another contradiction is that rigorously researched interventions are not applied very often. For example, Argyris set rigorous standards and used rigorous methods for designing action science and for making practitioners' theories-in-use explicit in order to test and modify these, but the interventions of action science are rarely applied. One revealing example of the contradiction between rigour and relevance is the debate between Beer and Argyris about the Strategic Fitness Process intervention method. Beer and Eisenstat (2000) claim that this method solves strategy implementation problems, because it enables managers to have an honest, cross-hierarchical dialogue about possible obstacles blocking effective strategy implementation. Argyris (2010: 169) questions Beer's use of the word 'problems'. Is Beer referring to the barriers that surface during interventions or to the obstacles that prevent participants from identifying and avoiding the barriers and from being candid about these before? If the intervention addressed the barriers, it solved first-order problems, but if it did not address the original obstacles, it failed to solve the second-order problems of covering up and making the barriers undiscussable, making "the changes ... not likely to persevere." Beer's response (2011) was that the skills of action science are too complicated to learn during an intervention.

By glossing over the real contradictions between rigour and relevance, OD action researchers have not generated much in the way of knowledge that contributes to management theory. Only a few AR reports have ever been published in academic journals, publications whose main requirement is rigour. This low publication rate has led some researchers to question action researchers' assumption that rigour and relevance are reconcilable (Kieser, Nicolai & Seidl, 2015: 165; Kieser & Leiner, 2009: 526). …

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