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International Journal of Public
Administration
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Applying action research
to public sector problems:
International perspectives
Rupert F. Chisholm
a
a
Center for Quality of Working Life, School
of Public Affairs , The Pennsylvania State
University, Harrisburg , Middletown, Pennsylvania,
17057Professor of Management Co-Director
Published online: 26 Jun 2007.
To cite this article: Rupert F. Chisholm (1997) Applying action research to public
sector problems: International perspectives, International Journal of Public
Administration, 20:11, 1979-2022, DOI: 10.1080/01900699708525283
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/01900699708525283
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APPLYING ACTION RESEARCH TO
PUBLIC SECTOR PROBLEMS:
INTERNATIONAL PERSPECTIVES
Rupert F. Chisholm
Professor of Management
Co-Director, Center for Quality of Working Life
School of Public Affairs
The Pennsylvania State University, Harrisburg
Middletown, Pennsylvania 17057
ABSTRACT
This article discusses the nature of the action research (AR)
process and identifies five dimensions that help analyze individual
projects and compare cases in different settings. Coverage also
includes brief descriptions of two cases, one American, the other
Finnish. Analysis uses the five dimensions to compare/contrast the
two AR applications and draw conclusions from them.
INTRODUCTION
Widely divergent forms of action research (AR) are emerging
to meet requirements of new organizational and social
Copyright 0 1997 by Marcel Dekker, Inc
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1980 CHISHOLM
environments. Several examples of using AR to improve public
organizations or to deal with broad social goals appear in Elden
and Chisholm.(') And, a 1993 international conference in Helsinki
included many additional examples of public sector AR
applications around the world.
This article attempts to spread understanding of the potential
for using action research to achieve public purposes in several
ways. First, the article defines and describes the general nature of
the action research process. The second section identifies and
describes five dimensions that help provide further understanding
of AR and provide a framework for analyzing single projects and
for comparing different applications in various settings. Section
three contains brief descriptions of two examples in which AR is
being used to foster organization or system development. The
fourth section uses the AR dimensions described in section two to
analyze the two cases described in this article. A final section
draws general learnings from the AR applications.
NATURE OF ACTION RESEARCH*
Although its exact origins are open to dispute, action research
has been a distinctive form of inquiry since the 1940s. Kurt
Lewid2) generally receives credit for introducing the term "action
research" as a way of generating knowledge about a social system
while, at the same time, attempting to change it. At about the
same time, C01lier'~) called attention to the need for developing an
approach to generate action-oriented knowledge to understand and
improve American Indian affairs. C~ r e y ( ~ ) apparently had similar
ideas in education. A distinctive action research thrust also
*Earlier versions of this and the next section appear in Chisholm, R.F. and
Elden, M., "Features of Emerging Action Research," in M. Elden and R.F.
Chisholm (eds.). Special Issue on Action Research. Human Relations 46 (2):
275-297 (1993).
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ACTION RESEARCH AND PUBLIC SECTOR PROBLEMS 1981
developed in parallel in Great Britain immediately after World War
I1 (Wilson, Trist, & Curie,'') 1952, and especially Trist and
Murray,(@ 1990, for an extraordinarily well-documented historical
analysis). The interdisciplinary group that pioneered this work
later formed the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations in
London.
The early action research work cited above grew from
researchers' desire to discover ways of dealing with important
social problems. These included racial prejudice, improved
relationships with American Indians, and repatriating British
prisoners of war. However, shortly after these early
developments, the action research approach also began to be
applied to intra-organizational and worklife problems. The classic
sociotechnical systems projects of Trist and his colleagued7) and
Rice,'') and early Norwegian industrial democracy experiments led
by Emery and Thor sr ~d( ~) exemplify this early work. Much action
research during the past 40 years has continued and expanded this
organizational and worklife focus. Recently, AR has been applied
to a wide variety of problems in different organizations and
systems in diverse cultural settings.(lO)
Figure 1 outlines the essence of the basic AR process. Action
research begins with a key decision maker(s) perceiving a situation
and determining that some aspect of organization or system
functioning needs changing. Observations and conclusions about
the need for change may be based on standard performance
indicators, subjective judgments, or internal or external pressure.
Regardless of the source, a decision to take action triggers the AR
process. This decision leads to diagnosing the situation more fully
to understand how the system is functioning and to define goals for
improving it. Selecting the approach or model for change and
determining the strategy and action steps required to reach change
goals constitutes the next phase of the total process. This phase
leads into implementing planned action steps. Collecting and
analyzing data to indicate the degree to which positive changes
have occurred is the last stage of the AR process during Cycle 1.
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Cvcle 1
Deciding to Attempt
Change
Collecting Data
Diagnosing and Defining
Improvement Goals
Planning Change Process
Implementing Action
Collecting Data on
Outcomes of Change
Effort
Figure 1
Basic Action Research Model
Cvcle 2 ..a Cvcle N
Diagnosing and Defining
New Diagnosis and Definition
Improvement Goals of Change Goals
Planning Change Process Planning Change Process
Implementing Action Steps Implementing Action Steps
Collecting Data on Data Collection on Outcomes
Outcomes of New Change of New Change Effort
Effort
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ACTION RESEARCH AND PUBLIC SECTOR PROBLEMS 1983
These data and conclusions/learnings derived from them, in turn,
serve as inputs to the second cycle. Cycle two follows the process
of diagnosing, defining a revised set of change goals, and other
steps indicated in Figure 1.
Several key aspects of AR stem from the brief sketch of the
process given above. Perhaps the first feature of Figure 1 to strike
a reader is the cyclical nature of the process. AR involves
potentially endless cycles of diagnosing, planning, implementing,
collecting data, re-diagnosinglre-defining goals, etc. And, each
new cycle rests on using information and learnings derived from
previous cycles. A second notable feature of action research is an
orientation to change or system improvement. Action researchers
are committed to bring about positive change in the organizations
and systems in which they work. Thus, understanding system
functioning is important to the extent that it provides the basis for
bringing about change in the system. Traditionally, AR has been
used to bring about improvements that broaden the base of
stakeholders who benefit from changes. For example, often the
process has been used to improve employee participation through
more effective design of work roles, the grouping of roles, and the
linking of role sets to the technological processes used to conduct
work in specific workplaces. In such cases, ARers have attempted
to improve both the quality of employees' work lives and the
overall effectiveness of the organization. Hence, action research
is a value based activity.
Describing several other aspects of AR is essential to gain
more complete understanding of the basic process outlined above.
AR rests on an assumption that understanding organizations and
social systems requires researchers to engage these systems
directly through the research process. Instead of being "at arms
length" from the target system, researchers attempt to get inside
the thinking and actions that drive systems to understand how
members experience events. In short, while retaining a special
role of overseeing and guiding the research process, researchers
tend to establish relatively close working relationships with the
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1984 CHISHOLM
systems of study. Of course, as the following section indicates,
the degree and ways of involving system members varies widely
among AR cases.
Another feature of action research, that is not apparent from
examining Figure 1, is contributing to general knowledge. While
the research process is designed to help improve functioning of a
specific organization or system in a relatively well defined problem
area, researchers also have an obligation to relate learnings from
individual cases to general knowledge. Many learnings and
insights that derive from the process of attempting to bring about
positive change in system "X" are limited to that specific system
due to its unique culture, technology, operating environment, and
history. Other learnings contribute to general understanding about
organizations/systems or to insights about conducting planned
change in such systems. Thus, adding to general knowledge and
understanding of systems and organizations and the dynamics of
change processes involved in making them more effective is
another key aspect of AR.
It is essential to note that action research rests on a non-
traditional view of organizations. Traditional research assumes
that organizations exist as concrete entities whose nature and
characteristics are there to be discovered. AR research also
emphasizes the importance of organizations/systems as socially
constructed realities. That is, learning the shared meanings and
assumptions which guide organization members' actions is
fundamental to understanding current functioning and to facilitating
system change. AR helps recreate the organization by assisting
members develop different understandings, meanings, and
assumptions that guide future actions.
DIMENSIONS OF ACTION RESEARCH
A recent analysis of several cases on quite different systems
in various countries identified five dimensions that may be used to
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ACTION RESEARCH AND PUBLIC SECTOR PROBLEMS
1985
analyze individual AR efforts and to compare and contrast multiple
cases .(I1) This section describes these five dimensions briefly.
These dimensions provide a basis to enrich understanding of the
nature of AR and how the process may vary in different contexts.
System Level of Change Target
Perhaps the most apparent dimension for describing AR efforts
is the level of system engaged in the change process.
Conceptually, targets can range from single work groups(12) or
community groups(13) to international organizations (e. g . , United
Nations). The current description uses four conceptual levels of
systems. These appear below in Fig. 2 as the group, organization,
society (national), and international system levels. In general,
system complexity increases from the group level through
succeeding levels.
The level of system involved in AR affects the nature of
research in several ways. First, the level of analysis used to
conceive and guide the research process must be at least as high as
that of the system being engaged.(14) This requirement stems from
the fact that a system at each higher level has emergent features
that are not present at lower levels.(15) In addition, greater
complexity typically requires the AR process to be more open-
ended than research engaged with systems at lower levels. Time
comprises another difference among system levels. As a rule,
systems at lower levels will have a shorter, more defined time
perspective on research and change than those toward the higher
level. Thus, the level of the focal system makes substantial
differences in conceptualizing, designing, implementing, and
evaluating specific AR efforts. Possible effects of the system level
include the model used, complexity, time frame, and openness of
the research process.
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1986 CHISHOLM
Figure 2
Hierarchy of System Levels
Least
Complex
Most
Complex
Group Organization Society Trans-Societal
Organization of Research Setting
AR sites may vary greatly on the degree of organization that
exists in the system. For example, many industrial and
governmental organizations are highly organized. Members of
these systems identify themselves as members, have a fairly clear
picture of organizational boundaries, and share certain values,
norms, and assumptions about the organization to a considerable
degree. They also occupy identified roles that link them to other
organizational members, and defined policies, procedures, and
formal systems that designate critical behaviors and work
procedures. High levels of formal organization often lead to
mechanistic, bureaucratic systems that require loosening of
constraints on behavior. Much of past organization development
(OD) and AR work has been designed for such highly organized
systems.
In contrast, AR that attempts to build partnerships or networks
to deal with broad community issues, such as economic
development or racial discrimination, typically occurs in highly
unorganized settings.(16) Indeed, the research prucess itself
involves helping potential constituents organize so that they can
begin to function in concert. The organizing process often begins
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ACTION RESEARCH AND PUBLIC SECTOR PROBLEMS 1987
at ground zero by tentatively identifying potential members. Later
stages involve bringing them together to discuss the general issue,
testing for interest and commitment, and facilitating the
development of possible action steps and structures/processes
required to implement them. In brief, AR in these situations
requires discovering who potential system members are and
assisting them in organizing for action, if sufficient motivation to
work toward an emergent purpose exists. Assisting these systems
maintain and adjust forms of organization appropriate to carry out
their purpose over time is another part of the AR role. To
summarize, underorganized systems exhibit considerably greater
ambiguity than highly organized systems in both task
accomplishment (e. g. purpose, goals) and maintenance (e . g .
maintaining membership and motivation) functions. Figure 3
summarizes the key features of highly organized contrasted with
underorganized systems. These features have been described as
categorical variables. Of course, real-life organizations may fall
anywhere on a continuum from highly organized to
underorganized.
Openness of AR Process
Action research varies greatly by the degree of openness of the
research process itself. The distinguishing feature is the degree of
identifying in advance specific steps in carrying out the research
process. At one extreme, researchers predetermine how the
research will be conducted, identify key aspects of the situation for
study, and carry out the research. Early work with organizations
in the Norwegian industrial democracy project exemplify this type
of AR.(17) These projects were largely predetermined through
using the socio-technical systems analytical and design model. AR
in which researchers assume little about the nature of the target
system, what features of the system are important, and how to
engage members of the system in the research process fall at the
open end of the scale. A highly open AR process rests on a belief
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CHISHOLM
Figure 3
Characteristics of highly organized
and underorganized systems
Tightly Organized <--------- > Loosely Organized
Clear membership boundary
Shared values and norms
Role clarity
Purposelgoals clear
Formal systemslprocedures
present
Ambiguous membership
boundary
Values and norms unclear
Role ambiguity
Purposelgoals unclear
Formal systems/procedures
absent
that AR depends upon discovering the nature of the target system,
what aspects and dimensions are relevant to study, and how to
examine identified dimensions as an integral part of the research
process itself. Davydd Greenwood's(18) open-ended engagement
with members of the FAGOR cooperatives in Mondragon, Spain,
is a clear-cut example of this approach. Figure 4 represents a
scale for arraying specific cases from comparatively closed to
open.
Intended Outcomes of AR
This section covers two approaches to examining AR
outcomes. The first focuses on research goals, the second on the
basic purpose of the research process.
Change Goals. Action research efforts vary greatly on the
types of outcomes they attempt to bring about. Change efforts that
attempt to improve organizational functioning within existing
system parameters involve incremental or Alpha change.(19) Much
traditional AR with an organization development focus falls in this
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ACTION RESEARCH AND PUBLIC SECTOR PROBLEMS
1989
Figure 4
Openness of AR Process
AR Process
Largely
Predetermined
AR Process
Invented1
Discovered
category.(20) Change that involves a basic reorientation and
restructuring of the system constitutes Gamma changes. Basic
organization or system redesign and a fundamental change in the
culture of a system also often result in Gamma change. In brief,
such change involves a shift in system operating parameters.
Because of the altered operating parameters and change in the
basic character of the system, old measures of system functioning
lose relevance and new ones must be developed. Beta change is
that which does not change the basic character of a system but
does make existing measures of change unreliable. Hence, this
type of change is intermediate to Alpha and Gamma types.
Purpose. The basic purpose of AR may vary considerably.
Brown(21) notes that action researchers represent two distinct
perspectives: (1) a Northern ~e mi s ~h e r e l " ~ i r s t World Camp" and
(2) a Southern Hemisphere1"Third World Camp". Action
researchers in the two research traditions pursue basically different
purposes despite sharing a common label, "participatory action
research," for their work. Traditional ARers attempt to improve
organizational performance and generate social science theory --
i.e. to change organizations and social science. These goals are
quite compatible with traditional definitions of AR. Researchers
who operate from a Third World perspective attempt to raise levels
of consciousness, explore new approaches to basic social problems,
and empower the oppressed -- i.e. social change or transformation.
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1990 CHISHOLM
Figure 5
Types of action research change goals
Less
Basic
More
Basic
Alpha Beta Gamma
Change Within System Parameters Change of Key
Existing System Remain Constant: Parameters of
Parameters Measures Unreliable System
Pursuing one of these purposes versus the other affects virtually all
aspects of AR. For, the perspective frames and orients thinking
about action, research, and each phase of the process. Brown(22)
notes that researchers in these two camps operate in separate
worlds. Identifying these two essentially different purposes and
world views provides another basis for analyzing and comparing
AR efforts.
Researcher Role
The structure of the AR process rests heavily on the basic
roles of the researchers and the members of the system in which
change is being attempted. Classical social science research
viewed employees and other organization members as "subjects".
This term indicated clearly that the researcher was in charge and
that the "subject's" task was merely to follow the researcher's
instructions closely.
Original AR changed the role of employees and system
members. Early action research viewed members of the target
system as important collaborators in the researchkhange process.
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ACTION RESEARCH AND PUBLIC SECTOR PROBLEMS
1991
However, researchers remained in control of key aspects of the
process, such as research design, data collection and analysis, and
interpretation of results. Thus, the nature of meaning within the
organization or system came from the outside expert, not members
of the organization. Consequently, the rich store of members'
knowledge about their own unique system and its culture tended to
be downplayed in favor of outside researchers' conceptual
understanding of reality. In short, the structure of the AR process
varies greatly based upon the role definitions of researchers and
system members. Minimal member roles occur with an expert
researcher role that maintains control of the critical aspects of the
AR process. Larger, fuller member roles result from assuming
that both the outside researchers and system members have crucial
contributions to make. The outside researcher brings general
knowledge of systems, social science, and the research process;
internal members bring in-depth understanding of their system,
how individuals perceive phenomena, and how to get things done.
Highly participative AR attempts to integrate these two strengths
through the research process. It also is willing to surrender
control of the research to organizatiodsystem members.
Analysis of several recent AR applications reveals that outside
researchers engage in a wide variety of AR activities.(23) Many of
these activities cannot be placed neatly on the researcher
dominated/jointly managed spectrum depicted by Figure 6.
However, it is instructive to review the potential and actual basic
activities of researchers and the nature of their relationships to the
target systems.
PUBLIC SECTOR APPLICATIONS OF
ACTION RESEARCH
This section gives a brief description of two cases that use
AR.
The first case describes a Pennsylvania community-based
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Researcher
Dominated
CHISHOLM
Figure 6
Researcher role in action research
Collaboratively
Managed
Researcher model accepted
Model jointly developed
Researcher generated
information used
Researcher makes key
decisions re AR
process
Jointly generated
information used
Researcherlsystem
make joint decisions
re AR process
effort to develop a multi-sector network that fosters overall
economic and social growth. Case number two covers joint
national labor department-management-labor union development
work to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of a Finnish
paper mill.
DEVELOPING THE
NEW BALDWIN CORRIDOR COALITION:
AN ACTION RESEARCH APPROACH
This case focuses on a broad-based effort to create a 21st
Century community that can compete in the international
marketplace. The effort grew from the vision of a local union
president who saw a need to deal with inter-related basic problems
in Steelton, PA, required to stop and reverse the erosion of high
quality, high wage manufacturing jobs. Community leaders from
business, government, labor, education, finance, economic
development agencies, and other groups responded to the union
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ACTION RESEARCH AND PUBLIC SECTOR PROBLEMS 1993
president's vision statement and call for action by forming a
network organization, the New Baldwin Corridor Coalition
(NBCC). The "Corridor" includes the area from Harrisburg
International Airport ten miles south of the city to the north side
of town.
Organization of the coalition has grown via a bottom-up
process from a series of open meetings that began in February,
1992. Typically, 50 to 60 people have attended these meetings.
A steering Committee, comprised of the chairpersons of six
subcommittees and several other community leaders heads up the
network development effort. Subcommittees include
Communications, Economic Development, Education,
Governmental Affairs, Socio-Technical Research, and Workplace
Competitiveness. Task forces also have been set up to explore
special issues such as health care. Approximately 100 individuals
attended the first anniversary meeting of the Coalition in February,
1993.
Since its inception, the Coalition has received strong support
in the community. Recently, the Coalition received several grants:
(1) a $100,000 grant from the State Department of Commerce to
fund a study of economic resources in the area; (2) a $50,000 State
Department of Education grant to support joint strategic planning
by seven school districts; (3) a $30,000 grant to develop
coordination and communications structures and processes. The
Coalition also has received other grants. In addition, many
individuals are donating their time and energy to Coalition work
and local organizations are giving substantial in-kind and direct
support.
KEY EVENTS IN DEVELOPING THE COALITION
Several key events form the background for building the
Coalition as a network organization. NBCC follows a general
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1994 CHISHOLM
action research approach in its development effort. This section
describes several events and activities crucial to developing the
Coalition as an evolving network organization.
1 Recognizing the Problem
In late 1991, long-rumored talk of the restructuring of
Bethlehem Steel Corporation grew. This threat to jobs and the
future of the plant caused Ike Gittlen, the local Steelworkers union
president, to reflect on the situation and pull his thoughts together.
He wrote a first call for collaborative action by various parts of the
community in a Harrisburg newspaper article: "Will we continue
our blind allegiance to individual action.. .even when it results in
our own economic suicide.. .or will we now begin to act together
for mutual benefit?" This message, the first public expression of
the need for joint action by various groups and organizations,
received favorable response from several prominent community
members.
Events unfolded rapidly a short time later. On January 29,
1992, Bethlehem announced a general restructuring plan to reduce
costs, conserve cash, and make the organization profitable. This
plan included closing part of the Steelton plant with 400 jobs lost.
The remaining 1600 plant jobs were threatened. Ike Gittlen
responded by calling a news conference with county
commissioners, a state senator, and a U.S. Congressman. During
the news conference, Gittlen proposed that government and
community leaders form a coalition to save the 400 immediately
threatened jobs and stabilize the entire Steelton plant. Within a
week, he conducted a second news conference with a broader set
of participants (e.g. a U.S. Senator; ten other local, state, and
federal government officials; representatives of business and
economic development organizations). According to a local
newspaper, a growing sense of movement that transcended the
immediate crisis began to emerge from this news conference.
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ACTION RESEARCH AND PUBLIC SECTOR PROBLEMS 1995
Together, this series of events highlighted and focused attention on
the Steelton situation and its broader implications for the future of
the community.
Visioning the Future and Convening Community Meetings
Based on previous experiences, Ike Gittlen saw an opportunity
to galvanize community support for dealing with basic causes of
industrial decline. He summarized these thoughts in a brief report,
"The New Baldwin Project: Creating a 21st Century
Manufacturing Town. " * One section of the report identified basic
problems that seriously threatened the future of Steelton and its
citizens. Problems identified included lack of vision, shared goals,
and strategic planning, outmoded, fragmented and uncoordinated
government agencies, inadequately educated students, business
organizations that block innovation and quick response to
customers, and lack of reinvestment to modernize production
processes and equipment. The report predicted that unless these
problems were dealt with effectively, Steelton would become "a
ghost town without decent employment, no local education system,
and a poverty-ridden populace begging for government support. "
Another section of the report described a vision that held out
hope for the future. Elements of the vision included:
An Advisory Board which would represent all
stakeholders with working committees for
specific issues.
Bethlehem Steel property becomes a "base site"
for an Enterprises Zone.
*"New Baldwin" reflects the original name of Steelton, "Village of Baldwin."
This Village, established in 1865, included the first integrated steel mill in
America, which was built in 1867.
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School Districts and Higher Education to
spearhead a 21st Century Educational Program to
develop the technical/knowledge worker.
Organized Labor to explore new types of
organization and promote leading edge work
organizations.
Government organizations reexamine roles,
structures and authority to streamline and focus
government services.
An Educational, Research, Technology and
Human Resources focus dedicated to leading
edge industrial/manufacturing ideas.
Funding from various sources and maximum
integration among various organizations, groups,
and institutions.
Ike Gittlen used his membership in the Capital Area Labor
Management Council (CALM) to present his proposal to the
community. CALM called a meeting that provided a forum for
presenting and discussing the proposal. Approximately sixty
business, labor, and economic development leaders attended the
meeting. Reactions after the meeting were encouraging. A
Harrisburg Patriot-News article called the proposal "futuristic" and
"visionary" and a local politician indicated that "It's a call to
leaders to act like leaders." While other reactions were more
cautious, the proposal had struck a responsive chord in the
community.
During the next two months, work centered on broadening
membership in the Coalition and getting members' thoughts on
whether the Coalition should take a short- or long-term focus on
change. By the end of the third meeting (April, 1992), several
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ACTION RESEARCH AND PUBLIC SECTOR PROBLEMS 1997
things had occurred: a temporary organization had emerged; a
mission statement and name adopted; the geographic boundaries of
the Coalition defined. Coalition members decided to expand the
scope of work beyond Steelton to include organizations, groups,
and communities along a thirteen mile corridor from the
Harrisburg International Airport ten miles south of the city to the
north side of town. This expansion of scope resulted from
recognizing existing inter-dependencies among area organizations.
ACTION RESEARCH
TO SUPPORT COALITION DEVELOPMENT
It is impossible to conceive of trying to assist the Coalition
develop without using the action research (AR) approach. In fact,
the bottom-up, collaborative style used to build NBCC from the
beginning is a good example of applying AR to develop a loosely
organized network. In addition, the author has attempted to
educate members of the steering committee and other Coalition
members about AR and how it might benefit the effort. The
author has used a network development perspective supported by
an open AR process to guide thinking, planning, action, and
research on the project. Initially, members listened politely but
were unresponsive when the time came to make key decisions.
Typically, decisions about developing grant proposals, conducting
surveys, and other issues reflected traditional thinking.
Fortunately, the situation has changed substantially over time, as
Coalition members have gained experience with using AR. This
section gives brief descriptions of several specific AR applications.
Survey of Business Leaders
One early concern of the Steering Committee was the
perceived lack of active involvement of enough business leaders in
NBCC work. Consequently, a highly respected Coalition member
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1998 CHISHOLM
agreed to interview a small number of top managers and executives
during the summer of '92. Interview questions covered strengths
and limitations of the area, perceptions of the Coalition, and
similar topics important for economic and social development.
Responses were analyzed and fed back at an expanded Steering
Committee meeting in July, 1992. Despite lack of full use of
results to learn about where development stood and what next steps
make sense, the survey represented an early organized attempt to
use action research to help guide and develop the Coalition.
Survey results also provided the basis for educating NBCC
members and interested individuals in the community about the
Coalition and the role of action research in its development. The
first opportunity to use survey findings in this way occurred in
September, 1992. A group of approximately fifty interested
individuals, including many managers and professionals from state
government agencies, attended a presentation on NBCC at the
Penn State Downtown Center in Harrisburg. Ike Gittlen recounted
the history and development of New Baldwin. The author
described the basic action research process and then used findings
from the business survey to illustrate its application to developing
the Coalition. Since the session was videotaped and was replayed
several times on the local educational TV channel, it also helped
educate residents of the community about AR and the development
effort.
General feedback on the downtown presentation was positive.
One attendee suggested to the chair of the Steering Committee that
the Coalition use the action research segment of the presentation
to help members become more aware of the role of action research
in developing the network. This resulted in a second presentation
and discussion of concepts and material prepared for the earlier
Harrisburg meeting at the October monthly general Coalition
meeting. Feedback suggested that this presentation helped increase
understanding of the developmental AR process supporting
building the network.
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1 Strategic Planning Meeting
Toward the end of 1992, Steering Committee members sensed
a need to get more directly in touch with the perceptions, attitudes,
and ideas of decision makers from a wider array of various
community groups. Consequently, a small team designed a
strategic planning meeting (a) to gain additional information from
members and potential members of the Coalition, and (b) to
expand and develop the network in the process. The conference
was designed as a modified search conf er en~e. ( ~~) ( ~~) Current
Coalition members generated lists of key persons to invite from
each critical constituent group (government, labor, business,
financelreal estate, education, community residents). Conference
organizers emphasized inviting "individuals who can make a
difference" in their organizations (i. e. key decision makers).
Ultimately, 96 individuals participated in the conference with fairly
equal numbers of representatives from key constituent groups.
Primary work of the five hour conference took place in eight
heterogeneous small groups. Each group had a trained
facilitator(s) who helped stimulate and focus discussion and keep
the group on track. The heterogeneous makeup of the groups
meant that each group comprised a rough microcosm of the
Coalition. This design stimulated exchange of information,
feelings, and views across sectors to broaden understanding and
help identify common concerns among the various participants.
I
Guidelines and ground rules for the groups also helped focus
participants' attention on identifying common ground for
developing the network beyond its current state.
Participants were generally enthusiastic about the meeting.
They gave informationJlearning about the NBCC, the process of
the meeting, the community orientation, and social support as the
most important benefits of participating in the conference.
Participants willingly engaged in responding to questions and
facilitators had to "call time" to end virtually all discussion
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2000 CHISHOLM
periods. Data from small discussion groups were content
analyzed, summarized, and distributed to all conference
participants and network members. The report on conference
outcomes has served as a basis for developing a role statement of
basic Coalition functions and of developing plans for future
projects and activities. It continues to provide a rich store of
information for discussing and planning many aspects of the
network. A paper, "On the Meaning of Networks" also resulted
from the meeting.(26)
Taking Action and Further Planning
The Coalition has initiated several major projects during its
existence. For example, in the fall of 1992, the Pennsylvania
Department of Education funded research to support joint strategic
planning among seven Corridor school districts. The NBCC
Education Committee led this effort. Funding this project to
support joint discussions of strategic plans represented new
thinking and required obtaining an Education Department waiver
of regulations that mandate separate strategic plans from each
school district. Participating in joint planning and sharing
additional information generated from business organizations,
teachers, parents, administrators, and citizens increased
understanding of problems and opportunities in the NBCC area.
One tangible outcome has been a growing willingness to share
resources across school district lines (e.g. teachers with special
expertise). And, in the summer of 1994, the school districts
collaborated to create a "Kids College", a summer enrichment
program for approximately 1,000 children of all ages in the area.
The "College" offered camps in diverse fields (e.g . art, computers,
ecology, writing, nuclear engineering, video production).
Activities also included field trips to the National Aquarium in
Baltimore and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
Corporate and community sponsors provided funds for "needs-
based" scholarships. Success has led to planning another
"College" in '95 to expand learning and fun.
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ACTION RESEARCH AND PUBLIC SECTOR PROBLEMS
200 1
The Coalition also had initiated two other major projects by
early 1993. One of these involved working with local economic
development agencies and the City of Harrisburg to obtain an
"Enterprise Zone" designation for a large segment of the Corridor.
This designation enables the Zone to qualify for certain
government program benefits and low interest loans for developing
business enterprises.
Another project involved obtaining a $50,000 Pennsylvania
Department of Commerce grant to fund in-depth studies of existing
industry, real estate, and potential entrepreneurial and business
expansion/formation opportunities in the Corridor. Work on these
projects was completed by late 1994.
As a followup to the January 1993 strategic planning meeting,
the Steering Committee asked all NBCC members to submit ideas
for projects. This broad request went out about March 1 and led
to receiving approximately thirty proposals. Proposals varied
greatly in scope and in the subject covered. Several stemmed
directly from the strategic planning meeting. Work on these
proposals and on how to organize the Coalition continued during
the first half of the year. By late summer, the SC recognized the
need to conduct a series of workshops to deal with how to organize
and to develop goals and specific projects for the next year.
From September through December, 1993, an expanded
Steering Committee (twenty-two individuals) engaged in a series
of five workshops. These were designed to assure common
understanding of the Coalition mission and to define goals and
projects for 1994. The workshops built upon earlier work done to
identify projects and goals. But, since the earlier attempts had not
resulted in a broadly shared list of goals and specific projects,
more work was required. A six person team designzd and planned
the workshops, with two members facilitating the workshop
sessions. Progress during the five workshops was slow and, at
times, very difficult. However, at the end of the process, a set of
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2002 CHISHOLM
agreed upon goals and projects had been defined for the next year.
Goals and projects covered seven activity areas: organization,
economic development, education, health care, inter-governmental
cooperation, socio-technical research, and workplace
competitiveness. These shared goals and projects provided the
basis for planning and managing Coalition work during 1994. For
example, two proposals based on this work were prepared and
submitted to funding agencies in early January, 1994. The state
Department of Labor and Industry funded one of these projects and
work on helping develop joint labor-management support of "high
involvement" organizations has taken place in 1994-95. In
addition, the developmental process used to generate the goals and
projects has caused increased understanding of the Coalition
mission and role in the larger community among the members who
participated in the sessions.
Reviewing Progress and Planning for the Future
At the end of 1994, the SC decided to start a process of
assessing progress and identifying new goals and projects for the
next year. The Committee designated a small team to design and
arrange a meeting, which ultimately evolved into a series of four
short workshops in March-April, 19%. Workshop design
requested participants (the expanded SC of 22 individuals) to
respond to a series of general written questions and to bring their
responses to the session. The process involved sharing and
discussing responses to the questions and reaching conclusions
about meanings and next steps. Flow of the process went from
examining the past year (what are the most important
accomplishments of NBCC in 1994?), revisioning at the total
community level (what describes or represents a quality community
for the 21st century?), assessing progress in creating a quality
community (where do we stand in developing NBCC into a quality
community for the 21st century? on a 1-7 Likert scale, and
why?), and defining next steps (what should we be doing during
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ACTION RESEARCH AND PUBLIC SECTOR PROBLEMS 2003
the next year to move NBCC closer to a quality 21st century
community?). Extensive discussions during the series of three
workshops led to formulating a new set of goals and action plans
for the next year. The planning process also helped deepen
participants' understanding of the Coalition's role in contributing
to total community improvement.
OUTCOMES OF COALITION WORK
Work of NBCC has contributed to several identifiable
outcomes, a few of which have been noted above. Responses from
the recent workshops give the most current view of Coalition
members' views of accomplishments. Tangible outcomes identified
included:
Establishing the coordinator role
Starting a newsletter
Obtaining increased funding
Establishing the Middletown Health Clinic
Conducting the "Summer College" program for school
children
Developing a video - well under way in producing NBCC
video
Assisting local company -- Successful involvement in "Xu
Company (local firm) project -- pushed through to
completion
Completing three studies of Corridor
In addition, participants identified a number of subjective
accomplishments by the end of 1994 which included:
0
Commitment -- many people on board
Ability to maintain dialogue with diverse groups
0 Organization takes time to look at itself and how it is
developing
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Strengthened local government involvement
Still alive and growing -- new ideas
A good marketing tool for the area
Established as an organization -- name recognition outside
Corridor
Overall, responses indicate that Coalition members experienced
considerable progress by the end of the past year and have
generally positive perceptions of the network.
Experience so far also makes it possible to reach several
conclusions about Coalition work so far:
Using AR to foster continuous network development is
essential to building and maintaining the Coalition. Using
an action research approach based on system and
organization development principles provides a process
for developing a quality community that can be
maintained over time. The AR approach views
development as an ongoing process that changes based on
new events occurring in the environment and learnings
and new insights from past experiences. In this way, the
process helps provide up-to-date internal and external
information that enable the network system to change to
meet new requirements.
In a conservative area, diverse groups of people are
learning to work together to create the future of the
community
Significant progress has been made with relatively little
money
Many members understand intuitively that systemic
institutional and organizational change by all sectors of
the community (business, labor, education, government,
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ACTION RESEARCH AND PUBLIC SECTOR PROBLEMS 2005
community residents, health) is required to develop a
"competitive environment. " Individuals also have shown
motivation to engage in activities that involve all sectors
of the community.
People involved in NBCC work are highly motivated by
the vision of the Coalition and are having the time of
their lives.
THE JOY PROJECT
This case covers a Finnish project rooted in experiences,
research, and observations that date back to the 1970s. The
specific site of the intensive AR work used to bring about
organization change is a paper plant in eastern Finland,
approximately sixty miles from the Russian border. However,
much prior work at the national and industry levels preceded
organization development (OD) work at the plant. Earlier work
and learnings from it provide the macro-level context for
interventions at the plant level. This account covers the history
and background of the JOY Project, work done with several units
of the paper industry, and OD activities at the Summa Plant - Enso
Publication Papers OY Ltd.
History of the JOY Project
During the 1970s, the Committee for Labor Relations in
Finland conducted studies to determine the causes of the high level
of strikes compared to those in other Nordic countries.
Establishing the existence of the "high strike" situation led to
asking "What causes the relatively large number of strikes to
occur? " Study indicated that management decision making
processes had a major impact on strike occurrences. Organizations
that used traditional top-down decision making tended to have
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Figure 7
Cooperative and authoritative decision making system
and the number of strikes
Number of
strike8
Authoritative
decision
Cooperative
decision
I
I I I T h e
1 2 3 4
1. Need for change is rerll.ed
2. Decision
3. The end of change process, participative qst em
4. The End of change process, authoritative system
Source: Kauppinen, T. "Management of Change and the JOY
Project," in T. Kauppinen and M. Lahtonen (eds.). Action
Resewch in Finland, Ministry of Labour, Helsnki, 1994, p. 158.
more strikes than those that used participative methods for making
decisions. Involving workers at all levels in the decision making
process seemed to have a substantial effect in reducing strikes.
Figure 7 depicts the general effects of using cooperative versus
traditional decision making in Finnish organizations at various
stages of the change process. Involving employees in decision
making not only appears to reduce strikes, it also affects timing.
Strikes that took place in cooperative decision making systems
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ACTION RESEARCH AND PUBLIC SECTOR PROBLEMS 2007
occurred earlier (after recognizing that change is needed, but
before decisions had been reached about what and how to change)
compared to those in top-down organizations. Strikes in traditional
organizations, usually occurred after management had decided
what changes to make and how to put them in place. In effect,
employees were opposing decisions made exclusively by
management. (27)
The Finnish government responded to these findings by
sponsoring legislation and supporting new types of collective
bargaining agreements. Changes in laws and labor agreements
have supported increased employee participation in decision
making. In 1978, the Finnish Parliament enacted the Act on
Codetermination in Companies. This law aimed to increase
worker-management collaboration in making decisions about
enterprises by requiring management to supply information and
negotiate about changes within the organization. Establishing work
councils, however, was voluntary. In 1981, all employers and
central union organizations signed formal agreements on
cooperation in Finnish working life. These agreements have been
renewed twice (1986 and 1989).(28) National laws of 1990 and
1991 extended requirements for active employee participation in
workplace decisions. In short, by the end of 1991 a formal
structure of laws and collective bargaining agreements that require
extensive workplace cooperation existed in Finland. Presently, the
structure parallels those that exist in other Nordic countries.
Developing the JOY Project
The JOY Project was created by the Ministry of Labor to
bring about required change revealed by earlier research on
strikes, cooperation, and collective bargaining. The Project also
is designed to help organizations meet general competitive pressure
for greater flexibility. Its aim is to help foster change at the
workplace level to make formally prescribed legislative and labor
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2008 CHISHOLM
agreement goals a reality. Work at the national and industry levels
attempts to create structures and processes that stimulate and
support AR, innovative action and learning, at the local level.
JOY stands for Johtaminen (leadership), Organisaato
(organization), and Yhteistoiminta (cooperation).
The project began in January, 1988, with a joint search
c onf e r e n~e ( ~~) ( ~~) among three paper and pulp mills. Each plant sent
eight representatives to the conference: three shop floor workers,
and one representative of supervisors, office employees, engineers,
personnel management, and plant management. In principle, these
individuals represented all levels and basic functions of the plants.
"The purpose of the joint conference was to start a discussion
about the future of the paper and pulp industries and to find a way
to a 'new factory', to try to prepare development programs
according to the needs of (all) personnel and management. By
choosing three factories we tried to change the daily rules of
discussion and to create an open atmosphere to present new
ideaS (31)
All three plants had participated in the earlier studies of
strikes, discussion making processes, and collective bargaining.
Consequently, representatives listened to results of the study with
great interest. After hearing the results, several representatives
from employees and management asked how to manage change in
their plants without strikes. This question stunned researchers
since it confronted them with a potentially new role, that of Action
Researcher. Previously, the researchers had operated as outside
experts who collected, analyzed, and fed back information from a
" hands-off" stance. Now, plant representatives were asking them
to engage in a more collaborative process of helping interpret
results and helping them invent ways of bringing about positive
change. Since the request represented a substantial role change,
the researchers were uncertain about whether the requested role
was appropriate. Eventually, the researchers accepted the new
role and came to recognize action research as a way of meeting the
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ACTION RESEARCH AND PUBLIC SECTOR PROBLEMS 2009
new demands. The following excerpt gives insight into the
transition to AR.
One of our studies called "Management in the public
sector" gave similar results: the problem is the
management of changes. Difficult changes include big
investments, new equipment and even arrangements of
working environment. The methods used in those studies
could not, however, tell how to handle these problems.
Our studies were directed to the past, but the action was
directed to the future. Therefore we had to find future-
oriented methods. But this did not seem to be enough.
Every workplace had special demands, and there was a
desire to use methods of their own and to make decisions
of their own. In this situation, we became interested in
action research.(32)
Design of the joint conference for the three paper and pulp
mills involved three key features. First, as mentioned above,
conference designers believed that bringing together representatives
from various levels and functions of three different plants
struggling with the same issues of creating and managing change
would "unfreeze" participants to actively engage in discussion.
Creating a forum and mix of participants different from those of
normal discussions was an important ingredient here. The second
strategic design feature dealt with how to conceptualize past,
present, and future events and processes. Action researchers
adopted the following view to guide handling these complex
phenomena.
Figure 8 suggests that examining the past and how the
organizations got from the past to the present is important for
understanding the complexities, false starts, mistaken assumptions,
unforeseen developments, unanticipated consequences, and other
happenings that comprise the curved road from past to present.
This understanding enriches a shared sense of the current situation.
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Figure 8
The curved road from the past to the present situation
and to the vision 2000. The JOY-road to the vision 2000.
I Curved road from Anticipated curved JOY-road to
past to present road to the vision the vision
Source: Kauppinen, T. "Management of Change and the JOY
Project," in T. Kauppinen and M. Lahtonen (eds.), Action
Research in Finland, Ministry of Labour, Helsinki, 1994, p. 172.
It also encourages a more realistic understanding of what will be
required to move from today's situation toward the shared vision
of the future. Based on past experience in reaching the present
situation, individuals are likely to conclude that travelling a curved
road will be required to reach "Vision 2000." Of course, the
curved road view fits with and supports using an adaptive action
research strategy for bringing the vision into being.
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ACTION RESEARCH AND PUBLIC SECTOR PROBLEMS 201 1
The third foundation stone of design involved the
communication process that took place during the joint conference.
Discussion guidelines followed principles of democratic dialogue.
Democratic dialogue rests on the idea that all interested parties
can and should participate in discussion of the relevant issue(s).
Defining when, where, and in what forms participation will occur
establishes boundaries that help enable participants to identify
relevant discussion and how to take part in it. According to
Gustavsen and Engel ~t ad, ' ~~) criteria that foster democratic dialogue
include:
(1) Defining discussion arenas clearly -- Small group
discussions, plenary sessions, and other parts of the
official program provide the basis for conference
outcomes. Consequently, "analyses, problem solving, "
and decisions must derive from outcomes of these official,
public sessions.
(2) Stating issues openly -- Issues publicly identified and
worked on during official conference discussions and
meetings are the only legitimate ones for participants to
consider.
(3) Resource person involvement -- Facilitators, action
researchers, and other resource persons carry out their
work only during official conference activities. Such
activities as "off-the-record" consultation are off limits.
(4) Focusing on identified issues -- Work during a conference
must focus only on the issues identified for work by the
participants.
Following these discussion guidelines helped create a climate
and norms that supported broad, deep exploration of issues.
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Developing the Summa Plant -
Enso Publication Papers OY Ltd.
The Summa Plant employs about 650 employees and produces
approximately 400,000 tons of paper per year for the publishing
industry. Most of the product (80 %) is exported. Profitable years
of the 1970s became reversed in the early '80s due to international
overcapacity. The numerous strikes that took place at the plant
during the 1970s and early 1980s posed another serious threat to
the plant.
The local union and management began to explore ways of
working together to improve their relationship and increase overall
plant effectiveness and the quality of employees' working lives in
the mid-80s. Recent organization development work built upon
experience and learnings from earlier activities. And, the 1988
joint paper industry conference described in the previous section
served as a catalyst for the latest phase of development.
Identifiable stages of development at the plant over the past
few years include:
1985 - Quality management project - Educating employees
on quality concepts.
1986 - Innovating with customers -- Forming 6-8 person
teams to visit customers.
1987 - Wall paintings -- Using colorful posters to
communicate goals and values of the quality project.
1988 - Development project -- Plant expansion project:
Including two employees from the plant floor on each
of the eight project teams that planned plant
expansion.
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ACTION RESEARCH AND PUBLIC SECTOR PROBLEMS
2013
1989 - Financial training -- Educating and training (2 days)
all plant employees on financial and accounting
concepts. Training was designed to enable all
employees to understand the impacts of their actions
on plant effectiveness and profitability.
1990 - Budget planning -- Involving employees actively in
preparing annual plant budget.
19911 - Summa values and quality -- Using a joint
1992 employeelmanagement discussion process to develop
a written statement of values and a policy on quality.
19911 - Cost reduction -- Designing and using a
1992 cooperative process to develop ways of reducing
costs. This process resulted in 55 million cost
savings. This amount was over 10 million greater
than management's first target.
Work at the Summa Plant has followed an evolutionary AR
path with each phase building on learnings from earlier phases.
First, work began by focusing on the importance of quality and
educating all employees about basic quality concepts. Thus, the
change process began with a concept that all employees could
understand from their daily work. Work during the next year
extended in-plant training by having employees visit customers to
learn first-hand the importance of quality from an external
perspective. Using colorful wall posters to symbolize and
communicate quality goals and values attempted to carry learning
to a deeper level. A new level of employee involvement began in
1988 by including two shop floor employees on each project team
responsible for designing and planning a major plant expansion.
This experience revealed that, in general, plant employees lacked
understanding of financial concepts. Receiving
financial/accounting training in 1989 enabled employees to
participate actively in developing the annual budget the following
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2014 CHISHOLM I
year. By 1991, the level of trust and base of knowledge and
understanding among employees and management had grown to the
point that it was possible to loop back and develop a joint written
statement of values and a policy on quality. Jointly designing and
implementing an effective cost reduction plan represents another
level of learning and trust that had resulted from the AR process
at Summa over the years. The deliberate pace to assure that
learnings were captured and that all employees, the union, and
management understood and agreed on next steps is impressive.
DIMENSIONAL ANALYSIS OF CASES
This section covers a brief analysis of the NBCC and JOY
Project by using the five dimensions of AR described in section
two. These dimensions include system level, organization of
system, openness of the AR process, change goals, and researcher
role.
The two cases described in this article represent relative
complex and sophisticated AR applications. Both cases involve
attempts to bring about broad based change: the NBCC case at the
community level; the JOY Project at the national (societal) level.
AR applied at these levels is inherently more complex and requires
longer, less well defined time frames than change efforts at lower
levels on the system hierarchy. The pace of NBCC and JOY
development work reflect this slow, uncertain time dimension. As
these two cases also illustrate, higher levels of system complexity
require fairly open, innovative approaches to AR design and
management.
Both the NBCC and JOY Project also involve attempts to
build fairly loosely organized systems to deal with broad issues.
Until the JOY Project began OD work at the plant level, the two
projects involved relatively ambiguous membership boundaries,
unclear values and norms, role ambiguity, lack of clarity and
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ACTION RESEARCH AND PUBLIC SECTOR PROBLEMS 2015
agreement on goals, and the absence of formal organizational
systems and procedures. These features added to the complexity
and difficulty of inventing and applying the AR processes required
to develop the organizational system needed to bring about change.
These features plus the system level of the change efforts also
caused the AR to be comparatively open and invented or
discovered (v. closed and largely predictable). And, the fact that
neither project originally included AR as part of the development
and planning process has contributed further to the high level of
openness involved.
Developing the NBCC and the JOY Project have attempted to
bring about Gamma change, that is, change in key parameters of
the systems involved. The Finnish case involves an attempt to
develop and implement a new paradigm that guides management
of organizations and labor-management relationships in pursuing
national economic goals. Part of the new paradigm that has
emerged from the project is the new action research role of the
Ministry of Labour. Similarly, the NBCC case has used a new
paradigm of horizontal collaboration among all community
institutions as the basis for changing the infra-structure that
supports economic and social development. This new paradigm is
evolving as it guides the process of building the Coalition. Both
of the present cases clearly fall in the Northern Hemisphere/"First
World Camp", since they attempt to improve organizational/system
performance and generate social science knowledge.
The role of the researcher in both projects has emerged over
time. As noted earlier, originally, the researchers in the Finnish
project assumed a traditional research role: Conduct the research,
give results, and leave the client system to figure out what to do.
This role changed, however, when labor and management
members began insisting that the researchers engage with them to
discover how to bring about change. This demand caused
reexamining the researcher role and developing the AR role. The
New Baldwin project also began with no identified action research
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2016 CHISHOLM
role. Fortunately, a bottom-up developmental perspective for
building the Coalition was used from the beginning. Incorporating
AR with the network development process was comparatively easy
since the two are highly complementary. The fact that both
projects lacked a defined AR role at the outset also caused the
research process to be collaboratively managed. As a result,
research models have been jointly developed, information has been
jointly generated, and researchers and system members make
decisions about the AR process.
CONCLUSIONS
The two cases described in this paper represent current
examples of using AR to attempt to make progress toward broad
goals following paths that were quite ill-defined at the outset.
Each case has demonstrated that the action research approach can
make an important contribution to dealing with such situations.
The JOY Project shows some of the positive outcomes that can
occur from work at the plant level. AR activities at the plant
level, in turn, rest on earlier foundation building at the industry
and national levels. Developing the NBCC also has demonstrated
that AR can result in positive outcomes in building a loosely-
organized network of key community organizations and
institutions. It appears that the nature of AR makes it particularly
well suited to making positive contributions in dealing with many
current issues and complex problems.
Many important issues are extremely complex and involve
sub-sets of problems that interconnect and involve many different
groups, organizations, and individuals. Rather than being clearly
definable problems that are amenable to final solutions via
traditional, logical problem solving, these are complexes of
problems or "messes" .(34) Attempts to deal with a single aspect of
such problem domains(35) are likely to trigger counter forces from
parties who have a vested interest in other aspects of the domain.
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ACTION RESEARCH AND PUBLIC SECTOR PROBLEMS 2017
Complexity of the issues (e.g. improving cooperation within
Finland; developing a community infrastructure that supports
organizations that can compete internationally) requires involving
many parties in development efforts over fairly long periods of
time. The two present cases indicate that AR can help bring
together the diverse interests of many parties to work toward
broadly defined superordinate goals.
A second general learning derived from analyzing the NBCC
and JOY cases concerns the adaptability of AR. These two
projects, followed quite different developmental paths in different
social and cultural settings. NBCC started from concern over
losing 400 jobs, with another 1,600 jobs in the same plant
threatened. This immediate local problem was thought about as
resulting from archaic organizations and institutions that were
fragmented and lacked focus on demands of the late 20th century.
Conceptualizing the problem in this way led to the possibility of
using AR to foster development of the Coalition. The JOY Project
went in the opposite direction: from the national level to the local
or plant level. In both cases, the applicability of AR and its actual
role had to be discovered and invented. And, new ways of using
AR to advance the projects are continuing to emerge and to be
developed. In brief, AR must be adapted to and stem from
requirements of the setting in which the process is grounded. This
learning parallels that derived from analyzing a wider array of AR
applications in various parts of the world. Analysis indicated that
context had a primary influence on several aspects of AR. These
included the basic AR approach used, the nature and degree of
collaboration, and the role of action researcher^.'^^)
Another general learning deals with the importance of
conceiving of the constituent organizations and groups involved in
NBCC and several activities of the JOY Project as a loosely-linked
organization. Viewing the Coalition this way implies a network
development strategy for building the system. Developing this
lateral form of organization contrasts sharply with establishing a
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2018 CHISHOLM
traditional hierarchical organization. Decisions result from
involving many groups and individuals who operate at the same
level. Hence, an open AR process is required to support the
developmental process. In the JOY Project, conceiving of plants
in the paper industry as a loose network provided leverage for
designing and conducting a search conference among plant
representatives. Participating as members of a network larger than
the plant organization in which they normally worked helped free
up representatives to view issues from a different perspective and
to learn from each other. This learning is consistent with the
experience from other network building efforts.(37) Briefly stated,
using the network construct to conceive of, guide, and conduct AR
provides leverage for change in many situations.
Despite its potential to help bring about long-term change in
many situations, AR is not a panacea. AR requires a commitment
to devote considerable time and other resources to help improve
systems or organizations. Often, as in the two cases covered in
this article, progress is slow and results uncertain and hard to
measure. Still, action research deserves strong consideration as an
approach to bringing about basic change and for learning from the
process.
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