Action Research Model
The action research model focuses on planned change as a
cyclical process in which initial research about
the organization provides information to guide subsequent
action. Then the results of the action are
assessed to provide further information to guide further action,
and so on. This iterative (iterate means to
repeat) cycle of research and action involves considerable
collaboration among organization members and
OD practitioners. It places heavy emphasis on data gathering and
diagnosis prior to action planning and
implementation, as well as careful evaluation of results after
action is taken.
Action research is traditionally aimed both at helping specific
organizations to implement planned change
and at developing more general knowledge that can be applied to
other change and settings. Although
action research was originally developed to have this dual focus
on knowledge, it has been adapted to OD
efforts in which the major emphasis is on planned change. Figure
2.1 (B) shows the cyclical phases of
planned change as defined by the original research method. The
main steps involved are:
1. Entry (Problem identification):
This stage usually begins when a key executive in
the organization or
someone with power and influence senses that the organization
has one or more problems that might be
solved with the help of an OD practitioner. Contact between the
consultant and client is what initiates the
entry phase. After the contact, the consultant and the client
begin the process of exploring with one
another the possibilities of a working relationship. During this
process, the consultant assesses:
a. The probability of relating with the client
b. The motivation and values of the client
c. The client’s readiness for change
d. The extent of resources available
e. Potential leverage points of change
2. Contracting (Consultation with a behavioral science expert):
During the initial contact, the OD
practitioner and the client carefully assess each other. The
practitioner has his or her own normative,
developmental theory or frame of reference and must be conscious
of those assumptions and values.
Sharing them with the client from the beginning establishes an
open and collaborative atmosphere.
Unlike other types of contracts, the OD contract states three
a. What each expects to get from the relationship
b. How much time each will invest, when, and at what cost
c. The ground rules under which the parties will operate
3. Diagnosis (Data gathering and preliminary diagnosis):
This step is usually completed by the OD
practitioner, often in conjunction with organization members. It
involves gathering appropriate information
and analyzing it to determine the underlying causes of
organizational problems. The four basic methods of
gathering data are interviews, process observation,
questionnaires, and organizational performance data
(unfortunately, often overlooked). One approach to diagnosis
begins with observation, proceeds to a semi
structured interview, and concludes with a questionnaire to
measure precisely the problems identified by
the earlier steps. When gathering diagnostic information, OD
practitioners may influence members from
whom they are collecting data. In OD, "every action on the part
of the consultant constitutes an
intervention" that will have some effect on the organization.
4. Feedback (Feedback to a key client or group):
Because action research is a collaborative
diagnostic data are fed back to the client, usually in a group
or work-team meeting. The feedback step, in
which members are given the information gathered by the OD
practitioner, helps them determine the
strengths and weaknesses of the organization or the department
under study. The consultant provides the
client with all relevant and useful data. Obviously, the
practitioner will protect confidential sources of
information and, at times, may even withhold data. Defining what
is relevant and useful involves
consideration of privacy and ethics as well as judgment about
whether the group is ready for the information
or if the information would make the client overly defensive.
At this point, members discuss the feedback and explore with the
OD practitioner whether they want to
work on identified problems. A close interrelationship exists
among data gathering, feedback, and diagnosis
because the consultant summarizes the basic data from the client
members and presents the data to them
for validation and further diagnosis. An important point to
remember is that the action research process is
very different from the doctor-patient model, in which the
consultant comes in, makes a diagnosis, and
prescribes a solution. It is important to note that the failure
to establish a common frame of reference in
the client-consultant relationship may lead to a faulty
diagnosis or to a communications gap whereby the
client is sometimes "unwilling to believe the diagnosis or
accept the prescription." That is the reason one
may find that most companies have drawers full of reports by
consultants, each loaded with diagnoses and
recommendations which are either not understood or not accepted
by the 'patient’.
A feedback session generally has three steps.
provides a summary of the data collected and some preliminary analysis.
there is a
general discussion in which questions of clarification are raised and answered.
some time is
devoted to interpretation. At this stage some changes may be made in the
consultant’s analysis and interpretation.
Thus, the consultant works collaboratively with the client to
arrive at a final diagnosis that accurately
describes the current state of the system.
Learning how to become a better leader starts with learning effective traits and characteristics of successful leaders. The Action Research Model provides very trusted and proven lessons that can help any leader improve their overall ability to lead. Another way to learn leadership lessons is with a Master's in Organizational Leadership from Saint Mary's University of Minnesota.
An OD practitioner conducted interviews with the senior
management group. He asked four general
1. What are the strengths?
2. What are the weaknesses?
3. Are you in favor of the off-site meeting?
4. What should be the objective of the off-site meeting?
1. What are the strengths?
• Senior management is
highly experienced in business (7)
• Commitment of work force
• Good people throughout
• Last four years we
experienced success in many areas (3)
• Technological superior &
a market leader (3)
• Creativity (2)
• Managers think
2. What are the weaknesses?
• Marketing & Servicing
• Do not establish
priorities are always secondary to individual managers (3)
• Lack of management depth
• Little planning (3)
• Structure (2)
• High Costs (2)
• Overly change-oriented
• Poor reward system (2)
• Low morale (2)
• Internal competition (2)
• High degree of mistrust
3. What should be the objective of the off-site meeting?
• Agree on the regional
• Set financial objectives
for next two years (6)
• List of things we need
to do & stop doing (4)
• Must hear from the GM
about his team notions, ideas, expectations (4)
• Some ventilation of
feelings needed (3)
• Must come together more
as a top management team (3)
• Establish standards for
• Increase mutual respect
5. Planning Change (Joint action planning):
Next, the OD practitioner and the client members
agree on further actions to be taken. This is the beginning of
the moving process (described in Lewin's
change model), as the organization decides how best to reach a
different quasi-stationary equilibrium. At
this stage, the specific action to be taken depends on the
culture, technology, and environment of the
organization; the diagnosis of the problem; and the time and
expense of the intervention. Once the
diagnosis is understood and deemed accurate, action steps are
Good diagnosis determines the intervention. The purposes of this
planning phase are to generate
alternative steps for responding correctively to the problems
identified in the diagnosis, and to decide on
the step or order of steps to take.
6. Intervention (Action):
This stage involves the actual change from one
organizational state to another.
It may include installing new methods and procedures,
reorganizing structures and work designs, and
reinforcing new behaviors. Such actions typically cannot be
implemented immediately but require a
transition period as the organization moves from the present to
a desired future state.
Examples of interventions at the individual level are: job
redesign and enrichment, training and
management development, changes in the quality of working life,
management by objectives, and career
development. Examples of interventions at the group level are:
team building, the installation of
autonomous work groups or quality control circles.
7. Evaluation (Data gathering after action):
Because action research is a cyclical process,
data must also
be gathered after the action has been taken to measure and
determine the effects of the action and to feed
the results back to the organization. This, in turn, may lead to
re-diagnosis and new action.
Termination of the OD Effort:
An organization has a constant need for periodic, objective
diagnostic check-ups by external consultants – a
need that exists, incidentally, whether or not the
organization’s managers see it.
Termination is not an applicable phase for internal OD
practitioners. Although they may conclude specific
programs and projects with their clients, they should not
terminate the relationship. A primary role of
internal practitioners is to serve as guardians of the new
culture. They may help to regulate the social
change that has become a new routine in organizational life.
When OD practitioners follow the action research model, they
generate new data for further diagnosis and
action. The process is cyclical, and since an organization is
both dynamic and naturally follows the entropic
process, there is always a great deal of consultative work to be
Phases not Steps:
Phases are a more appropriate term than steps for describing the
flow of events in OD work. Steps imply
discrete actions, while phases connote a cycle of changes.
Although it is useful for our understanding of
OD practice to conceive of distinct phases, in actual practice
they blend, overlap, and do not follow one
from the other. Diagnosis, for example, comes early in the OD
process and intervention later, but when
one is collecting information from the organization for
diagnostic purposes, an intervention is occurring
simultaneously; when the OD practitioner begins to ask questions
about the organization and its members,
he or she is intervening.
Phases are an appropriate term also because of the cyclical
nature of the OD process. As the process
continues, new or undisclosed data are discovered. These data
affect organization members, and the
members react, creating additional information for diagnosis.
Further action is then planned as a
consequence of the new, perhaps more refined diagnosis.
Contemporary Adaptations of Action Research:
The action research model underlies most current approaches to
planned change and is often identified
with the practice of OD. Recently, action research has been
extended to new settings and applications, and
consequently researchers and practitioners have made requisite
adaptations of its basic framework.
Trends in the application of action research include movement
from smaller subunits of organizations to
total systems and communities. In those larger contexts, action
research is more complex and political than
in smaller settings. Therefore, the action research cycle is
coordinated across multiple change processes and
includes a diversity of stakeholders who have an interest in the
Action research also is applied increasingly in international
settings, particularly in developing nations in the
southern hemisphere. Embedded within the action research model,
however, are "northern-hemisphere"
assumptions about change. For example, action research
traditionally views change more linearly than do
Eastern cultures, and it treats the change process more
collaboratively than do Latin American and African
countries. To achieve success in those settings, action research
is tailored to fit cultural assumptions.
Finally, action research is applied increasingly to promote
social change and innovation, as demonstrated
most clearly in community development and global social change
projects. Those applications are heavily
value laden and seek to redress imbalances in power and resource
allocations across different groups.
Action researchers tend to play an activist role in the change
process, which is often chaotic and
In light of these general trends, action research has undergone
two key adaptations. First, contemporary
applications have increased substantially the degree of member
involvement in the change process. That
contrasts with traditional approaches to planned change, whereby
consultants carried out most of the
change activities, with the agreement and collaboration of
management. Although consultant-dominated
change still persists in OD, there is a growing tendency to
involve organization members in learning about
their organization and about how to change it. Referred to as
"participatory action research," "action
learning," "action science," "self-design “or” appreciative
inquiry," this approach to plan change emphasizes
the need for organization members to learn firsthand about
planned change if they are to gain the
knowledge and skills needed to change the organization. In
today's complex and changing environment,
some argue that OD must go beyond solving particular problems to
helping members gain the competence
needed to change and improve the organization continually.
In this modification of action research, the role of OD
consultants is to work with members to facilitate the
learning process. Both parties are "co-learners" in diagnosing
the organization, designing changes, and
implementing and assessing them. Neither party dominates the
change process. Rather, each participant
brings unique information and expertise to the situation, and
they combine their resources to learn how to
change the organization. Consultants, for example, know how to
design diagnostic instruments and OD
interventions, and organization members have local knowledge
about the organization and how it
functions. Each participant learns from the change process.
Organization members learn how to change
their organization and how to refine and improve it. OD
consultants learn how to facilitate complex
organizational change and learning.
The second adaptation to action research is the integration of
an "interpretive or "social constructionist"
approach to planned change. Called "appreciative inquiry," this
model proposes that words and
conversations determine what is important and meaningful in
organizational life. Take, for example, the
work group whose daily conversations are dominated by management
feedback that its costs are too high.
Even if the group performs well on quality and customer
satisfaction, the focus on cost problems can lead
group members to believe that the group is a poor performer.
Accordingly, this approach to change
involves starting new conversations that drive new shared
meanings of key goals, processes, and achievements.
Proponents of appreciative inquiry point out that most
organizational conversations are focused on
poor financial results or on how the organization could be
better, on the gap between where the
organization is and where it wants to be, and on the problems it
faces. Metaphorically, organizations are
like problems to be solved and the conversations among members
dwell on the organization's faults.
Appreciative inquiry challenges that assumption. It suggests
that the most important change an
organization can make is to begin conversations about what the
organization is doing right. Appreciative
inquiry helps organization members to understand and describe
their organization when it is working at its
best. That knowledge is then applied to creating a powerful and
guiding image of what the organization
could be. Broad involvement of organization members in creating
the vision starts a new conversation
about the organization's potential and creates a new focus and
positive expectation. Considerable research
on expectation effects supports this positive approach to
planned change. It suggests that people tend to
act in ways that make their expectations occur: a positive
vision of the organization's future energizes and
directs behavior to make that expectation come about.
Planned change emphasizes member involvement and starts with
which organization features to examine.
For example, members can choose to look for successful
male-female collaboration (as opposed to sexual
discrimination), instances of customer satisfaction (as opposed
to customer dissatisfaction), particularly
effective work teams, or product development processes that
brought new ideas to market especially fast. If
the focus of inquiry is real and vital to organization members,
the change process itself will take on these
positive attributes. The second step involves gathering data
about the "best of what is" in the organization.
A broad array of organization members is involved in developing
data-gathering instruments, collecting
information, and analyzing it. In the third step, members
examine the data to find stories, however small,
that present a truly exciting and possible picture of the
future. From those stories, members develop
"possibility propositions"—statements that bridge the
organization's current best practices with ideal
possibilities for future organizing. That effort redirects
attention from "what is" to "what might be." In step
four, relevant stakeholders are brought together to construct a
vision of the future and to devise action
plans for moving in that direction. The vision becomes a
statement of "what should be." Finally,
implementation of those plans proceeds similarly to the action
and assessment phases of action research
described previously. Members make changes, assess the results,
and make necessary adjustments, and so
on as they move the organization toward the vision.