From the time when Kurt Lewin coined the term, action research has crossed boundary from its application in social and medical sciences to organizational development and information systems. Baskerville (1999) lists a variety of action research under different designations such as soft system methodology, prototyping, participant observation, field work, action science, and process consultation.
Action research is a class of methodologies based in the culture of its researcher-participant collaboration. It aims to provide practical solutions in an immediate problem context and contribute new knowledge to science at the same time. In essence, the approach focuses on both action and research concurrently. The action researcher participates in the context of the social or organization problem in conjunction with the practitioners to effect change and also develop knowledge. This means that there is a dual commitment in action research; the action researcher collaborates with the client system therefore highlighting co-learning as a significant part of the process.
Concept of Action Research
“Action research simultaneously assists in practical problem-solving and expands scientific knowledge, as well as enhances the competencies of the respective actors, being performed collaboratively in an immediate situation using data feedback in a cyclical process aiming at an increased understanding of a given social situation, primarily applicable for the understanding of change processes in social systems and undertaken within a mutually acceptable ethical framework” Hult and Lennung (1980).
This comprehensive definition of action research covers the contextual setting of research, the double expectations, and the ethical considerations of the methodology. Action research differs from other research methodologies in various ways. The most significant of these differential attributes is its aim of transforming all the participants into researchers, as everyone ‘learns by action’. Asides this, the research takes place in real-life situations where practical solutions are developed to the contextual problem. The primary role of the action researcher is to train local leaders to a level where they can be responsible for the process, that is, able to continue with the research when the action researcher discontinues. During the course of the action research, the researcher may oscillate between different roles which include planner, leader, facilitator, teacher, designer, observer, and catalyzer.
Common Characteristics of Action Research
According to Peters and Robinson (1984), action research authorities seem to agree on four common characteristics of the research paradigm, which are;
Firstly, action research has both action and change orientations. This emphasizes the dual outcomes of the methodology, action and research. Secondly, it focuses on problem; it targets to identify and implement actions on the problematic situation. In addition, action research involves collaboration between the action researchers and the client system. In this regard, all participants can be described as co-researchers. Lastly, it is a cyclic or spiral process consisting of steps which are repetitive.
The Action Research Processes and Methods
The process of action research is a sequence of events comprising of iterative cycles of stages. There are different models used to describe this processes. However, the most common action research paradigm is that described by Susman and Evered (1978), which consider five steps in each cycle. They are diagnosing, action planning, action taking, evaluating and specifying learning.
Diagnosing involves identifying the primary problem of the organization; action planning involves specifying actions that will change these primary problems; action taking implements the planned action; evaluating involves determining whether the action was successful or unsuccessful, while in ‘specifying learning’, generalized findings are made in an ongoing process.
The methods used in data collection during an action research project include surveys or questionnaires, keeping of journals, structures and unstructured interviews, observation recordings, taking photographs, and case studies. All these are tools are common with qualitative research paradigm.
Criticisms of Action Research
Some researchers have criticized action research as a rigorous research approach, maintaining that it is just a bit more than consultancy. Such set of academics point to weaknesses of the methodology such as bias and impartiality of the action researcher, difficulty of generalizing results from the study, lack of validity of data, and the assumed absence of key attributes of rigor and discipline associated with normative scientific research methods (McKay and Marshall, 2001). In spite of these criticisms, action research has proven successful in some case studies across different disciplines.
Action Research in Practice
Action research is a powerful tool that can be employed by Information System researchers for investigating the interaction between humans, information systems and social community.
Lau and Hayward (2000) in their study, Building a Virtual Network in a Community Health Research Training Program, applied action research paradigm to explore the effect of IT on the transition of health workers into a collaborative work group. The study evolved following a seven-week training course of about 25 health representatives from various regions. Each participant was presented with a notebook computer, internet connection, and technical support, and were directed to apply the knowledge acquired from the training in their domains, The action researchers discovered that individuals who used the system interactively tend to undertake collaborative projects, and that the dearth of quality community healthcare information online was a shortcoming. Overall, the participants attested to learning a lot from the experience. The research outcome is the provision of a descriptive model involved in creating virtual networks which can serve as groundwork for future research.
It is evident that action research is a valid methodology that bridges the gap between traditional research paradigms and socio-cultural research approaches.
Baskerville, R. L. (1999). Investigating information systems with action research. Communications of the Association for Information Systems, 2(19), 1-32.
Hult, M., & Lennung, S. Å. (1980). Towards a definition of action research: a note and bibliography. Journal of Management Studies, 17(2), 241-250.
Lau, F., & Hayward, R. (2000). Building a virtual network in a community Action Research research training program. Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association, 7(4), 361-377.
McKay, J., & Marshall, P. (2001). The dual imperatives of action research. Information Technology & People, 14(1), 46-59.
Peters, M., & Robinson, V. (1984). The origins and status of action research. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 20(2), 113-124.
Susman, G. I., & Evered, R. D. (1978). An assessment of the scientific merits of action research. Administrative Science Quarterly, 23, 582-603.