Action research refers to a change process based on the systematic collection of data and then selection of a change action based on what the analyzed data indicate. Their importance lies in providing a scientific method for managing planned change.
The process of action research consists of five steps: diagnosis, analysis, feedback, action, and evaluation. You’ll note that these steps closely parallel the scientific method.
The change agent, often an outside consultant in action research, begins by gathering information about problems, concern, and needed changes from members of the organization. This diagnosis is analogous to the physician’s search to find specifically what ails a patient. In action research, the change agent asks questions, interviews employees, reviews records and listens to the concerns of employees.
Diagnosis is followed by analysis. What problem do people key in on? What patterns do thee problem seem to take? The change agent synthesizes this information into primary concerns, problem areas, and possible actions.
Action research includes extensive involvement of the change targets. That is, the people who will be involved in any change program must be actively involved in determining what the problem is and participating in creating the solution. So the third step – feedback – requires sharing with employees what has been found from steps one to two. The employees, with the help of the change agent, develop action plans for bringing about any needed change.
Now the action part of action research is set in motion. The employees and the change agent carry out the specific actions to correct the problems that have been identified.
The final step, consistent with the scientific underpinnings of action research, is evaluating of the action plan’s effectiveness. Using the initial data gathered as a bench-mark, any subsequent changes can be compared and evaluated.
Action research provides at least two specific benefits for an organization. First, it is problem focused. The change agent objectively looks for problems and the type of problem determines the type of change action. While this may seem intuitively obvious, a lot of change activities aren’t done this way. Rather they’re solution-centered. The change agent has a favorite solution for example, implementing flexi-time, teams, or a process reengineering program and then seeks out problems that his or her solution fits. Second, because action research so heavily involves employees in the process, resistance to change is reduced. In fact, once employees have actively participated in the feedback stage the change typically takes on a momentum of its own. The employees and groups that have been involved become an internal source of sustained pressure to bring about the change.