Action Research: A Tool for Everyone’s Use in Complex Times

The Author

E. Alana James

E. Alana James

Dr E Alana James is reinventing herself again! Coming full circle to the first love of her life - art - and bringing back to her images all the lessons of her life as author, researcher, academic and wife. Concerned mostly with the idea of images as vehicles for expression of the truth of our inner and outer life experience.

Note from April 2017 – I wrote this in 2009 when I was working on one of my first two books – it is still on the site because I still believe in action research as a tool for transformation. There will be other favourites here now – but this one underpins them all, Alana

What are the images that come to mind when you think about research? Perhaps of stilted academics in ivory towers researching about things around them, setting up obscure tests, or those questions asked in shopping malls by large corporations, trying to get inside our heads in order to get us to buy more of their product? Certainly you don’t think of a tool you could use when overwhelmed with a complex problem or when reinventing life or reinventing business.

What would you think of then if you heard the term ‘action research’? It would probably follow that those were the actions the aforementioned company took to that we would buy their products. Well fortunately it is not that at all. Action research is a tool for all of us to use – an especially helpful tool in these complex times.

Yes – research is often done by academics and /or companies trying to understand our motives as consumers so that we can buy more. But no, action research is not done by companies and if done by academics it is to help improve the world rather than to study it like a bug under glass. Action research is most often done by normal everyday people like us, people in business, education, nonprofit work, and public administration – family enterprises or Fortune 500. We all have issues in our lives that we care deeply about and action research helps us make those issues smaller and the solutions to the issues more attainable whether they are personal or professional goals.

Action research is truly a “tool for complex times” because no matter how difficult or overwhelming the issues we face, this process can help.

What is involved? We commit to taking three steps in each cycle and to go through as many cycles as we need to finish. First we discover all that we can about the issues we face. Second, we commit to take action, to make small changes aimed at improvement, and simultaneously measure our results. Finally we regularly engage in a reflective practice that captures our perceptions of our issues as we go through the process. Sounds simple enough – right? Yes, the simplicity of this process is disarming – and ultimately very effective.

Why does it work? For two reasons: First, because we tend to be overwhelmed by our problems – and working this process allows us to take one step at a time – thus aiding us in working past our discouragement. Second, it forces us to measure as we go- engaging the power in data in our behalf. We know we are REALLY making progress when we have numbers to back it up. Or if the forward movement isn’t enough we know that too and can make adjustments.

What kinds of issues does it conquer? Action Research works on both the large and the small. There are stories from around the world where action research has been used by governments to completely change the way a group of people did their job, or offered their services. It has been used by tribes in Africa to find water, raise herds of cattle and build a better life. It is also used every day by people who want to change habits, or build a better or healthier life.

How do I get started? Focus on something you want. Then divide a section of paper into three sections: discover, measurable action, and reflection. While other articles will spell out these steps in different scenarios more fully, you can start by just moving forward doing what comes naturally when you think of discover, measurable action, and reflection and not be far off.

First you discover what is known in the world about your subject. This is done by using the library and the web and asking other people what they think and know. Finally you decide that there are a few steps you can take to improve your situation – so you take those steps. However, because you have committed to measure the outcomes you have to know where you started so you can know what effect your steps had. Finally, and perhaps most importantly you keep track, every week or so, on what has gone on and how you are feeling, what you are thinking, etc. This will connect your efforts and keep you grounded.

What will I get out of trying this technique – this action research? It’s simple and yet very consistent. You will feel more powerful because you will know you are progressing on something that had bogged you down. Some people say it transforms them from a victim when they face a hard situation to being in control.

The situation you are working on will improve. But first we have to move forward and be willing change ourselves. We can’t solve our problems from the place we sit – a new perspective is needed. Then, in our understanding, in the maturity of our actions, and as a result of this process we see real improvements begin to take shape around us.