Action Research: the rebel approach


How can we create a deeper understanding of organizational life, knowing how volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) today's reality can be? How do we contribute to organizational change and learning in a more sustainable way, compatible with the current challenges we face? Jessica Peters (director Nyenrode Amsterdam) and I, explored these questions during the first PhD Action Research course at Nyenrode.

(like to read this in Dutch? Our column is also published on the Nyenrode website)

During one of the lectures at the Nyenrode PhD school, we were given an introduction to the action research approach by Danielle Zandee, Professor of Sustainable Organizational Development at Nyenrode, and David Coghlan, visiting professor at Nyenrode and Emeritus Professor of Business & Administrative Studies at Trinity College Dublin. Since action research is not the most common way of conducting PhD research, we will provide you with a bit of insight into this ‘rebel’ approach.

What is action research? Challenging the traditional academic field on multiple levels

Action research has many historical roots, such as in the work of MIT professor Kurt Lewin, yet it can also address modern-day issues. Action research is about confronting the status quo, asking big questions in the here-and-now and contributing to the greater whole. The goal is to facilitate change, develop knowledge and put this knowledge into practice in other areas.

Action research challenges more conventional academia on various levels, which we outline below.

1. With people, not on subjects

2. Outlook on the future, more than the past

3. The researcher as a reflexive practitioner

4. Allowing for emergence and different ways of knowing

With people, not on subjects

Action research begins with the desire to work with instead of on others. The premise in human sciences that there is no such thing as an objective reality ‘out there’. People are seen as agents rather than passive objects. The approach aspires to be ‘bottom-up’, as it is based on an inclusive belief. As David Coghlan simply puts it: ‘It’s about real people doing something about real issues together.’

Outlook on the future, more than the past

Thus, rather than focusing on finding, describing, proving, understanding or explaining the ‘truth’ about what ‘was’ or ‘is’, action research strives to answer the question of ‘what could be’. In short, it is about practical knowledge. Action researchers are driven by a need for impact in (social or business) systems as well as by the aim to rigorous.

y contribute to science. The outcome is sustainable action and robust knowledge as an invitation to further research.

The researcher as a reflexive practitioner

Contributing to the body of knowledge in behavioral science is never as unbiased or ‘clean’ as in the natural sciences. Humans create meaning and interpret, and are unpredictable and inconsistent. Therefore, the researcher should be a reflexive practitioner who is transparent about his or her assumptions, choices, uncertainties and learning process along the way. This reflexivity leaves room for the – sometimes messy – aspects of research: the inconsistencies, doubts and dilemmas in working with people. It’s raw and authentic.

Allowing for emergence and different ways of knowing

Last but not least, action research then allows for an emergent inquiry process that draws from different ways of knowing (intellectual, experiential, practical, artistic etc.), using both qualitative and quantitative methods. Efforts to prove or disprove hypotheses and follow rigid research plans are replaced by continuous reflection cycles (diagnosis-planning-acting-evaluating-diagnosis etc.) and experiments carried out with a collaborative spirit. Action research – with its agile flavor – may very well fit with the VUCA world we now live in.

Are you considering exploring action research yourself? Or would you like to know more?

David Coghlan gave us some guiding questions that can help get you thinking:

  • What in life concerns you deeply or is something you care deeply about?

  • What is the bigger context of that concern or desire?

  • What would be the purpose of doing something about it?

  • With whom should you (start to) work on this?

  • What might be the potential impact if you were to work on this?

  • What do you need to understand more deeply about yourself in order to make it work?

  • If you were to talk to others who are not familiar with this topic, how would you explain it to them in simple terms?

Like to know more about our experiences at the PhD school at Nyenrode Business University or my adventures at Ashridge Business School, please drop me a note!

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