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Action Research: Learning By Doing

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Susan Paddock
August 14, 2015

Too often the world divides research from practice, and researchers from practitioners, both groups assuming that practicing administrators do not have the time, expertise or need to conduct research.

Paddock aug 15Administrators regularly face questions about how they can be more effective. These usually are questions without easy answers. For example, how to balance accountability with privacy, or how to support employee independence and creativity while ensuring adherence to standards and regulations, or how to better provide citizen services. These are opportunities for administrators to engage in action research.

Kurt Lewin first used the term “action research” almost 70 years ago. He believed that the motivation to change was strongly related to action. People are more likely to accept change if they are active in making the decisions affecting them. Wendell L. French and Cecil Bell elaborated on Lewin’s ideas in their 1973 book, Organization Development: Behavioral Science Interventions for Organization Improvement. While the idea is old, it is even more important in our modern, engaged, changing world.

Action research addresses practical concerns in an immediate situation. It is both a research process and a change process. It is an individual attempt to find answers to solve an immediate problem (for example, a manager seeking to improve work processes) or a reflective, problem-solving process by a team or community of practice. Both approaches seek to solve a particular problem or to develop guidelines for best practice.

Action research is known by other names, including participatory research or collaborative inquiry, all of which are “learning by doing.” It is more “scientific” than simple problem-solving.

While any research can contribute to a better understanding of how organizations work and how they can improve, action research engages the subjects of research (the employees). As such, action research has a greater likelihood of acceptance by those doing and affected by the research. It allows researchers/employees to learn and to gain a deeper understanding of what they are studying. They become invested in both the research process and outcomes. This might be called a version of the “IKEA effect”—people learn from and become committed to anything in which they are the creators of the product (putting together furniture or putting together a program).

Some examples:

  • A police department, seeking to improve its relations with community members, involves officers in designing a variety of programs, keeping track of their actions and results. These are not pilot programs initiated by headquarters, but programs that the officers identify as possible answers. Data is collected and reviewed by officers. At some point, they make a recommendation as to whether the programs should be expanded, modified or discontinued.
  • A city department believes that a new, team-based approach to providing services will be more effective. Employees in the department agree to use the approach and document its effects on employees, citizens and departmental outcomes. Employees meet regularly to review the process.
  • “Boots on the ground” employees of agencies responding to a natural disaster carefully document actions taken and results. They engage with those affected by the disaster. They review timelines and actions and discuss means to improving responses in future disasters.
  • Students in a professional development program actively participate in exploring issues and developing responses about the best way to share services between state agencies. Both the teacher and the students, who teach and learn from each other, share knowledge. The teacher creates a structure for the research discussion, but the students assemble data and create organizational answers.

In all these examples, the practitioners engage in intentional analysis and experimentation. They do not simply carry out their duties and responsibilities.

There are ethical considerations in action research. The process must maximize the opportunities for involvement. Those conducting the research must understand the process and willingly be involved. Information must be openly shared with participants. Confidentiality must be maintained where appropriate. Decisions about research findings and resulting actions must be collective.

Action research enhances the workplace because it allows employees to see themselves as competent, respected and engaged. Research is not foisted upon them, but initiated and carried out by them. Action research contributes to the public administration field because it increases the information available about how ideas and theories work, or do not, in the real world.

Those who engage in action research have an additional responsibility: to let the rest of the profession know about their process and findings, even if the results are less than expected. Public administration has many journals that allow for publication of research, but the practicing administrator may find the submission and acceptance process lengthy and arcane. The online version of PA TIMES provides an accessible avenue for reporting action research findings, as do newsletters of sections and chapters (whose editors are always seeking news), national and regional conferences and social media.

Here is a challenge. Find something that needs research in your workplace, develop and carry out action research. Write about what you are doing, or have discovered, in newsletters, blogs or public administration publications. We all need to be finding out (researching) how to do the public’s work more effectively and efficiently.


Author: Susan Paddock is a University of Wisconsin-Madison emeritus professor who lives and works in Las Vegas, Nevada. She is the former director of certified public manager programs in Arizona and Wisconsin; has published in the areas of leadership, organizational development and human resources; and is an active student and researcher on what works in current or emerging organizational settings. Email [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

2 Responses to Action Research: Learning By Doing

  1. Lutfi Shahrani Reply

    August 18, 2015 at 3:41 pm

    Great article, Susan. You continue to teach us valuable lessons, albeit from afar now. Thank you.

  2. Dr. Angela Pool-Funai Reply

    August 17, 2015 at 3:15 pm

    Great reminder about this important area of research!

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