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‘Action Research’ method trains business leaders to make impact

The challenges facing us – population growth, migration, globalisation, shifting centres of economic power, increasing inequality of life and the deterioration of the environment – are pressing. Now, many advocates for change have realised that change and innovation is predominantly a socio-technological phenomenon and that the standard approaches no longer work.

So perhaps it is time for a more radical approach to the dynamics of stability and change? Leaders should take a look at themselves, as well as their organisations, when they are asking how we do good business as a global community.

The Executive Doctorate in Organisational Change at Ashridge Executive Education, at Hult International Business School, is not for the faint-hearted. Through the discipline of ‘Action Research’, it throws students – be they CEOs, managers, entrepreneurs or individuals – into the lions’ den and pushes them to research themselves as much as their corporation or organisation.

“As a business school we’re obviously rooted in business, but at the same time we’re challenging business,” says Dr Steve Marshall, Academic Director. “We are deliberately radical and we are looking for people who want to change their organisations – be it a church or charity, a hospital or a multinational – for the better. What really interests us is how the individual, the researcher, can bring about change in existing social systems.

“We rate our students on the impact they have, not the number of times someone reads their research,” he says.

The key buzzwords here are research with, not research on, Marshall explains. ‘Traditional research, the ‘Expert Model’, involves coming up with a hypothesis, working out the methodology and going into the field. Researchers will go into an organisation, for example, study its practices, conduct focus groups, opinion polls or surveys, and come up with a diagnosis. The researchers keep control of the research while the participants are held at a distance. The researchers reach the conclusions.’

The Ashridge method, ‘Action Research’, is a three-pronged personal approach based on First Person, Second Person, Third Person. “First, we look at ourselves as researchers, understand our interest and motives in this research, how we are seeing the problem and why?” says Marshall. “Our concept is that first the researcher must know themself before going on to work with others.

“Secondly, in the ‘second person’ part, we explain our ideas to the participants and get their feedback on the research and our methods so that they share the issues and the research is as participatory as possible. If researchers simply fire questions, it is another case of the subjects being told what to do and you are far less likely to achieve anything of consequence. If, on the other hand, we convene the community and ask: what’s the best way to get this knowledge? and we join with the participants as co-researchers and co-inquirers, they will be more likely to speak up and the results will be more valuable,” he continues.

“And ‘third person’ means we take our research out into the world and make sure it has impact. While the doctorate is academic, this is nevertheless research for positive change – rather than research for publishing in some arcane journal and adding only to our theoretical knowledge.”

“In the thesis,” says Marshall, “we are looking for the impact of the individual, at how they have convened a conversation in a different way so as to make a difference and change an organisation.

“It is so easy for individuals to think “but what can I do? How can I make a difference?” and feel deflated, but individuals can make an impact, Marshall insists.”

He quotes the example of a doctoral student who had two very sick children whom she felt were being treated as ‘numbers’ by an overstretched NHS. She began to examine how this depersonalisation could be avoided in a large medical organisation. “She invited other parents, doctors and nurses to a group discussion to co-inquire and today she is addressing large audiences on the same issue.”

 Another difference from conventional research is that the research question can often change during the research as students examine their own roles as researchers. For example, a senior policeman inquiring into better leadership in the police force discovered that there was a gender issue that prevented this happening. “The topic of the research changed,” says Marshall, “and the methods and questions shifted as we went along.

“Our aim is not to prove or disprove a hypothesis that is set in stone at the beginning.”

Action Research has its beginnings as far back as the end of the Second World War with the emancipatory philosophies that started to look at what makes a worthwhile organisation, says Marshall. Today, as social responsibility and sustainability are coming to the fore in the corporate agenda, as well as new concepts of civil society, an increasing number of people are realising that the conventional change models are not working. They want to know: what do we do now for the greater collective good; how do we do good business?

“We, at Ashridge, see ourselves as consultants for change. Our role is not to oppose business but to challenge it and we believe that helping to develop individuals and training people to go out and change the world is the most important work we can do.

 “Many people reach the stage when they question what they want to do with their life, and how they can meaningfully contribute to the good of the global community,” says Marshall, “and this doctorate is precisely for those who want to initiate and sustain change within their organisations. It is aimed at those who want to make a unique contribution in their chosen field.”

The Ashridge doctorate programme challenges participants’ implicit and explicit assumptions and the implications of those assumptions for their practice. Students undertake this research in collaboration with like-minded peers and the support of like-minded tutors.

It is, warns Marshall, a radical doctorate. “Getting people to speak out, break the rules, be creative and challenge hierarchies can have consequences. When we get students to subject themselves, as well as their organisations, to research, to challenge their own motives and practices, they can change in ways that are shocking even to themselves.

“This is a very developmental program and this, in itself, carries risks and can put students in a vulnerable position. We, as a faculty, are very aware that our role is as much in supporting students as in challenging them.

“Some will end up changing their own roles – even their whole lifestyles – quite significantly.”