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1 Preprint This is the submitted version of a paper presented at A practice about practice The Nordic Academy of Management conference, NFF, Stockholm, 20#24 August Citation for the original published paper: Lindskog, P. (2011) Organizational Change through Interactive Research or a Consultant s Intervention: Reflections about pros and cons. In: N.B. When citing this work, cite the original published paper. Permanent link to this version:

2 Organizational Change through Interactive Research or a Consultant s Intervention Reflections about pros and cons Presented at A practice about practice The Nordic Academy of Management conference, NFF, Stockholm, August 2011 Pernilla Lindskog 1,2 1) Royal Institute of Technology, Division of Ergonomics, Stockholm, Sweden 2) HELIX Vinn Excellence Centre, Linköping University, Linköping, Sweden Abstract This abstract is written at the start up of an interactive oriented research project. The author has previous experience as a consultant and is reflecting upon possible differences between being a consultant and being a researcher. In the paper, a reflection is made on possible differences when using an academic or a consultant approach in an organizational intervention. The consultants are seen as the change agents, fully devoting themselves to the needs of the clients in performing an organizational intervention. The consultant s role, as being a change agent, is sometimes compared to the role of an action researcher. However, the action researchers should not only satisfy the organizations but should also add critical knowledge to existing research. In interactive research, the emphasis is even larger on the importance of separating the role of a researcher from a developer in order to carefully consider issues of validity. As opposed to the action researcher s role, an interactive researcher is expected to perform a joint analysis with the involved actors of the organization instead of taking responsibility of the change process. Even so, both interactive and action research can be seen as new production of knowledge in addition to traditional research. The question which is reflected upon is: If there is a difference between the role of a consultant and an action researcher in an organizational intervention, is there really a difference between interactive and action research? Aspects such as participation, learning and sustainability are considered. The empirical data is collected from the author s involvement in two parallel research projects as an interactive researcher. One project is within the public sector and the other is within the public psychiatric care sector. Both involve change projects aimed towards the development of lean production. Keywords: Lean production, action research, organizational change and consultant.

3 1 Introduction The purpose of this paper is to reflect upon interactive research as a research approach. The reflections made started when the author attended the PhD course Interactive Research, 7,5 HP, at The HELIX VINN Excellence Centre at Linköping University (www.liu.se/helix). Also, the reflections are made from the author s involvement in a research project, called Verksamhetslyftet, in which an interactive research approach is used. At the writing of this paper, initial contact has been taken in an additional research project within the psychiatric hospital care. During the planning of this research project, an interactive approach has also been used. Hence, the reflections will be made from all these experiences. Since the author has previous experience from being a consultant, some reflections are made about possible similarities and differences between interactive research, action research and being a consultant. The purpose of the comparisons made is to create awareness about factors influencing an interactive approach, which is used in the author s own research. The question which is reflected upon is: If there is a difference between the role of a consultant and an action researcher in an organizational intervention, is there really a difference between interactive and action research? Aspects such as participation, learning and sustainability are considered. The paper starts with a theoretical background. To be able to reflect upon pros and cons about action and interactive research, some empirical data is presented. The paper ends with a discussion about possible differences among these approaches. As a support in the analysis a comparison between the two approaches and consultant work is also made. The paper is finalized with some conclusions and thoughts about a possible future research approach. 1.1 Background Something is happening! The interest in research is growing fast in companies, institutions, organizations, and government. But, it is not the traditional research which is asked for but rather something new: an approach focusing on useful knowledge, a multidisciplinary and an interactive approach which allows for participation in the process of research. (Svensson et al. 2002) (Svensson et al. 2002) refer to (Molander 1993), saying that ever since the days of Platon, ideas have been seen as superior to reality and reason has been seen as superior to practical experience. Svensson et al. (2002) proceed and ask how researchers and practitioners are supposed to cooperate when their occupations are viewed so differently? In developmental and collaborative research another focus than such a dualistic approach is needed (Molander (1993) in Svensson et al. (2002)). Of course, there are advantages connected to the traditional research systems, such as critical distance and a long term search for knowledge. However, the model of high academic science has been criticized for not corresponding to the fast changing society of present time. Research needs to be closer to reality and practice and the development of new theories will not gain from isolation but rather from networking, meetings, joint development processes and debates with practice. As a consequence, new research approaches have been developed focusing more on a joint development process (Svensson et al. 2002). As a result, action research and interactive research are examples of new research approaches having entered the academic stage (Aagaard Nielsen & Svensson 2006). 2

4 1.2 Action and Interactive Research The evolution of action research seems to have begun with the definition made in the forties by Kurt Lewin, who by many is regarded as the father of action research. Lewin could not be bothered with research only resulting in books and he wanted to help the practitioner. Consequently, an action researcher is supposed to act as a change agent. His argumentation for action research was most likely due to his explicit values for a better society and a better working life (Westlander 2006). However, one of the dilemmas in being an action researcher is to balance between the scientific interests and ambitions and the client s need for a prompt and practical problem solving. In addition, according to Ellström & Kock (2011), it is difficult to critically analyze the empirical data when being too involved in the development process as an action researcher. Another criticism aimed at action research is qualitative case studies being the main methods used with hardly any quantitative approach. As a consequence, the legitimacy of action research has been questioned. Most of all, action research is seen as being unproductive since time often is not enough for the researcher to produce scientific articles (Ellström & Kock 2011). Hence, a group of researchers in Sweden has introduced the concept of Interactive Research. In interactive research the research approach is rather towards a joint learning process where both the researcher and the participants develop during the research process. The participants in the study have an important role in the analytical work where the ambition is to carry out research together with the organization (Svensson et al. 2002). According to Ellström & Kock (2011), interactive research has a threefold purpose; to produce new scientific knowledge to academia (Science), to develop organizations through innovation (Practice), and to make both researchers and the organizations to learn. In action research, the learning process is more situated and only used as an instrument in the local change process (Svensson et al. 2007). However, joint learning, through critical analysis, is known as a factor positively affecting the sustainability of the development outcome and joint learning is explicitly mentioned as an interactive research characteristic (Ellström & Kock 2011). The joint learning process in interactive research starts with the joint process of mutually trying to conceptualise and define the problems and issues that should be addressed. It is important to reach an initial agreement between researchers and practitioners concerning research problems and the general design of the research project. This early negotiation phase should result in a project plan (Ellström 2008). During this period of time, it is also important for both the researcher and the participants to get to know each other and it is important to allow this process of acquaintance to take time (Larsson 2011). Also, according to Larsson (2011), the personality approach of the researcher will have an impact on the future researcher participant collaboration. However, even from the first contact with the practitioners, it is important to put forward a clear division of labour between the researcher and the practitioners. This clear division is due to the researcher s need of having a critical distance, according to traditional academic values (Wallo 2011). Also, a clear division is needed in order to prevent the researcher from being too involved in the change process and thus spending too much time in the practice system. So, instead of the researcher taking this role, the primary task for the practitioners is to accomplish and to be responsible for the process of action within the organization. However, the researcher is to support the action process, e.g. as a dialog partner, by for example arranging joint seminars focusing on interpretation of the research findings (Ellström 2008). An ideal typical model of interactive research is presented in figure 1, showing the idea of knowledge creation. Both the research system and the practice system are driven by problems originating in research or practice. The practical knowledge, 3

5 i.e. the local theories, is assumed to guide the organization s actions. Hence, the interactive research process is meant to produce conceptualizations and interpretations of the research object. These interpretations are to be fed back into the organization, into their next cycle of problem solving activities, but also into the next cycle of research activities. By so doing, a joint exploration process and analysis of data are presumed so to produce common knowledge and understanding of the research object (Ellström 2008). Figure 1. Interactive Research as a two way flow of problems and knowledge (Ellström 2008). Svensson et al. (2007) have listed some differences between action and interactive research, see table 1. Table 1. Some differences between action and interactive research (Svensson et al. 2007) Interactive Research Action Research Responsibilities for action and research Divided Shared Main ambitions Theoretical generally applicable knowledge Practical local theories Interest in the issue of validity High Low The research role Organizing joint learning for critical analysis Organizing the learning process 1.3 Consultant Work vs. Action and Interactive Research Consultation is useful in seeking solutions to many of the complex issues and problems that people and organizations face today. Consultants offer assistance by intervening that is, by taking some action to help a client solve his or her problem(s). (Blake & Mouton 1983) The definition above is very close to the definition of an action researcher, i.e. in being a change agent, which makes it difficult to distinguish differences between the two roles. Also, the range of situations encountered by consultants is very varied (Blake & Mouton 1983) which makes it even 4

6 more complicated to distinguish obvious differences. However, there are differences in that an action researcher is not only to be responsible for the practical development process but also for the production of academic results (Ellström & Kock 2011) as opposed to a consultant. Contrariwise, there are a few more differences between a consultant and an interactive researcher in that the interactive researcher is not to act as a change agent (Ellström 2008). Also, Gunnarsson (2011) argues for a difference between a consultant and an interactive researcher especially in social research. The participants /employees ability to specify a valid specification concerning the change process is limited when hiring a consultant. In an interactive research approach, especially in social research, the participants/employees and the researcher jointly decide about a problem formulation. Through the joint process of reflection and learning about the participant s situation, the participants are able to put forward a valid project specification (Gunnarsson 2011). According to Johansson (2008), who is both doing research and working as a consultant, argues that there is shortsightedness among consultants concerning the project objectives. Consultants rather avoid conflicts than investigate the reasons behind the conflicts. To critically analyze and investigate the reason for conflicts, in a joint learning process, is however the role of an interactive researcher (Johansson 2008; Ellström & Kock 2011). Jointly critically analyzing the development process has a positive effect on the sustainability of the work (Ellström & Kock 2011). According to Svensson et al. (2002), it is difficult to reach sustainable developmental solutions through trendy management theories. Even so, research projects are quite often initiated through a contract between a university and a private external funding organization. The externally funded research is increasing in relation to research funded by the faculty (Svensson et al. 2002). Hence, such funding arrangements may put even an interactive researcher in a loyalty conflict to the project (Johansson 2008). As a consequence, the conflicting loyalty may end up in a validity problem, even for an interactive researcher, if avoiding critical analysis. 2 Empirical data The empirical data presented below is used in the analysis of possible differences in characteristics between action and interactive research. The empirical data has been collected from the author s involvement in a research project called Verksamhetslyftet (a Swedish term which may be translated to the organizational leverage ). Also, the author plans to do an in depth study in one organization. Following is a presentation of Verksamhetslyftet and the work in planning the in depth study. 2.1 Verksamhetslyftet Together with two other PhD students, which are all affiliated to HELIX VINN Excellence Centre (www.liu.se/helix), the author is involved in a research project doing research on Verksamhetslyftet. Verksamhetslyftet is an educational program aimed towards the public sector in Sweden. The purpose of the program is to give support to public sector organizations, i.e. both hospitals and municipalities, working with the implementation of lean production. The program is owned by the Trygghetsfonden (www.trygghetsfonden.se) and the Swedish Municipalities and Hospitals (SKL) (www.skl.se ). The program is financed through the AFA Försäkring (www.prevent.se). The objective of Verksamhetslyftet is to increase both the effectiveness, efficiency and work satisfaction among employees by developing a lean culture in the organizations, i.e. focusing on the elimination of nonvalue adding activities from the customers /patients /care takers perspective. The spreading of the 5

7 lean culture is managed through educational courses, seminars and the building of lean knowledge networks (www.liu.se/helix, and ). The purpose of following this educational program, is to study effects which a lean implementation may have on employees working conditions and consequently on their occupational health. Another purpose is to study how to make the positive effects, resulting from the development work through the implementation of lean production, sustainable in the organizations. The research project, which is also called Verksamhetslyftet, has an interactive research approach. As a consequence, qualitative methods such as interviews, case studies and joint analysis seminars (Svensson et al. 2007) are used. The joint analysis seminars are used so to clarify any ambiguities from the interviews and also to feed back the knowledge gained from the research project. Besides the qualitative methods chosen, i.e. interviews, case studies and joint analysis seminars, a survey will be sent to approximately 3000 employees. Hence, a quantitative method will also be used in the research project. In addition, a steering group, representing the participants from the public sector has been chosen. This steering group has taken part in the problem formulation of the research project and the choice of research methods. Together with this steering group, it has been decided to include 15 organizational units in the research project. 2.2 In Depth Study In order to understand and to be able to explain not only obvious characteristics, such as lean methods used and organizational structures, but also underlying characteristics, such as organizational culture and non spoken and spoken informal organizational values, an in depth study is planned. To get an understanding of the actual events going on in the organization, the plan is to spend a lot of time on the premises, in one organization, in order to grasp the actual organizational reality. Contact has been taken with a psychiatric care division. This division plans to develop the future psychiatric hospital care. New psychiatric facilities are being built. The purpose with the new facilities are not only to renew the premises but also to improve the flow of psychiatric care between the open and closed psychiatric care units, to have a closer distance to the somatic care unit, and to integrate research in the clinical process. The new facilities are planned to be finished at the beginning of year During the first months of year 2013, 65 psychiatric units, approximately patients and approximately 1000 employees will move into the new building. However, the new facilities are not dimensioned to fit the present psychiatric unit processes which is the reason why an organizational change is needed. Lean production has been chosen as a method in this organizational change and special focus will be put on flows/processes in the organization identifying value adding activities from the customers /patients /care takers perspective. According to the psychiatric development manager, it is difficult for some employees to accept the lean production concept since their loyalty is with the patients and their profession and not necessarily with the organization. Hence, the appointed internal project group, including the development manager, will focus on participation and communication among both managers and other employees during the implementation of lean production. Additionally, the development manager plans to do research on the project at the same time as being responsible for the development process. Hence, the development manager plans to have an action approach in her research. 6

8 3 Discussion The research approach in Verksamhetslyftet is considered as an interactive research approach. The interactive approach is assumed since the researchers are not responsible for the development process but rather a joint learning process including critical analysis. Also, a joint problem formulation has been made together with a steering group, representing the participants. The problem formulation has been described in a project plan which has been agreed upon. Also, a contact person is appointed in each of the 15 units through the head of the steering group. This communicational structure is believed to allow a critical distance and a clear division of labor between the researchers and the participants. But, due to the number of units to be investigated, the possibility to co operate with each contact person, e.g. in choosing interviewees, is considered to be limited. However, the number of case studies and surveys allows an identification of pattern and different mechanisms at an organizational and social level (Svensson et al. 2007) which is why the validity is still considered to be high. The researchers and the steering group have met a few times. Even if these occasions have been of a quite formal character, there has been possibilities to make acquaintance, which is important for the future collaboration (Larsson 2011). However, the collaboration and joint learning between the researchers and the interviewees is not considered to be as obvious even though joint analysis seminars have been arranged. Since the unit managers decide who will take part in the joint analysis seminar, the joint learning process may be considered to have a semi character so far. The research approach in the in depth study is not yet ultimately decided. However, an interactive approach is considered to have started since a joint initial problem formulation has been made. Possible methods to be used in the in depth study are interviews, focus group interviews, analysis seminars and surveys. Hence, both a quantitative and qualitative approach will be used which is a foundation for high validity (Svensson et al. 2007). However, the focus group interviews may be structured so to teach the participating managers about lean production and at the same time collecting empirical data. Hence, the responsibility for the researcher will be for both development and joint learning. Consequently, the researcher will be close to an action research approach. From Svensson et al. s (2007) model, an interpretation of the interactivity in Verksamhetslyftet and the indepth study is presented below, see table 2. Table 2. A comparison between the interactivity in Verksamhetslyftet and the in depth study. INT = Interactive research and ACT=Action research. Verksamhetslyftet In depth study Responsibilities for action and research Divided (INT) Divided (INT) Main ambitions Theoretical generally applicable knowledge (INT) Interest in the issue of validity High (INT) High (INT) The research role Organizing (semi ) joint learning for critical analysis( INT) Theoretical generally applicable knowledge (INT) Organizing the joint learning for critical analysis (INT + ACT) 7

9 The semi character of the joint learning process in Verksamhetslyftet, is mentioned due to the perhaps too excessive distance between the participants and the interactive researchers. Hence, the communicational strategy in the interaction with the contact persons and unit managers, in the 15 units participating in Verksamhetslyftet, probably needs to be reconsidered. Hopefully, a revised strategy will have a positive effect on the unit manager s understanding of the purpose of the joint analysis seminars and consequently on the joint learning process in Verksamhetslyftet. In the in depth study, the interactive researcher is being close to an action research approach. To avoid being too close to the development process and consequently risking a loss in critical distance, the interactive researcher probably needs support in the development process from a change agent. Could an interactive researcher be supported by a consultant being a change agent? From Svensson et al. s (2007) model, an interpretation of the differences between an interactive researcher, action researcher and a consultant is presented in table 3. Table 3. Differences between the role of an action researcher, interactive researcher and consultant. Interactive Researcher Action Researcher Consultant Responsibilities for action No Yes Yes Responsibilities for research Yes Yes No Main ambitions Theoretical generally applicable knowledge Practical local theories Practical local management theories Critical Distance (Validity) Context dependent Context dependent Context dependent Role Organizing joint learning for critical analysis Organizing the learning process Organizing the learning process Important factors influencing the quality and sustainability of development work are action, critical analysis and joint learning (Svensson et al. 2002; Ellström & Kock 2011). Action researchers, interactive researchers and consultants are believed to have different approaches. What if these approaches would be combined? For example, if an interactive researcher and a consultant would work as a team in an organizational development work, the consultant would be responsible for the development process and the interactive researcher would be a moderator responsible for the interactivity among the three participants; consultant (action), researcher (interactivity) and practitioners (reality). Is there in fact a reason to develop the model of interactive research, see figure 1, one step further? The author believes all three participants would benefit from such a developed interactive approach. The researcher would get valuable access into a development process promoting the theoretical generally applicable knowledge. The joint critical analysis would not only give the consultant local knowledge but also generally applicable management theories. Last but not the least, the practitioners would take part in a development process supported by a change agent, promoting change, and supported by an interactive researcher, promoting critical analysis and sustainability. Of course, the change agent could also be an action researcher or an internally appointed practitioner. As an example, in the in depth study, the development manager, having an action research approach, may as well have the role as a 8

10 change agent in such a developed interactive approach. This structure can be compared to the structure of co operation which Larsson (2007) used in her project in which the project managers were responsible for the development process. Even though, she was not responsible for the development, she, as an interactive researcher, supported the process in organizing joint reflections (Larsson 2007). A proposed model describing a development of the interactive research model is presented in figure 4, as compared to the model in figure 1. Figure 4. A proposed model describing a development of interactive research. 4 Conclusion According to the author there is a difference between a consultant and an action researcher. Also, the author believes there is a difference between an action researcher and an interactive researcher. However, the purpose in the reflections made, about possible differences between a researcher, whether it is an action or interactive researcher, and a consultant is not to declare a distance between the two but rather to create an awareness of important factors influencing interactive research. From this awareness, the author recommends a development of the concept of interactive research. The proposed model involves both a change agent (possibly a consultant), an interactive researcher and the practitioners in an organizational development process. Hence, the author concludes, that the title of this conference paper ought to be changed to Organizational Change through Interactive Research AND a Consultant s Intervention since co operation between the two roles is to be preferred in an organizational change. 9

11 References Literature: Aagaard Nielsen, K. and L. E. Svensson (2006). Action and Interactive Research Beyond practice and theory. Maastricht, Shaker Publishing BV. Blake, R. R. and J. S. Mouton (1983). Consultation. A handbook for individual and organization development. Massachusetts, Addison Wesley. Ellström, P. E. (2008). Knowledge Creation Through Interactive Research: A Learning Approach. ECER Conference. Gothenburg, HELIX VINN Excellence Centre, Linköping University. Johansson, A. W. (2008). Kritisk reflektion och handling i interaktiv forskning. Gemensamt kunskapande den interaktiva forskningens praktik. B. Johannisson, Gunnarsson, E., & Stjernberg, T. (red.). Växjö, Växjö University Press. Larsson, A. C. (2007). Empowermentprocesser ett sätt att öka långtidssjukskrivna kvinnors resurser? : en studie om att återta balansen i arbetslivet och i vardagslivet. Linköping, Institutionen för beteendevetenskap och lärande, Linköpings universitet. Molander, B. (1993). Kunskap i handling. Göteborg, Daidalos. Svensson, L., G. Aronsson, H. Randle and J. Eklund (2007). Hållbart arbetsliv : projekt som gästspel eller strategi i hållbar utveckling. Malmö, Gleerups Utbildning. Svensson, L., G. Brulin, P. E. Ellström and Ö. Widegren (2002). Interaktiv forskning för utveckling av teori och praktik. Stockholm, Arbetslivsinstitutet. Svensson, L., P. E. Ellström and G. Brulin (2007). "Introduction On Interactive Research." International Journal of Action Research 3(3): Westlander, G. (2006). Researcher Roles in Action Research. Action and Interactive Research. Beyond Practice and theory. Maastricht, Shaker Publishing. Personal Information: Ellström, P. E. and H. Kock (2011). Knowledge Creation Through Interactive Research A Learning Approach. S. a. HELIX. Linköping. Gunnarsson, E. (2011). "Hands on" för en hållbar förändring tillämpad genusforskning i ett innovationssystem. S. a. HELIX. Linköping. Larsson, A. C. (2011). Empowermentprocesser ett sätt att öka långtidssjukskrivna kvinnors resurser? : en studie om att återta balansen i arbetslivet och i vardagslivet. S. a. HELIX. Linköping. Wallo, A. (2011). The Leader as a Facilitator of Learning at Work. S. a. HELIX. Linköping. 10

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