Setting Up a Network of Action Research to Overcome Systemic and Cultural Issues

The world is changing faster than systems can keep up. This is seen in business, industry, education, health care, banking etc. The basic problem faced by managers is much the same across all of these ways of doing business: the owners and managers believe they see where the company needs to move but have difficulty explaining or motivating current staff to make the necessary changes. Sometimes management are up against cultural issues, and while they fully understand since they also come from those cultures, it is even more difficult because the change goes to the very fiber of their countries or ideals and yet are necessary if their organization is to survive. An example of this is seen in education in the Arab world where spokespeople such as her Majesty, Queen Rania Al Abdullah of Jordan and Crown Prince H.H. Shaikh Salman bin Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa of Bahrain actively pursue a dramatic change in education away from graduates who want and expect the government to hire them and to take care of them for the rest of their lives as has been the case for a very long time. In much of the world the government has always been the best employer and now economic pressures insist on a change to an entrepreneurial society, one that creates economic growth in the new knowledge based economic environment. Using this example, we see several complex layers of issues that need to be tackled simultaneously in order to bring about systemic change. These layers include:

  1. producing a cultural mind shift from being taken care of by the government to fast-paced entrepreneurial endeavors
  2. encouraging a shift from seeking only safety to being willing to take risks
  3. needing to incorporate the “soft” skills required in modern business into the standard curriculum
  4. providing professional development for teachers so that they can model these new skills, ones that they don’t currently have or understand
  5. finding the time to release all the staff for this training and this retooling while still continuing the work that is going on
  6. finding a way so that the change is embraced by the people rather than engendering resentment

As is true with most complex issues, facing these issues directly makes many experienced leaders and managers quail under the likelihood of potential failure. We have all seen reform efforts gone bad. Every new idea that does not get implemented properly, leaves behind it a residue of resentment and skepticism, eventually souring the entire culture of our working world. Many Western environments have seen this already, with employee morale dropping dramatically and productivity coming to a halt upon announcement of mergers, reorganization, etc.

The good news is that networked participatory action research (PAR) can overcome many, if not all, of these challenges. This article lays out the general format that can be used by leadership, in tandem with a good PAR facilitation, to develop teams of staff who will study the issues and develop solutions, taking ownership of the changes required by the complex situation rather than subtlety opposing all change.

How do you begin? The first step for management is to work what personal incentives can be used to encourage people to take on the extra work that is being asked of them. This is a common problem for businesses, nonprofits, and public administrators, who generally expect that this kind of work should just be done under the normal auspices of a person’s employment. We have found that incentives bring success and without them complex reforms of this nature are much more likely to experience a failure rate of somewhere around 50%. Here’s why. This PAR process will require that these teams work outside of their normal business day to gather data, have meetings to discuss actions and measurement, implement new steps, and measure their success. Consider them pilot projects in each of your major hubs of activity. If you were paying consultants to work out a pilot for you, you would pay them. In this case your own staff should be treated with the same respect you would give those consultants. The change in their attitude will seem remarkable. When you are asking them to step up as experts in what they do and help you redesign their own working environment to better meet the needs of outside pressures to change, to pilot new ideas, and you show them respect by paying them extra for their extra work, they are much more likely to give it their full attention.

What are you asking them to do? To participate regularly in an action research project and to write up the results in a final report that will be available to you for publication. This involves a discovery cycle where they analyze what needs to change in order to make your vision come true, present ideas as to which steps can be taken and measure the outcomes of those first steps, and then to come back and reflect with you on what they are finding. This will then start another round of discovery, measurable action, and reflection, a process which continues until you see real and sustainable change. In this manner they will take ownership of the changes you need them to make, feel transformed in their new roles, and, over time, you will be amazed at how much can be done, and what positive attitudes will develop. The requirement for a final report is a necessary capstone to this kind of change process. We have found that the two elements that create success are the incentives and the requirement for a final report that will be published. The first shows respect, the second sets a high professional standard.

What is the structure and timetable of this activity? Picture a central hub, with smaller circles attached to it through lines, and more lines making a web between the smaller circles. That is the general design of networked participatory action research to address complex change. First, small working groups are formed in each of the hubs of activity that need to address the change. For instance in education, you would bring together working teams that included Principals and key teachers from schools where the reform needed to be put in action. In business, the decisions of the online on where the reform needs to be put in action. So, if you’re strategic plan requires a retooling in some fashion across several working groups, you ask the heads of those working groups to select two or three partners and they form what we will call the local participatory action team.

Once these small teams are formed, (becoming the smaller circles in our imaginary diagram) you bring them together on a regular basis, facilitate their understanding of action research, their understanding of the challenges your wider organization faces, and what is expected of their individual subgroups. Then their team goes back to their area and proceedings with a cycle of action research. This includes discovering what is the currently in the way of the change and measuring it. Then they come back to the hub for another day’s work as you facilitate their next steps which include designing and planning the implementation that will begin to create the change you desire. Because they are held to a standard that requires later reporting, each step along the way as measured, and as the process continues as they grow in their professional understanding of the scientific approach to problem solving and change.

The timetable starts with management assigning the work to their managers and the managers choosing their teams, then these teams or hubs of activity come together with the facilitator to learn about action research and to plan the rest of the change effort. The will be meeting as a larger group for one full day about every two months for approximately one year after the first meeting. In total, and including initial planning and final celebration, the facilitated group meets for 8 – 10 working days. The teams will put in about three times that much effort in their local context. We have studied groups using this design and have found consistently transformational results – both from the teams in the hubs of activity and in the total organization as a whole. Generally a year of facilitated activity and another year where the people involved in the initial teams disseminate what they have learned and engender change in their local environments will demonstrate remarkable differences. The following quotes participants at the end of this design demonstrate the results you might expect in your organization.

The cycles of participatory action research have certainly given us exciting results. Motivation in our organization is an ongoing research topic, and we realize that we have a duty to pass on this information to the entire community. We all need to raise our expectations as to our ability to achieve better results, but we have proven to ourselves that we are up to the task.

The action research process has pushed all of us to continue to refine our practice of acquiring usable information. As we went through this cyclical process, we gained clarity on the data needed to be most helpful to those we work with and our employers. Everyone assisted by seeking information and we created an environment where all were successful. The process supported us and caused us to grow beyond out wildest dreams. While at time frustrating, it also creates an effective model for successful implementation of change.

Future articles will discuss the facilitation issues and other specifics of the design.

Presentation Skills: Be More Productive Using a Facilitator Mode

There are many definitions for presentations. When you present there are also many different modes you can focus on. Are you a facilitator or an educator? The mode of facilitator is often misused in the corporate world and interchanged with words like trainer and educator. Facilitation is an exceptional skill, once you learn this skill you can boost your productivity and it can make you a better presenter.

A true facilitator is all about creating an environment where people feel safe and able to share their ideas freely. I believe the facilitator’s role is to act as a conduit. The first process a facilitator will undertake is to create operating agreements with their audience. It is the facilitator’s role to remove any blockages and conflicts within the group. They allow the thought processes of the group to be processed and expressed. They are responsible for establishing an environment that does that.

If this is a mode you are interested in developing yourself, the main proficiencies for this mode include:

Removing personal agenda – a facilitator’s role is to set the agenda with the group, not be running their own personal agenda. It is more powerful to seek to fill the agenda of the team and you will be more engaging to your audience.

Creating trust – this can be established in many ways for a presenter. It can occur before the presentation with communications circulated to the attendees, it can be built into the introduction for the facilitator and it can also be established when the agenda is set.

Respecting diversity – valuing each person’s input and recognising the variety of expertise and experience within the audience is the sign of a great facilitator.

Having active listening skills – one of the most important skill for any facilitator is the need to be able to listen and process what the audience is saying … and quickly. Listening intently will assist this.

A good facilitator may take several hours or days to create an environment where all the work may finally come together in the last hour. Don’t be fooled … some may think a facilitator comes into a presentation or meeting unprepared but that is not the case. An exceptional facilitator spends time preparing by taking a comprehensive brief from the client, researching the group/audience they will be working with and determining the questions that need to be asked to facilitate the best environment.

A quick note: Many organisations choose to bring in external facilitators to work with teams to achieve objectives. An external facilitator is neutral, doesn’t participate in office politics and is not influenced by the management hierarchy. If you team is grid locked or not co-operating, an external facilitator can be a great solution for you.

In a true facilitation style you may not even have the first question for your audience! Every discussion is a question i.e. does this feel right for you? Every facilitator should have an arsenal of great questions in their tool kit. Those questions include:

How is that working for you?

How do you feel about that?

I’m having trouble understanding that?

Does anyone want to add anything to that?

What’s that a part of?

If you knew the answer to that, what would it be?

In your experience, is that correct?

Does that ring true for you?

What do you need to get more out of this?

So what else is coming up?

If you had more time, what would the answer be?

If you knew the answer, what would it look like?

What is the biggest problem with the world?

What is the biggest issue with the world?

Facilitators are able to hold the space in tension to understand. They don’t try to fill the silence. They are able to capture conversations, check people’s understanding and expose all opinions. Learning questioning techniques will increase your mastery of this mode.

Here is a Facilitation checklist for you to help build your skills in this mode ask yourself the following questions:

Do you have an arsenal of questions?

Are you an active listener?

Can you “hold the space” in the tension?

Can you continually ask questions rather than try and find solutions to the discussions?

When you master this facilitation mode you will become a more powerful and engaging presenter. This skill can assist you when you have a tough audience, when you need to change the environment and when you are helping a client find a solution.

What Exactly Is a Facilitator and How Can They Help You?

If you are a business owner, you know how important communication is in being successful. If you are unable to effectively speak with your employees, the results can be disastrous for overall company productivity and performance. If you need help getting messages across more efficiently in monthly staff meetings or if you require a complete overhaul of your firms existing practices, professional assistance is available. There is a wealth of experts (independent contractors and large-scale corporations) that specialize in the niche of facilitation. Known simply as facilitators, these people are skilled in the art of corporate communication. They have a unique skill-set that can address and fix many common workplace issues, including dispute resolution, leadership enhancement, lack of member participation, action planning and strategy development.

What does a Facilitator do and Why do you need One?

The field of facilitation is so diverse that most professionals tend to specialize in a specific area, although many are qualified to teach and train clients across the board. No matter what industry you work in, the benefits of hiring a corporate facilitator are too great to pass up. In this economy, there is very little room for miscommunication errors; one wrong move and a project can be set back, resulting in lost profits and lost customers. Thus, when you hire a facilitator to reorganize your company’s practices, you are making a solid long-term investment. The great thing about facilitation methods is that they can easily be learned and applied by business owners and designated team-lead employees. There are many corporate facilitation firms that offer training seminars and hands-on sessions in this regard, so be sure to research your options. Here are just a few of the benefits that hiring a facilitator can bring to your firm!

The Benefits of Hiring a Facilitator

  • They can help find solutions to problems when you have run out of ideas
  • They can a fresh perspective and unbiased third-party insight into your company’s existing organizational methods
  • They can mobilize employees and make them want to participate; uninterested or unruly staff is a problem many business owners face, and it is not always easy to resolve these issues
  • A facilitator will help increase your bottom line; when productivity and profit are at stake, expert help is a must-have resource
  • Most facilitators offer training sessions or courses that can give owners and key employees the skills they need to employ effective facilitation methods long after the contractor is gone

Research-Led Teaching: A Personal Perspective

The fact that candidates for jobs in the United Kingdom higher education sector (UKHEs) are continually asked to make presentations on topics such as ‘What are your views on, and experience of, research-led teaching in education?’, ‘How will your research contribute to the delivery of the University’s Learning and Teaching strategy?’ and ‘Describe how your research will contribute, over the next 3-5 years, to the international teaching profile of this University’, indicates the importance and perennial need to link teaching and research in the UKHEs. Additionally, those employed are encouraged to make their teaching ‘more research-led’. From this perennial desire locally, emerges coined phrases such as ‘research-led’, ‘research informed’ or ‘research enhanced’ teaching, which have now become established jargons in the sector.

One University in its learning and teaching policy defines research-led teaching as that which introduces students to the latest findings in their subjects and develops students’ powers of critical insight and intellectual synthesis. This idea is supported by writers such as Tushman & O’Reilly (2007), Anthony & Austin (2008,) Prichard (2000), and Paul & Rubin (1984) who see the role of research and its connection with teaching as enabling knowledge growth and improving practice and/or teaching.

Embedded in this definition is a reason for engaging in research-led teaching that is, to keep students informed of current developments in their chosen field and to aid the development of a cognitive skill. Another reason for engaging in research-led teaching in education and related careers, include the fact that it enables students to effectively function in many educational and related roles such as (Teaching, Educational Management or Administration in schools, Youth work, Community and Charity work, or the caring professions generally) which require:

  • the skill of critical analysis
  • critically evaluating knowledge
  • making rational judgment in light of good evidence
  • gathering and reflecting on the evidence
  • being creative in light of rapid change and uncertainty (Brew 2010 and Brew, & Boud 1995).

So what exactly constitutes research-led teaching?

To answer this question I pull on personal experience ‘in the field’. My experience in this area involves:

  1. Sharing research with students. I do this in four ways:

One, I use personal research reports as teaching material during classes to enrich both postgraduate and undergraduate students’ learning. For example, my 2001 research on the church school relationship in the Cayman Islands resulted in the publication of a book with a similar title. This book is required reading for a module I teach. During specific sections of the module, the work is discussed and students are encouraged to critically think about, evaluate and challenge the claims made.

Two, during teaching, I utilise personal experiences and anecdotes/stories related to my own research to convey points of interest to students. For example, I might tell of interviewing a research participant and her responses, which betrayed her true belief about an educational issue.

Three, in addition to using personal research publications and personal stories during teaching, there is a list of required and recommended readings provided for all modules I teach. It is my responsibility to research the local archive, libraries, journals, and to order text books for all these modules. These readings are discussed during lessons and used to guide and broaden students’ thinking about the subject being studied and to actively engage them in critical examination of literary sources.

Four, I utilised the knowledge gained and data from own research on reflective teaching to construct face-to-face, online and hybrid modules for undergraduate teacher education students. Examples of my research used are:

  • Reflective Teaching and… (Paperback and Kindle Edition)
  • Reflective teaching: Properties, Tool, Benefits and Support (Paperback)
  • Reflection and Reflective Teaching, A Case study of Four Seasoned Teachers in the Cayman Islands (Paperback).
  • Reflective Teaching as Self-Directed Professional Development: building Practical or work-related knowledge.
  • The Role of Reflection in the Differentiated Instructional Process.
  • Valli’s Typology of Reflection and the analysis of pre-service teachers’ reflective journals.
  • A Reflective Approach to Teaching Practicum Debriefing.

  1. Engaging students in enquiry based learning

Firstly, this involves encouraging students to engage in research by making it a required element of modules I develop and teach. By engaging in a small research project, they develop an understanding of the research process; examine the literature; pass judgement about what counts as evidence, and reflect on the evidence (Brew 2010 and Brew, & Boud 1995).

Secondly, I involve students in personal research. For example, undergraduates were involved in searching the literature which contributed to the production of the following piece: Reflective Teaching, Critical Literacy and the Teacher’s Tasks in the Critical Literacy Classroom (A Confirmatory Investigation).

Thirdly, students are required to produce a final thesis as a course requirement in a department of Education for which I was in charge. This further facilitated their induction in to research, for their involvement in the actual production of a high quality research thesis results in a greater appreciation for, and involvement in the research process.

  1. Researching and Reflecting on own Teaching (Scholarship of Learning and Teaching.

In this approach I am involved in researching and reflecting on my own teaching and the students’ learning via action research or applied research, which involves identifying a learning/teaching problem, researching the problem, applying the solution to my teaching and publishing the results. Current examples of this occurrence are:

  • Encouraging Secondary Students’ Deep Reflection-on-learning: a case for a Reflective Approach to Student Learning Evaluation.
  • Reflective Teaching and Disruptive Behaviour in Regular High School Classrooms in London, England.
  • Teaching Tasks and the composition of a ‘piece’ using music technology in the classroom: Implications for the education and training of teachers.

I reflect on or critically think about my own teaching. Via this process, I reflect on what steps need to be taken to improve the learning and teaching process, using a variety of evaluation methods (i.e., reflective journals, students’ evaluation form, and personal and peer observation) and then act on them in practical ways.

Here are a few strategies for encouraging and enabling research-led teaching

The development of a culture of research is one way of encouraging and enabling research-led teaching in a HEi. This can be achieved by developing and facilitating faculty’s professional development, which enables and encourages them to engage in the ‘scholarship of teaching’. This may include instituting awards /incentives that recognize outstanding teaching, based on researching and/or studying ones’ teaching; developing policy and criteria for this recognition scheme; facilitating in-house training in the area of the scholarship of teaching, and organizing a special lecture series by noted scholars to address the idea of the scholarship of teaching.

Developing or facilitating faculty’s engagement in research and publications is another way to encourage and enable research-led teaching in a HEi. Strategies to encourage this may include: building time in the teaching schedule for faculty to engage in research; providing funding for faculty attendance and participation in local and overseas conferences; developing policies to regulate faculty attendance and participation in local and overseas conferences; providing internal forums for faculty to showcase their research, for example, a lunch hour series that is broadly advertised, where faculty can talk about and present their research ideas for discussion, and present research that they have completed; encouraging internal review of publications that faculty are planning to submit to journals or conferences, and encouraging students’ research by requiring (where appropriate) the completion of a thesis or portfolio.

Other ways to encourage and enable research-led teaching in a HEi is to encourage consultancy work by faculty by showcasing to the local university and wider community their credentials, experiences and achievements; hosting and organizing annual or biannual conferences at the University to address issues relevant to education; and using the University’s website to display faculty research and scholarship achievements.

References

Anthony, E. K & Austin M.J. (2008). The Role of an Intermediary Organization in Promoting Research in Schools of Social Work: the Case of the Bay Area Social Services Consortium. Social Work Research 32(4) 287-294

Brew, A. (2010). Imperatives and Challenges in Integrating Teaching and Research. Higher Education Research & Development 29, 139-150.

Brew, A, & Boud, D. (1995). Teaching and research; establishing the vital link with learning. Higher Education, 29, 261-273

Paul, C.W and Rubin, P.H. (1984) Teaching and Research: The Human Capital

Paradigm. Journal of Economics Education 15(2), 142-147

Prichard, R. (2000) Future Directions for Research in Caribbean Higher Education Institutions. Chapter 11 in Higher Education in the Caribbean: Past, Present & Future Directions. 251-265, ISBN 9789766400798

Tushman, M & O’Reilly III, C. (2007). Research and Relevance: Implications of pasteur’s quadrant for doctoral programs and faculty development. Academy of Management Journal 50(4), 769-774