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The Craft and Graft of Action Research

Thick handbooks and metres of journal shelves have been taken up with discussion about what it means to undertake action research, how you can use it to challenge the traditional model of expert led research, and how you may (and may not) go about it. This can be more than a little overwhelming for the beginner, and trying to just ‘have a go’ at action research, perhaps in the complex and politicised environment of your own organisation, all seems rather bewildering.

So what is action research? From a layman’s perspective, it is research conducted and evaluated while a project evolves, with the evaluation helping to drive the direction of the research. Grounded in the idea that the best way to understand a situation is to participate in it, action research differs from other forms of academic research because it does not try to create objective, generalised findings. Where traditional research focuses on taking an objective view of a topic from an external viewpoint, action researchers instead immerse themselves in the situation, with the aim of effecting improvement through their work. This means action research is particularly well suited to activities like organisational consultancy and community development, allowing practitioners to embed themselves in any human setting work to understand its needs, and then help to implement change accordingly.

But how does this process work in practice? At Ashridge, where I am a member of the Doctoral Faculty, we have been using the action research methodology for several years, with the Ashridge Centre for Action Research (ACAR) established in 2010. Some of our practitioners find it offers a framework for their own professional and personal development, while others see it as a practical way of making change happen. Whatever the perspective, there is an on-going cycle with three aspects to it, that all action researchers find essential in their work:


The ability to listen and inquire effectively at this stage will inform the success of your research. You should ask yourself what you are trying to achieve and how you can build important relationships. Are you looking at implementing organisational change, team development, or addressing cross-culture clashes? Of course, once you have started to identify the heart of your research, and have formulated your questions, hypotheses, and started gathering data, you are also having an impact on the system you are part of, so how do you manage that?


Crucial to action research is ensuring adequate reflection, both with others and for yourself. Begin interpreting your data and hold it up to your research questions. How do these need fine-tuning? What else is happening that you did not expect? These factors need to be addressed in the actions you decide to take next.


Unlike other forms of research, action research expects us to have an impact on the situation. This is the graft of action research! So where does that take us next and how do we act with others to achieve the outcomes we want to see, whilst at the same time, gathering useful knowledge in the service of the system?

These may seem like simple things but they have deep implications for the way you learn and develop your research, especially in the doing of them, rather than just talking about them. When all’s said and done, action research is about human scale change, making contact with people and helping them take their next steps, wherever they and their colleagues are going. It is rewarding work, one good conversation at a time. In our view, action research suggests that’s the way change should be.

Originally written for the Ashridge Insights Blog