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Action research international

Paper 5:  J.H.M.  Ellis and J.A.  Kiely (2000)

The promise of action inquiry in tackling
organisational problems in real time



Action research international is a refereed on-line journal of
action research published under the aegis of the Institute of
Workplace Research, Learning and Development, and Southern
Cross University Press



Paper 5


The promise of action inquiry in tackling organisational problems in real time

Dr J.  H.  M.  Ellis and Dr J.  A.  Kiely

Bournemouth University, UK.


Organisations are looking for more than piecemeal answers and quick fix solutions to their rapidly changing environment.  Action inquiry strategies are being re-discovered as a way of tackling their real problems and providing tailor made solutions in real time.  Moreover, the process itself equips organisations for dealing with future challenges and transformational change.  Action inquiry is an iterative, cyclical process of improved knowledge through action and revised or new action through reflection.



Organisations are confronted with a fast paced and turbulent environment.  External challenges abound in the domain of technology, managing across borders, and business ethics, while internal challenges have prompted a raft of initiatives to bring about people changes and organisational capacity building (Fisher & Torbert, 1995; Hurst, 1995; Stacey, 1996; Weik, 1995).  In this time of change, instant answers provide at best transient solutions.  What organisations have found they need is a way of tackling their own problems and issues for themselves. 

Action inquiry strategies address the unpredictability of organisational life by enabling managers to develop new knowledge that is sensitive to waves of change.  The focus is on real problems that are happening here and now.  Both action and reflection on action become entwined in the construction of knowledge on which new or revised forms of action can be based.  The action-reflection cycle resembles a spiral in which the knowledge and expertise of management can provide an evolving body of wisdom.

Action inquiry strategies are a way of bridging the gap between theory and practice and addressing the pressing problems of a quickly changing world (Greenwood & Levin, 1998; Maruyama, 1996; Moggridge & Reason, 1996; Torbert, 1999).  Four interwoven strands - seeing social reality construction, enabling change, co-inquiry process, cycles of action and reflection- can be discerned to varying degrees in all action inquiry strategies.  All action inquiry strategies entail risk. 

An assessment of the risk inherent in particular approaches-action research, participatory action research, action science and action learning- will also influence choices.  On this occasion relatively brief consideration is given to unpacking epistemological and procedural distinctions between 'what' and 'how' issues of differing action inquiry strategies (Ellis & Kiely, 2000), as the main thrust of the paper is to review aspects working for and against the success of action inquiry strategies. 


    Action Inquiry strategies -- similarities

Four key features which are broadly common to all action inquiry approaches are: (i) the way social reality is constructed; (ii) the enablement of change; (iii) co-inquiry process; and (iv) iterative cycles within the inquiry (Brooks & Watkins, 1994; Chisholm & Eden, 1993; Eden & Huxham, 1996; Winter, 1996).  The features are displayed in Figure 1.


Figure 1.  Action inquiry process


For clarity, each will be explored separately although in practice they are inextricably interwoven.  The centrality of each of the respective strands differs markedly between the respective forms of action inquiry.

* Making sense of their world

The relationship between people, events and activities is not context free.  It can only be understood fully by an appreciation of the context and way in which people interpret their world.  Starting by questioning how we make sense of our world in terms of our values, attitudes, actions and interpretations is an essential first step.  Theories about what should be done and ways of acting are themselves the product of previously 'taken for granted' action.  Questioning assumptions and unravelling taken for granted views and perspectives helps to set new co-ordinates and thereby re- defines problems and issues (Aguinis, 1993; Schein 1992; 1996).

Business organisations tend to assume the dominant logic is correct and fail to question whether or not the values on which they are based remain appropriate or desirable.  Are the right issues being tackled? Are the right questions being asked? Questioning taken for granted assumptions helps people break away from preconceived ideas and solutions.  It makes clear the organisational values and beliefs on which actions are based.  Instead of asking 'what is the solution to a particular problem?' there is often a need to reformulate understanding of the problem to ask 'is this the correct issue for us to be attempting to solve? (Lincoln, 1996).

* Enabling change

What makes action inquiry strategies particularly appealing to managers is the focus on real problems that are happening here and now.  The strategies make it possible for businesses to take appropriate intervention and change.  Any change accomplished by action inquiry strategies seeks the fullest possible commitment and participation of those in the joint inquiry process.  Employees set the boundaries, reflect on and take action.  Learning from action leads to a deeper understanding of context based issues.  Some of the change facilitated by action inquiry strategies will be simple incremental change or single loop learning.  In such cases, strategies or action change while the underlying values and assumptions on which they are based remain the same.

Transformational change or double-loop learning occurs when both strategies and the assumptions on which they are based change, at the same time or perhaps because of a change in values (Argyris, 1999).  This is not simply a case of finding new alternative ways of resolving a short-term operational challenge more effectively.  Additional insights into envisaging a preferred future and organising effectively to achieve such an outcome must be present.  For example, a business may change both their mission and values to reflect and respond to fundamental societal demands for a more ethical product/service offering.  Given our rapidly changing environment, transformational change is essential for long run business survival (Flood and Romm, 1996; Marshak, 1993; Schön, 1995).

* Co-inquiry process

The joint inquiry process means all levels of employees create their own knowledge and theory relevant to their own specific situation.  Businesses become the creators of knowledge and theory embedded in their own work settings.  Those working in any business organisation have a tremendous wealth of experience, knowledge and understanding.  The power to direct the change initiative rests with employees in the joint inquiry process.  Employees define the starting point for the research work.  They agree action to enable change and reflect on the impact of action, perhaps leading to a redefinition of issues.  This means that employees produce both knowledge and action.  They learn to act and reflect so as to learn, and then reflect on learning in order to act more effectively (Weik, 1995).

* Cycles of action and reflection

Through a cyclical process of action and reflection with regard to a meaningful problematic situation, theory and practice are inter-linked and build on each other.  Evaluation leads to diagnosing the problem situation anew based on learning that has occurred from our previous activity.  Fresh insights and understandings are developed through continuing spirals of action and reflection on action (Carr & Kemmis; 1986).  The relationship between improved knowledge through action and improved action through reflection is the main idea behind action inquiry.

The cyclical process helps individual personal development and enhancement of professional managerial practice (Mangham, 1993).  Theory is less something that is taught outside the workplace or read about in management texts.  Individuals develop theory themselves in real time in their workplace.  Knowledge without action is of unknown or untested value.  Professional practice informs theory and vice versa.  Real problems are being tackled and solved in real time.  Businesses develop and move forward simultaneously with individual employees.  The process ideally creates a true learning environment.


    Action Inquiry strategies - differences

All action inquiry strategies entail risk.  An assessment of the risk inherent in particular approaches will also influence choices.  Through reflective action, managers become more sensitive to the social realities of the business organisation in which they are working.  They become aware of what the dominant culture of the organisation is prepared and ready to accept.  Certain ideologies or procedures may not be acceptable or endorsed at a particular moment in time.  These considerations influence the assessment of 'fitness for purpose' of action inquiry strategies.

* Action research

The ideology and procedure of Action Research is concerned with individual and organisational effectiveness.  Its catholic ideology and eclectic procedures make it attractive to the cautious manager.  It is perceived as having a low level of personal and organisational risk, although those immediately involved in the development or progression of the inquiry may lose face if the inquiry fails.  Being fully aware of the importance to take time to build relationships with those involved and fully appreciate the qualities all bring to the inquiry reduces the risk of failure (Chisholm & Eden, 1993: Eden & Huxham, 1993; Greewood & Levin, 1998; Schein, 1996; Schon, 1995). 

* Participatory action research

Participatory Action Research, with its emphasis on the liberation and empowerment of individuals by enhanced awareness of existing social conditions, opens up the potential for transformational change.  As such it has considerable risk for individuals and the business organisation in which they work.  Power rests with co-researchers in the inquiry process.  Those working in business organisations may find difficulty in truly enabling others to empower themselves and work towards a mutually preferred future state.  Within the managerial and organisational domain, there is a different views concerning who should benefit from the solving of participatory work based problems (Park, 1999; Wadsworth, 1998; Weil, 1998; Winter, 1996).

* Action science

Action Science seeks to change work based and interpersonal behaviour and as such is particularly relevant for business organisations (Argyris, 1999; Argyris & Schon, 1991; Putman, 1999).  It is an inquiry approach suited to an organisational culture which appreciates double-loop learning and is committed to interpreting knowledge in a way that reveals organisational patterns, processes and defensive routines.  In Action Science, intervention is psychological since it explores innermost feelings and emotional reactions, some of which are protected by personal defence mechanisms.  As these defence mechanisms break down individuals may feel vulnerable and exposed.  Risks to self and others involved are reduced if the group themselves are sensitive to others feelings and ensure participants finish sessions on a positive note.

* Action learning

With Action Learning members are working in conjunction with peers in learning sets (Marsick & O'Neil, 1999; Raelin, 1997).  As with Action Research, this type of inquiry strategy has a low risk to the business organisation and a fairly low risk to participants.  'Learning Set' members are not exposed to the same level of risk to their personal identity as that in Action Science.  Nor are they likely to experience the levels of risk and exhilaration apparent in Participatory Action Research.  The risk in more likely to arise through projects participants have been working on in the set meetings, failing in the work setting.  Such personal risks in Action Learning can be overcome by organisations supporting individuals and their activities and cultivating a culture where not succeeding is seen as a valuable learning opportunity.


    Adoption and rejection of action inquiry strategies

The approaches discussed in this article are potentially of benefit for all types of businesses (Kiely & Ellis, 1999).  However, in some businesses the general climate is not conducive to work being undertaken in this way.  For others the business climate and culture is such that action inquiry approaches will be of tremendous value to the professional development of employees and business practices.  Aspects working for and against success with this approach are shown in the accompanying Figures.


Figure 2.  A typical “acceptance” profile


As Figure 2 shows, the overall business climate needs to be right for action inquiry interventions to be a meaningful way of solving real business problems and developing professional practice.  The wholehearted commitment of senior management is vital.  Action inquiry takes a path over virgin territory.  As such, both the process and outcomes may lead to surprises.  People are working on real tasks with unknown results.  Staff needs to know that management has faith in them and is receptive to constructive criticism.  The power to learn, influence and direct actions and reflections is shared by all.  Inevitably, there must be truthful communication by all parties.  A playful curiosity and healthy openness to future possibilities is ideal.


Figure 3.  A typical “rejection” profile


Figure 3 reveals that Action inquiry is stifled in secretive cultures, where fear dominates and mistakes are penalised.  If senior management merely give lip service to this change process, staff will not be immersed in and excited by newfound possibilities of adding to professional practice.  They will sense they are not being given the complete picture.  They will be rightly sceptical about senior managers willingness to proceed with outcomes not of their choosing.  Action inquiry strategies concern both process and outcomes.  People learn from the process itself.  If concern is just for the outcome only single loop learning will result.  If the work climate is such that mistakes are penalised, learning will be stifled and mistakes will be hidden rather than openly discussed.  People will not seek feedback for fear of exposing their vulnerability.



In short, the relationship between improved knowledge through action and improved action through reflection is the main thrust of action inquiry strategies.  Systematic management inquiry enables real business issues to be tackled and enables meaningful change.  Moreover, the process itself equips businesses for dealing with future challenges.  Actions do speak louder than words, as we build critical reflection in employees, and through them, in the culture of their organisation.  They learn to act and reflect so as to learn, and then reflect on learning in order to act more effectively. 



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Both authors based at the Business School, Bournemouth University, UK.

Dr John Ellis was formerly a strategic appraisal manager with an international resource company and continues to work with international companies to assist them in achieving and sustaining success.e-mail:

Dr Julia Kiely is Reader in Organisational Behaviour at the Business School, Bournemouth University and programme leader of the Doctorate in Business Administration Programme.e-mail:


Copyright (c) 2000 Dr J.H.M. Ellis, Dr J.A. Kiely, and Action Research International.  May be used with appropriate acknowledgment for educational or training purposes without further permission

This paper may be cited as follows:Ellis, J.H.M and Kiely, J.A.  (2000) The promise of action inquiry in tackling organisational problems in real time.  Action Research International, Paper 5.  Available on line:


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