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Action research international

Paper 4:  Jim Murphy (2000)

An interview with Ortrun Zuber-Skerritt:  a
personal perspective



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 4


An interview with Ortrun Zuber-Skerritt:  a personal perspective


Jim Murphy

Nanyang Technological University, Singapore



All fields of scholarly endeavour have influential practitioners, theoreticians and researchers.  Ortrun Zuber-Skerritt has been an influential figure for over a decade for many, particularly those of us in higher education.  This interview provides us with a better understanding of the person behind her work and ranges over her personal and professional origins, her career, prominent influences and partnerships, the barriers she faced, her views on universities today and on the future of action learning and action research, as well as her reflection on her achievements.



Interviews with stellar performers in any research field are uncommon.  Where do such people come from, what drives them, and how did they come to possess their interests and ideas?  Ortrun Zuber-Skerritt has a body of work that is important for action researchers.  She has enjoyed a distinguished career.  Her undergraduate and postgraduate degrees are from the University of Kiel (Germany), her first PhD in literature from the University of Queensland, her second PhD in higher education from Deakin University, and a Doctor of Letters (DLitt) in management from the International Management Centres, Buckingham, UK.

Ortrun Zuber-Skerritt has an international reputation in postgraduate research training and supervision through her research and development activities and many publications.  In addition, she introduced and popularised action learning and action research in Australian higher education then later in industry and government.  Action learning, action research and process management (ALARPM) are areas she contributed to significantly when she initiated and convened the First World Congress on ALARPM in Brisbane in 1990 with 360 international delegates.  At the Second World Congress (1992) she launched the international ALARPM Association, now a world-wide network of innovative consultants and educators in industry, government, education, and the community who use action learning processes.  Following this lead, two further World Congresses have been held in the United Kingdom and Colombia, with another due later this year in Australia.

With over twenty-five years experience in higher education research and development she has published numerous articles, book chapters, papers, video programs and 17 books related to postgraduate education, action learning and action research.  A selection of her work is cited at the conclusion of the interview and includes, for example:

Supervising postgraduates from non-English speaking backgrounds (1999).

Action research for change and development (1996)

New directions in action research (1996)

Professional development in higher education:  a theoretical framework for action research (1992)

Action research in higher education:  examples and reflections (1992)

Action learning for improved performance (1991).

Since 1992, she has received over A$1 Million in R&D grants.  With this money she has successfully conducted major programs for improving learning, teaching and management in all universities in Queensland and in other Australian states, as well as in many institutions in New Zealand, Hong Kong, Europe (Germany, Austria, Holland, France, Sweden and UK), and most recently in South Africa.

Currently Ortrun Zuber-Skerritt is an independent consultant but has three other roles:

  • Professor of Professional and Organisational Development in the International Management Centres Association (IMCA)
  • Adjunct Professor in the Faculty of Education at Griffith University
  • Adjunct Professor and the Founding Director of the Institute for Workplace Research, Learning and Development (WoRLD) in the Graduate College of Management at Southern Cross University.

Such a contribution warrants learning more about the person behind the writing and activities that have influenced many of us in order to gain an insight into an active mind.


Origins and early career

JM:  Ortrun thanks for agreeing to this interview.  Perhaps we could start with your active retirement and ask how you got to where you are now, what are your origins.  What kind of professional career have you enjoyed?

OZS:  For the first eleven years of my career, I was a high school teacher in Germany and briefly in Australia, teaching Human Movement Studies, English, German and French as foreign languages, literatures and cultures.  Then I became a tutor in the German Department at the University of Queensland, earning exactly half the salary of a high school teacher (with a Masters degree).  However, I used this chance to complete my PhD part-time in three years.

On the basis of my doctoral qualification, I was appointed Lecturer at Griffith University, also in Brisbane, which had just started in 1974.  It was a very exciting place to work in, because it was an alternative university, teaching interdisciplinary courses.  The mission was to be relevant to society, to be problem-based in their curriculum, student-oriented, learner-centred -- all the new ideas at the time.  This attracted me and I was thrilled to get a lectureship in the new Centre for the Advancement of Learning and Teaching (CALT) where you and I met a few years later.

I got there just before the students arrived.  I was in a team who designed the curriculum for the four foundation schools.  First I was mainly working with academic staff in the School of Humanities, and then in Asian and International Studies.  It also meant that I had changed my direction and disciplinary field from foreign languages and literatures to curriculum and academic staff development in higher education.  So I had to catch up with a new literature in higher education research and development, to which I contributed with a second doctorate.

JM:  This was some time later?

OZS:  That was in the 80s and I got my degree in 1986.

JM:  How is it that you came to Australia as a secondary teacher?  What brought you here?

OZS:  I had an assistant teacher in Germany who was from Southport, with a young wife.  They showed me photos and told me about the Gold Coast.  It sounded interesting to me because in those days I was very keen on sport.  So after a divorce, I visited them and loved it so much that I decided to migrate to Queensland in 1971 with my son who was then five and a half years old.

JM:  So you had a career here, starting at secondary level, then you moved into universities, working in what, at that time, must have been right at the beginning of academic staff development in this country.  So you were able to see it right from the establishment stage until its maturity today.

OZS:  Yes, and what a journey that has been too!


Influences and partnerships

JM:  You've survived well! Whom have you worked with during that time and who has influenced your thinking most strongly?

OZS:  When I first started, I caught up with the traditional, positivist research literature at that time, mainly from America and Britain.  But I soon found that that was not what I intuitively believed in.  The first major influence came from the Centre for Continuing Education at the Australian National University in Canberra.  Scholars, such as Fred Emery, Alastair Crombie and Alan Davies, developed alternative paradigms and adult learning theories which were more in line with my thinking than the traditional theories of knowledge transmission from expert to novice, the predominant paradigm in those days, even at Griffith University.

JM:  Among the teaching staff and among the staff developers themselves?

OZS:  Yes.  There were exceptions but the majority of staff were still standing in front of the class and lecturing to the students.  Of course they had tutorials and discussion groups but it was a traditional method of teaching.

JM:  This search for personal meaning that features in your work -- was this something you were doing as an individual at that time, or were you working with a group of people?

OZS:  Both.  At first I read a lot myself, because I was new in the field.  Other colleagues knew some of the literature or were also trying to grapple with it from scratch, like me.  We all were new and the academic staff development field was ill defined.  My colleagues also came from different disciplines -- from philosophy, from teaching English in high schools, and of various science backgrounds.  So for all of us, the field of higher education was new and we each did our best to catch up with the literature and learn to talk to each other in a language of learning and teaching that we could understand in common.

JM:  So initially, the influence you experienced in higher education was simply through reading the research literature.  Did you have personal contact with these researchers whose ideas attracted you?

OZS:  I met them at conferences, had discussions with them, and they gave me their unpublished papers, because they were only discussion papers at that time.  A bit later on I was influenced by Action Research in the Faculty of Education at Deakin University in Victoria.  I had read about their work with teachers in high schools and primary schools, and I wondered whether that model could also be used in higher education.  So I visited Deakin University and had discussions with several professors and senior academics, such as Stephen Kemmis, Robin McTaggart, John Smythe and Colin Henry.  They were not sure, but they speculated the approach could work.  As a result, I enrolled in a second doctorate at Deakin University with Stephen Kemmis as my formal supervisor.  I developed a new model of learning, teaching and professional development using action research in higher education, described and discussed in my two companion books on Action Research in Higher Education and Professional Development in Higher Education (see references below).

JM:  At the time when you were working on this, to your knowledge, were others in other places trying to make similar applications of the action learning paradigm?

OZS:  No, not in universities.  Not at that time -- that was in the early 80s.

JM:  So your colleagues in the Centre for Continuing Education at ANU and at Deakin University influenced your direction and approach.  Once you succeeded with your second doctorate and were established in your own right, there must have been other people whom you worked with who helped consolidate and expand your thinking processes and your understanding of the whole parameter of the field.  Who might these people have been?

OZS:  I worked with colleagues in the School of Modern Asian Studies at Griffith University and am lucky I did.  They were my co-action researchers.  They were all people who were forward thinking, creative and innovative, for example, Colin Mackerras, Nick Knight, Mary Farquhar, Colin Brown and many others.

On the other hand, some of our colleagues felt threatened by our progressive ideas because they felt they also had to do new things -- and they did not want to change.  Colleagues who felt this way -- not all of course -- were happy and satisfied with things as they were.  They had just established themselves in a new university and they did not appreciate our approach and ideas because it seemed to mean for them having more work, challenges and demands.

So it was not easy for us to develop innovations in learning and teaching.  But we were a group who understood the terrain, who were fired up by the same ideas, and we complemented each other.  We all had different talents, knowledge bases and skills;  and we achieved synergies by working together, which we couldn't have achieved each on our own.  This systems thinking achieved great results which the students especially appreciated.  We then published our action research in international refereed journals and that is how action research became accepted in the university.

My PhD thesis was probably the first one in higher education using action research.  So suddenly action research became acceptable.  From then on it was easier.  From the mid-80s, for all of us, it was easier to talk about and do action research in higher education.  We got letters from all over the world from people who wanted to do similar things and asked us for advice.  They requested copies of our papers and materials that we had developed.  Gradually, the circle grew.


Barriers faced

JM:  So initially, the people who contacted you were people who had similar problems and interests in different institutions around the world.  What kind of difficulties presented themselves with getting established, then gaining success and enjoying success within your own institution?

OZS:  I remember once when I gave a 'Work in Progress' CALT seminar, I was ridiculed, criticised, personally attacked -- in a very unfair way.  That was a very negative personal experience -- especially if you are a sensitive person.  But when the circle of friends and colleagues grew, I didn't feel alone.  In the beginning I was very much isolated and full of self-doubt.  When I worked with colleagues in Modern Asian Studies, I had their support.  I invited them to CALT seminars and they supported me from the audience.  Eventually, with their help, I experienced that some of my critics had turned into critical friends and supported my endeavours.  I never thought it would happen.

But at first, debates were very hot at times, because the underpinning philosophies contrasted so strongly.  The positivists were in the majority.  Later on interpretists and then critical theorists arose to challenge them.  Many of our colleagues did not understand in which paradigm they were located.  The word paradigm was very new in those days and they didn't have knowledge of the variety of philosophies and research paradigms that existed.  Today it is much easier and we are aware of the differences.  Many academics can now locate themselves and argue from their paradigm base.  But in those days it was very different and this led to bitter experiences.

JM:  Several years ago I attended a conference where an influential figure, summarising the day's progress, said that it was his belief that action research was a hammer some people were using inappropriately at times in trying to pin down research problems.  He likened it to using that hammer to pound jelly to the wall with a nail.  That was a neat summary, I thought, of combative and critical comments that some people make about action researchers.

OZS:  And rightly so, because action research has often been used inappropriately;  or people have called action research what is just shoddy research.  That is why action research, with some people, has a bad reputation.  I also think that you can't use action research and apply it in all situations and circumstances.  It is most appropriate to use it when there are people involved, groups of people or whole organisations, and when the research problem and the particular situation are very complex.  However, if you deal with natural science research questions that can be answered by 'yes' or 'no', by refuting or confirming a hypothesis, then it is better to use traditional research methods.  But if you intend to address complex human or social problems, then action research is more appropriate, in my mind, than using quantitative methods and statistics.

JM:  What are the trickiest or most problematic moments for an action researcher?

OZS:  When someone tries to go into an organisation as an external researcher with a pre-conceived idea of what the focus of action research should be.  Instead a researcher must find out first what the major issues, concerns and problems are and finding who would be willing and able to join the collaborative action research team.  In other words, the research problem must be owned and the solution(s) worked out by the people themselves who will eventually be affected by the research results and their implementation.  If they are not, people may only pay lip service to the research recommendations, but not really be committed to action and transformative change.


The future for action research and action learning

JM:  Where is action research headed?

OZS:  In the next five to ten years action research will become one of the most appropriate methodologies in professional and organisational development, and most relevant to all sectors of society, because of the increasingly rapid change in all spheres of life.  Instead of relying on external experts and knowledge in books (too quickly outdated), organisations will have to rely more and more on their own people's collaborative abilities to solve problems fast, to network, to anticipate change and actually to be faster than change.

Action learning and action research have been proven to develop transferable skills and lateral, critical, analytical, creative and innovative thinking, needed in a fast changing and competitive global world.

The best examples and evidence of success can be found in a recent book by David Dotlich and James Noel, entitled Action Learning:  How the World's Top Companies are Re-creating Their Leaders and Themselves.  The authors' action learning programs in big multi-national companies not only improved their productivity and bottom line, but they also became 'learning organisations';  and their leaders and managers developed life-long learning skills which equipped them to deal with change and totally new problems in new situations on a continuing basis.


Reflection on a distinguished career

JM:  Let's move on a little bit and ask you to reflect more broadly on your career.  What do you see as your chief contributions?

OZS:  I think my contributions have been in three different fields.  Firstly, in Australian drama;  secondly, in higher education, especially in academic staff development;  and thirdly, in the integration of action learning, action research and process management, not only in higher education but also applied to professional and organisational development in industry, business, government and community.

JM:  I think the first of the three areas you've nominated wouldn't be familiar to many of your colleagues.  What can you tell us about your contribution to Australian drama?

OZS:  Many don't know that I came from a literature background.  When I came to Australia in 1971, I became very interested in the 'new wave' Australian drama and theatre and I thought it was really original and dynamic, full of energy and vibrancy, much livelier and more powerful than any other modern drama I had known before.

I flew to Sydney every fortnight and went to the theatre there and to Melbourne and met the actors, actresses and playwrights.  I went to playwrights' conferences that in those days were mainly held at the Australian National University in Canberra.  On my first study leave in 1976, I was a Visiting Professor at the Universities of Frankfurt and Giessen in Germany.  I was asked to give a course on Australian drama.  I was able to get the primary texts from Currency Press in Sydney, but there was no secondary literature, no books on Australian drama in the libraries.  It was then when I got the idea of producing materials for students and staff, especially overseas, to help them understand these works.

So I applied for a Griffith University research grant and got the funds to produce video programs and books.  I invited the best academics specialising in a particular author/playwright.  I selected the six most popular and best-known playwrights and matching academics and invited the pairs, in turn, to the TV Studio at Queensland University.  I designed the main framework questions which all video interviews had in common.  This prompted the playwrights to talk about their life and work, but each interviewer was then free to ask specific questions relevant to the particular playwright.  I also edited a series of books on the life and work of these playwrights to accompany the videos.

Rodopi in Amsterdam published the books, and the Australian Film Institute in Melbourne distributes the videos.  So there had been a gap in the literature on Australian drama that I started to fill.  Now most Australian universities and state libraries have my books and videos, and quite a few libraries overseas, too.

My great weakness is that once I have produced something I am not interested in promoting my work, but I go on to new things.  So the distribution and marketing of the books haven't been successful.  Rodopi used Heinemann in Australia as a distributor, but it has always been very difficult to get hold of the books;  and I think they could also be out of print by now.

JM:  In the work that you've done in higher education and management, what are two or three things that you would nominate that would make you most satisfied?

OZS:  One is the staff development program on postgraduate research training and supervision.  I received four major government grants to conduct these programs.  The first one was an affirmative action program at Queensland University in 1992 for women academics.

When I got complaints from Heads of Departments at the University of Queensland, because men were not included, I applied for and received a second grant for a similar staff development program for male as well as female academics in all seven universities in Queensland.

The third program funded by a government grant was particularly for staff in the new (post-1987) amalgamated university campuses, many of whom had to supervise postgraduate students, whilst being enrolled in PhD programs themselves.

The fourth program was on the specific topic of 'Supervising Postgraduates from Non-English Speaking Backgrounds'.  These last two programs were for selected representatives from nine universities, i.e.  the seven universities in Queensland plus Southern Cross University and the University of New England.

So these were the major programs and the feedback was very positive.  We had keynote speakers as well as workshops in which people were actively engaged.  As a result, the participants in these programs were committed and qualified to design and conduct similar workshop programs with colleagues and postgraduates in their own faculties or campuses;  so there was a multiplier effect.  To support them, we produced materials (in total 33 video programs, four books and four manuals for conducting workshops on postgraduate supervision) which are briefly described on my Website  or .  These materials are now used in other universities in Australia and also overseas, for example in Hong Kong, South Africa, Singapore, Austria, Holland, Germany and the UK.

JM:  And what was your third contribution?

OZS:  My third contribution was in my role as the convenor of four major action learning programs, called QUAL (Queensland University Action Learning) programs from 1991 to 1993.  At that time I was an Associate Professor in the Tertiary Education Institute and in charge of professional and organisational development in the University of Queensland.  Two of these programs were my initiatives and funded again by major grants from the Federal Government, one of which was the DEUE program (Departmental Excellence in University Education).  The grant was distributed to nine departmental teams of academics addressing a major problem of learning and teaching in their department.  The other one was the DEMIQ (Departmental Excellence in Managing Institutional Quality) program for senior academic and administrative staff.  Again teams could apply for money on a highly competitive basis by submitting a detailed proposal.  There were more proposals than we could fund, so the selection procedures were similar to those for research proposals in universities.

The Vice-Chancellor and Heads of Departments were very supportive.  For example, the Vice-Chancellor opened the suite of QUAL programs and also came to the final Presentation Day when he publicly announced that he would grant $100,000 for the continuation of QUAL for the next year from his own funds.  In fact, his grant was renewed every year until 1999 when we celebrated the ninth birthday of QUAL and the fact that the action research culture had spread sufficiently throughout the University so that it is now self-supporting.

To sum up, we started QUAL in 1991, got the grants in 1992 and 1993, and the University continued with one action learning program, for both academic and administrative staff, all these years.  I think QUAL has also had a multiplier effect, and teaching and management became more recognized, similar to research.  I was astonished that that was possible in a traditional huge university, but it was, with the support of senior management.

JM:  With the things you've described, drama, higher education, staff development, you suddenly became involved in management education and development and that's taken up a lot of time and energy.  How did that begin and what have you done there that is satisfying?

OZS:  It began when Jim Kable from the International Management Centre, Pacific Region, invited me to conduct an action learning program with a group of engineers at the Queensland Main Roads Department in 1989, because he had to go overseas.  I said to him "I can't do that.  I have no management background and I just can't do it!" He insisted that I was the best person to replace him.  So very reluctantly, I took the risk and learnt to swim by jumping in the water at the deep end.  I realised then and argued later in my third doctoral thesis awarded in 1993 by the International Management Centres, Buckingham, UK, as a DLitt -- (Doctor of Letters) that you can transfer skills and knowledge from education or higher education to management education and organisation development.

At that time, I was also part of a group in Queensland called 'Process Management Group'.  We were interested in exploring and facilitating processes through which employees could work out problems themselves, rather than relying on external consultants.

That same year (1989) I initiated and convened the 'First International Symposium on Action Research in Higher Education, Industry and Government', because I wanted to find out whether action research could work in industry and government, as it did in education and higher education.  I invited the big names in higher education and we worked hard for two days and came up with a generic definition of action research;  then we met with invited representatives from industry and government for one day to discuss our findings and our models.  They confirmed that action research was not only appropriate to industry and government, but very much needed, too.  The delegates encouraged me to organise a bigger international event.  So in 1990 my associates and I organized the First World Congress on Action Learning, Action Research and Process Management (ALARPM) in Brisbane.

In the First World Congress, we brought the three methodologies of action learning, action research and process management together and invited people from education, higher education, government, industry, business and the community.

JM:  What kinds of links developed from that unusual coalition?

OZS:  In 1992 we had the Second Congress, again in Brisbane.  At that Congress we launched an international association which is called ALARPM Association, now a worldwide movement.  The members of ALARPM are consultants, teachers, trainers, human resource managers, academics, the whole lot -- anybody who is interested in management, professional, educational, organisational and/or community development.

The Third World Congress was held in Bath, UK;  and at the Fourth World Congress in Cartagena, Columbia, there were over 1800 delegates from 61 countries.  As I said earlier, ALARPM is now a worldwide movement.  The Fifth World Congress will be back in Australia in September 2000, hosted by the University of Ballarat in Victoria, near Melbourne

JM:  So the period we are talking about, from the time you began reading about action research until now is a period of about twenty years.  It's a period, I think is fair to say, that you were at the centre of many of these ideas and organisations.  You also drew to you a group of like-minded people and worked with them on the various projects to make them a success. 

OZS:  But I couldn't have done it on my own.  I always had colleagues and friends who worked with me and who worked just as hard as I did.  They had their own ideas they contributed.  We then developed all this together.  That is important to point out that it was not me.  Everyone naturally sees himself or herself as the centre of the universe, but I acknowledge with pleasure the work of my colleagues, without whom I could never have done it.

JM:  And the colleagues you are referring to are people you worked with at each institution and also others you've met at conferences and developed friendships and associations with.

OZS:  Yes, they were all important to me and stimulated me and my work.


Universities today

JM:  Let's focus on universities today.  What kind of differences do you see among staff and in university management today, in comparison for example, with when you first began in the early 70s?  Are there significant differences and are these positive or negative?  Are the outcomes for education and for students superior today?

OZS:  There are both positive and negative developments.  On the positive side, there have been the theoretical insights through educational research and action research.  The effect is that most lecturers nowadays know that students in higher education should not be just talked at and told what to do and how to do it.  Adult students have their own experience and knowledge base already on which one should build.  Unfortunately, there are still lecturers who just lecture 'at' students, but theoretically at least, we know that we should take a learner-centred approach.

On the negative side, in recent years, there have been drastic cuts in funding and resources, especially cuts in jobs.  The result is that people who are still employed in universities are under greater stress now.  They have to take a heavier workload and consequently can't spend as much time with individual students.  That is a huge regression.  They are overworked, stressed out, less motivated.  There is more competition than collaboration these days in universities -- a negative factor for the staff themselves, for students and for the organisation.  I think that in industry it has been recognized that collaboration, global communication and networking will be the way to go in the future, rather than competition and doing everything on your own.  In higher education we could learn from industry at the moment.

JM:  Some people would argue that higher education is an industry that's becoming more industrially aligned and driven, and this certainly has a poor effect on academic staff and students.  Do you think that people who leave the university with a degree are better qualified to join the workforce than they were 15 or 20 years ago?

OZS:  It depends solely on which course and which university they attend.  We have made an effort to be more workplace oriented and practice oriented because that has been the great criticism in society, especially since the students' protests in 1968.  The Karpin Report in Australia (1995) confirmed that there are still universities and graduate schools of management that are very theoretical in their approach.  The problem is they don't make a distinction between education for an academic career in management education on the one hand, and on the other hand, education for those who want to become practicing managers and leaders in industry.  In the past, graduate schools of management concentrated more on education for academics.  That is why they copped criticisms from industry that their courses were irrelevant and too theoretical.  However, since the Karpin Report, several academics in management education have changed their courses.  Now some universities and graduate colleges of management have introduced MBAs by action learning and professional doctorates by action research, so there is a positive development.


Personal assessment

JM:  You are talking about very practical matters.  When you reflect on the kinds of things that you have thought about and have done, do you tend to consider yourself an educational theorist or practitioner?

OZS:  I try to be both.  I have a theoretical framework to guide me in what I am doing, but I am basically a practitioner.

JM:  Where do you see yourself going in the future?  Where will you put most of your effort?

OZS:  I think I will always integrate theory and practice, research and development.  That is what action research is all about.  You do not create knowledge for the sake of knowledge creation, but you try to improve practice at the same time.  That is the main aim of action research:  To make a difference, to have an impact, to improve practice, to gain insight and knowledge, and to learn for the future.


Advice for a budding researcher

JM:  If you had a choice piece of advice for a budding lecturer or researcher, in any academic field, what might it be?

OZS:  The process of my own learning over the years has convinced me that experience is the key to effective learning, and moreover, the constant process of reflecting on experiences, whether good or bad, successful or unsuccessful.  This has always been at the heart of my learning.  It is what I would recommend to every professional -- academic, executive manager or leader in industry, someone in government or a newly appointed teacher in a university:  Becoming a 'reflective practitioner' and a 'personal scientist' and making one's (and each other's) tacit knowledge explicit.

Everyone has to develop his or her own theoretical framework and this framework cannot simply be copied or transmitted from one person to another.  It depends on and must be founded in our values and worldviews.  Everyone builds and lives in a very individual home.

JM:  Exploring your life and experience, thoughts and contributions, has been a great pleasure.  Thank you.

OZS:  Thank you, Jim.


Author's postscript

A draft of this paper was offered to readers of the Action Research International listserve and elicited mixed comments, some from the same reader.  The following are typical examples -- positive comments and suggestions for improving this article -- from several parts of the world.


Positive comments:

...  this paper has been a catalyst for much thought, continuing thinking, challenges and hopefully actions in each of our practices in the future ...  for that, thank you ...  Great stuff.  (Catalyst of Change Consulting and Training, Brisbane, Australia)

Ortrun's career and person demonstrate the interdisciplinary nature of the field and the article in my opinion subtly places AL/AR in context as an emerging research paradigm that continuously links theory and practice.  (Concordia University, Canada)

As the work of Ortrun was completely unknown to me, I found this an interesting paper.  The author has enabled his interviewee to give a relaxed but concise account of her convictions and achievements that encourages the reader to find out more by seeking out some of her publications.  (University of Toronto, Canada)

Zuber-Skerritt's New Directions in Action Research has a prominent place in my bookshelf.  I liked the interview because it is probably another missing link in the history of AR, which I shall try to reconstruct.  (University of Groningen, Netherlands)

I think the conversation reveals aspects of Ortrun's life and work that illuminate our understanding of her thinking.  I have read a fair bit of what Ortrun has written, and feel that I 'know her better' after reading this interview ...  I'm strongly into trying to encourage other ways of reporting research, especially ways of making it accessible to folk who find orthodox research reports intimidating, and think that this paper fits well into 'other ways of reporting'.  (Waikato Polytechnic, New Zealand)

I think the interview with Ortrun is very interesting.  It has certainly influenced what I will be reading in the coming months! For those who are not familiar with key people and ideas this kind of interview is potentially helpful.  (University of Hull, UK)

In my network -- and in the contacts I have in France and Germany -- her name was not mentioned and her work is not cited.  So I have a new 'search-name'.  (University of Groningen, Netherlands)

One comment that seems quite important is that [some readers] had never heard of her.  While I had heard of her, I had only read one article of hers and had no particular idea that she was someone important for me to know about.  [In my co-authored AR book] she is not mentioned because we did not know her importance.  Since ARI is an international journal, some bit of additional locating of her work and importance is probably necessary.  (Cornell University, USA)


Suggestions for improvement:

There is a lack of reflexivity in this paper.  Don't get me wrong ...  I learnt much and perhaps there is not room in this for deep reflection.  But Ortrun does state that the reflective practitioner is crucial to the future of action research.  Do you really reflect on your own position, or give us a glimpse of where you are coming from?  Do you allow Ortrun to do the same, or to go deeper than biographical details?  Do you allow Ortrun to speak of her failures?  (Edith Cowan University, Australia)

I would have welcomed more specific information on Zuber-Skerritt's model of learning, teaching and professional development using action research in higher education, and I suspect others who work in higher education might share my desire to be given a thicker description of what it looks like in practice.  (University of Toronto, Canada)

I have been intrigued by the format of this paper and initially ...  wondered how feasible it was to edit an interview at all ...  I suggest ...  a transcript followed by a critical analysis and reflection followed by a response from the interviewee.  (Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, Australia)

I find myself wanting more from this person.  I have the sense that there is more depth, more experience, more something that I could get from Ortrun ...  Add some of your perspectives taking liberty as the interviewer/researcher/writer to expand from your knowledge of her life/work and/or from your own in theory or practice on what Ortrun is saying ...  A reflection on the reflection?  In other words there is quite a bit more here than meets the eye and I will re-read, reflect, and look up the references provided.  (Concordia University, Canada)

What I missed was a kind of short overview of the theoretical and epistemological notions in her work ...  (University of Groningen, Netherlands)

I agree with those who suggest that a bibliography ...  would be useful to those who want to pursue Ortrun's work further ...  I think it would be useful if you included (perhaps as a preamble or postscript) a little more detail about how you conducted this interview.  Did you decide on the questions before meeting with Ortrun?  Some seem emergent from the conversation;  how planned was the situation?  How much has been deleted, and by whom?  There could also be, as part of the bibliography, an indication of who's used this approach in investigating 'research' ...  I also wanted to know how Ortrun has changed her own practice as an educator as a result of her interest in action research.  (Waikato Polytechnic, New Zealand)

This paper could be strengthened by highlighting aspects of Ortrun's work which have been addressed as problematic within our academic communities.  I do see this issue as fundamental to strengthening it ...  [and also] by including some critical evaluations and responses.  (University of Bath, United Kingdom)



Following the advice of this last correspondent, I wish to add some comments of mine.  As you can see, readers' reactions show that we can get very different things from any piece of work.  A few years ago, for example, I was handed a thesis and asked to examine it in the customary way.  Nearing the end of this task I learned six others had already examined it.  I inquired and the higher degrees committee sent me three reports and asked me to evaluate them with a view to helping the committee to make sense of the conflicting perspectives.  I was excited by this opportunity and interested to find that the examiners' assumptions, expectations, and therefore the focus of their comments differed leading them to different conclusions about the merit of the thesis.  At the root of their differences was their apparent answer to the question:  what is good research?

It is the same here but in response to a different question:  what makes a satisfying article?  An author cannot satisfy all demands and even the best novel leaves questions hanging and a reader groping with 'please explain', otherwise literary critics would be out of business.

Regardless, I will bow to readers' needs and interests and reflect on certain, but not all, of the above comments, as I favour on-going debate.  I merely wish to make three points about the interview's origin and methodology, the context for reading it, and Ortrun's contribution to scholarship.

First, some personal comments and how the interview came to be.  I am a friend of the interviewee and I consider her to be my mentor.  I was her first doctoral student and am fortunate for the experience as, I believe, are those who have followed me.  At the time she was assisting me, and afterward, she published extensively in the improvement of postgraduate research training and supervision, maybe in part, due to the headaches I provided.

The year my thesis was approved she published her 1992 book Professional Development in Higher Education together with its companion volume.  These issued from her second doctorate prepared six years before, plus subsequent research while she worked fulltime as an academic staff developer.  On the basis of the degree she was promoted from lecturer to senior lecturer and gained a measure of instant respect -- from most people, but not all, especially not from positivists.  From that time she went from strength to strength and made an impact on many people.  Within a short time in the 1990s she rose through Associate Professor to Professor rank.

I commented to her about this time that the only regret I had from my candidature was that we had not published together.  Working with Ortrun and seeing her work with her colleagues led to my request for an interview which she considered an interesting idea.

Years went by.  At last we arranged an interview at her house and we sat at her family room table for one and three quarter hours.  I've always had the most success in teaching with carefully planned resources but thinly scripted lessons.  I believe that spontaneity and the ability to capitalise on developments that occur in the crucible of the classroom brings a high level of joint interest and rewards for teacher and learner, so I approached the interview the same way.  I read or scanned several of Ortrun's publications on different topics at different times of her career to prepare.  I reflected on what I knew of her career, formulated one beginning and one concluding question, then turned on the recorder.  (This accounts for some readers writing:  Why didn't you ask ...?) I approached the task as an interview rather than an interrogation and neither of us had any idea what might occur.

Probing obtained non-scripted responses.  After transcribing I edited the text for readability, and as a courtesy sent it to the interviewee before submission to check the facts.  Ortrun asked a critical friend to advise her with the task and subsequently returned it.

We both considered the experience valuable when we'd finished, and later too as we considered readers' reactions to the draft.

Second, this interview can be understood in a wider context.  An earlier draft was rejected by a European print journal, implying.  'We don't want to detract from Ortrun's work but it is of little interest to our readers as it adds nothing to AR theory or how it is made, and she is not well-known here'.  I found this reasoning difficult and only understood it when I read these words in Hellman's (1998:xv) book Great Feuds in Science:

...  I want to show that scientists are susceptible to human emotions;  that they are influenced by pride, greed, belligerence, jealousy, and ambition, as well as religious and national feelings;  that they are subject to the same frustrations, blindness, and petty emotions as the rest of us;  that they are in truth, fully human.

This interview drives home to us that we academics have a past, attend to the present and in so doing fashion our future, and while hopefully enjoying this ride, we are 'fully human'.  Reactions to the content by ARI's readers, or journal gatekeepers, are coloured by personal and professional experience within national and cultural divisions.  When writing about action learning or action research, some ignore Ortrun Zuber-Skerritt's work when citing, while for others she is unknown.

I made the cardinal error of suggesting in the draft (see introduction) that she is, "...  rightly credited with introducing and popularising action learning and action research in higher education, industry and government." Those words are altered now, as a correspondent from Cornell University wrote:

I have no doubt that she did these things, but this strikes me as an overwhelmingly Australian view of the world of AR.  Einar Thorsrud and Bjorn Gustavsen and their many colleagues in Scandinavia have been at this since the 1960s, Tavistock in the UK as well, and there is the extensive and widely known work of Kurt Lewin, William Foote Whyte, Chris Argyris, and Donald Schön in the US.  All of these deal with AR in industry and education.

'Blindness and petty emotions', including my own, exist due to our bounded experience, although I hasten to add, they are not evident among comments received from readers of the ARI journal.  The interview shows that an academic who tries to influence or challenge colleagues' thinking or behaviour whether in departmental, institutional or global contexts, can be in for an ego-bruising time.

Success results from self-discipline and dedication plus an ability to develop networks of supportive and trustworthy critical friends who then help to form a critical mass.  However it is done, there are many potential influences on our ability to create ideas or transform practices.  Simple awareness can lead to stimulation and this depends, perhaps on our curiosity, ability, time to dig, or plain serendipity, perhaps like the appearance of this interview.  We might change our selves and maybe our contexts, but only through a broader awareness of international scholarship and the personalities who influence us.

Finally, Ortrun Zuber-Skerritt's contribution is to three types of knowledge in postgraduate research training and supervision, action learning, action research and process management:  theoretical/ propositional, experiential/existential and practical.  She has a body of work, developed with many critical friends, as she volunteered, which continues to influence many people.  As noted, some correspondents desired an analysis of theoretical and epistemological issues, thick description of her approach and so on, but I consider it beyond the scope of this offering.  A critical appraisal of Ortrun's work, as you can see from the selected references below, would be a considerable effort and would take the form of a book, rather than an article.  This mission is yours to enjoy.

While giving her plenty of chances to comment on her successes I neglected to ask about the effect of her philosophy on her own learning approach, but perhaps more importantly, her self-perception of her failures and what she learned -- a missed opportunity.  Ortrun Zuber-Skerritt is open to criticism, as are most of us.  Her main critics have been Webb (1996, 1995) and Whitehead (1992).  For example, they comment:

...Zuber-Skerritt (1992) suggests [things in a] clarion call [manner to which] ...  our (truly) critical sensibilities should be alerted ...  [For example, she writes] action research in higher education must consist of group process of rational reflection generating a critique of the social and educational milieu in which the members operate ...(italicised emphasis added).  Such pronouncements need to be questioned.  Why must action research consist of a group process and what does rational reflection mean?  Webb (1995)

My fundamental point is that [in my claim to educational knowledge] my explanation contains a non-conceptual 'I', ...  as a living contradiction, which cannot be adequately represented within a ...  conceptual form of theoretical framework of the kind proposed by Zuber-Skerritt ...  [Her work] does not have the explanatory capacity to produce an adequate explanation for my professional development in higher education.  Whitehead (1992)

These are professional critics performing a formal role but there are informal ways too.  Several years ago a person I consider prominent advised me, "You don't want to be seen as her disciple -- it would do your career no good." Such opinions serve to remind us that people are attracted or repelled by ideas and personalities and nobody is above scrutiny.  We are reminded also that we should dig deep in trying to comprehend ideas that inform our personal theory and group practice.

Photo of Ortrun Zuber-SkerrittIn contrast to a raft of deep questions aimed at assessing a body of scholarship, the basic question in this paper is simply, 'Who is Ortrun Zuber-Skerritt?' The interview provides her with an uninterrupted voice a reader can relate to, and be informed or challenged by.

In getting to know her and her work we also get to know something of ourselves.

As many retired professors do, she has set up her own consultancy (see her website below).  Recently she devised, and is currently working on an Australia - South Africa Links project funded by the Australian government (AusAID) and manged by the International Development Program of Australian Universities (IDP).  It is a leadership development program for selected women academics from six technikons in the Gauteng Province over two years (2000-2001) with senior academics from Southern Cross University and Griffith University acting as mentors.

Although retired from full-time university life, Ortrun Zuber-Skerritt continues to contribute energetically in significant ways with an impact few can match.


Further information

Ortrun Zuber International: or



Dotlich, David & Noel, James (1998).  Action learning:  how the world's top companies are re-creating their leaders and themselves.  San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Hellman, Hal (1998).  Great feuds in science:  ten of the liveliest disputes ever.  New York:  John Wiley & Sons.

Webb, Graham (1996).  Understanding staff development.  Buckingham:  Open University Press.

Webb, Graham (1995).  What's wrong with action research?  In Lynn Zelmer (ed.) Higher education:  blending tradition and technology.  Proceedings of the 1995 Annual Conference of HERDSA (Vol 18:  J-Z), 752-757.  Rockhampton:  Central Queensland University for HERDSA.

Whitehead, Jack (1992).  How can my philosophy of action research transform and improve my professional practice and produce a good social order?  A response to Ortrun Zuber-Skerritt.  In C.S.  Bruce & A.L.  Russell (eds.) Proceedings of the Second World Congress on Action Learning.  Brisbane:  ALARPM Inc.  (Also available as:  A response to Zuber-Skerritt -- from the 1992 World Congress 2 on Action Learning, Action Research and Process Management).


Chronological Selected References

Zuber-Skerritt, Ortrun (1999).  Supervising postgraduates from non-english speaking backgrounds (co-edited with Yoni Ryan).  Buckingham:  Open University Press.

Zuber-Skerritt, Ortrun (1998).  Developing as researchers (co-edited with Linda Conrad) 2nd substantially revised edition.  Brisbane:  Griffith Institute for Higher Education.

Zuber-Skerritt, Ortrun (1997).  Introducing action learning and cultural change in a public sector organisation.  Action Learning and Action Research Journal 2:1, 3-12.

Zuber-Skerritt, Ortrun (1997).  Die Universität als lernende Organisation.  Ein Project zur Qualitätsverbesserung in einer Australischen Universität.  In H.  Altrichter, M.  Schratz und H.  Pecher (eds) Hochschulen auf dem Prüfstand:  Was Bringt Evaluation für die Entwicklung von Universitäten und Fachhochschulen?  Innsbruck, Wien:  Studien Verlag, 290-305.

Zuber-Skerritt, Ortrun (1996).  Frameworks for postgraduate education.  Lismore:  Southern Cross University Press.

Zuber-Skerritt, Ortrun (1996).  New directions in action research.  London:  Falmer Press.

Zuber-Skerritt, Ortrun (1996 and 1991).  Action research for change and development.  Aldershot:  Gower-Avebury, UK.

Zuber-Skerritt, Ortrun (1996).  Action research by language teachers.  In M.  Farquhar & P.  McKay (eds.) China connections:  Australian business needs and university language education.  Melbourne:  The National Languages and Literacy Institute of Australia, 207-229.

Zuber-Skerritt, Ortrun (1995).  Developing a learning organisation through management education by action learning.  The Learning Organisation 2:2, 37-47.

Zuber-Skerritt, Ortrun (1995).  Models for action research.  In R.Passfield and S.Pinchen (eds) Moving on:  creative applications of action learning and action research.  Brisbane:  ALARPM, 2-29.

Zuber-Skerritt, Ortrun (1995).  Academic staff development in Australia in the 1990s:  a government-driven agenda.  In A.Pellert (ed.) Universitäre Personalentwicklung:  Internationale Trends und Erfahrungen.  Innsbruck, Wien:  Studien Verlag, 102-121.

Conrad, Linda & Zuber-Skerritt, Ortrun (1995).  Reaching more postgraduate students.  In L.  Conrad & L.  Phillips (eds) Reaching more students.  Brisbane:  Griffith Institute for Higher Education, 77-95.

Zuber-Skerritt, Ortrun (1994).  Quality in postgraduate education (co-edited with Yoni Ryan).  London:  Kogan Page.

Zuber-Skerritt, Ortrun (1994) Departmental Excellence in University Education (DEUE):  Action research case studies (co-edited with Yoni Ryan).  Brisbane:  Tertiary Education Institute:  University of Queensland.

Zuber-Skerritt, Ortrun (1994).  Learning and action research.  In P.  Nightingale & M.  O'Neil (eds) Achieving quality learning in higher education.  London:  Kogan Page.  99-117.

Perry, Chad & Zuber-Skerritt, Ortrun (1994).  Doctorates by action research for senior practising managers.  Management Learning 1:1, 341-364.

Perry, Chad & Zuber-Skerritt, Ortrun (1994).  Professional doctorates in management.  In A.  Kouzmin, L.  Still and P.  Clark (eds) Directions in management.  London:  McGraw Hill, 338-356.

Zuber-Skerritt, Ortrun (1993).  Improving university learning and teaching through action learning and action research.  Higher Education Research and Development 12:1, 45-58.

Zuber-Skerritt, Ortrun (1993).  The future of academic staff development in Australian universities.  Educational Training and Technology International (ETTI) 30:4, 367-374.

Zuber-Skerritt, Ortrun (1993).  Priorities for staff development in higher education in the 1990s.  In A.R.  Viskovic (ed.) Research and Development in Higher Education.  Volume 14.  Sydney:  HERDSA, 446-453.

Zuber-Skerritt, Ortrun (1993).  Research and development in management and higher education.  Occasional Papers No 2.  Brisbane:  TEDI, University of Queensland.

Phillips, Estelle & Zuber-Skerritt, Ortrun (1993).  Perceptions of educators and potential employers of the research needs of postgraduates in business and management.  Journal of Management Education.  12(5), 12-20.

Zuber-Skerritt, Ortrun (1992).  Professional development in higher education:  a theoretical framework for action research.  London:  Kogan Page.

Zuber-Skerritt, Ortrun (1992).  Action research in higher education:  examples and reflections.  London:  Kogan Page.

Zuber-Skerritt, Ortrun (1992).  Starting research:  supervision and training.  Brisbane:  TEDI, University of Queensland.

Zuber-Skerritt, Ortrun (1992).  Working together for quality management:  action research in management and education (co-edited with Tony Carr) Brisbane:  TEDI, University of Queensland.

Perry, Chad & Zuber-Skerritt, Ortrun (1992).  Action research in graduate management programs.  Higher Education 23, 195-208.

Zuber-Skerritt, Ortrun (1991).  Action learning for improved performance.  Brisbane:  Aebis Publishing.

Zuber-Skerritt, Ortrun (1991).  Reg Revans Speaks about action learning.  (Video, 44 minutes).  Brisbane:  TV Unit, University of Queensland.

Zuber-Skerritt, Ortrun (1991).  Management development and academic staff development through action learning and action research.  Education and Training Technology International 27:4, 437-447.

Zuber-Skerritt, Ortrun (1991).Eliciting personal constructs of research, teaching and/or professional development.  International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education.  4:4, 333-340.

Zuber-Skerritt, Ortrun (1990).  What constitutes process management?  AusLink (Newsletter of the Australian Institute of Training and Development, Queensland Division) October-December 3-4.

Zuber-Skerritt, Ortrun (1990).  Personal constructs of second language teaching.  Education and Training Technology International 26:1, 60-65.

Zuber-Skerritt, Ortrun (1990).  Reflections of action researchers.  In I.Moses (ed.) Higher education in the late twentieth century:  reflections on a changing system.  Sydney:  HERDSA, 295-313.

Zuber-Skerritt, Ortrun (1990).  The dialectical relationship between theory and practice.  In C.  Gellert, E.  Leitner and J.  Schramm (eds) Interdependence of research and teaching in universities:  international and comparative perspectives.  Bern:  Peter Lang Verlag, 165-192.

Zuber-Skerritt, Ortrun (1988).  What constitutes effective research?  A case study.  Higher Education in Europe.  13(4), 64-76.

Zuber-Skerritt, Ortrun.  (1987).  Helping postgraduate research students learn.  Higher Education 16, 75-94.

Zuber-Skerritt, Ortrun.  (1987).  A repertory grid study of staff and students' personal constructs of educational research.  Higher Education 16, 603-623.

Rix, Alan & Zuber-Skerritt, Ortrun (1986).  Developing skills in dissertation research and writing for postgraduate coursework programmes.  Zeitschrift für Hochschuldidaktik.  10:2-3, 363-380.

Zuber-Skerritt, Ortrun & Knight, Nick.  (1986).  Problem definition and thesis writing.  Workshops for the postgraduate student.  Higher Education 15, 89-103.

Diamond, Patrick & Zuber-Skerritt, Ortrun (1986).  Postgraduate research:  Some changing personal constructs in higher education.  Higher Education Research and Development 5:2, 161-175.

Zuber-Skerritt, Ortrun (1986).  Action research in higher education:  the advancement of university learning and teaching.  PhD thesis.  Geelong:  Deakin University.


Jim Murphy is Associate Professor of Education, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.  Write to him at


Copyright © 2000 Action research international and Jim Murphy.  May be used with appropriate acknowledgment for any educational or training purpose without further permission

This paper may be cited as follows:

Murphy, Jim  (2000) An interview with Ortrun Zuber-Skerritt:  a personal perspective.  Action Research International, Paper 4.  Available on-line:


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