Action Research Cases of Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations: Research and Extension

During one period in its history, Programs for Employment and Workplace Systems (PEWS) in the Extension Division of the School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University sought to enhance its connections and reputation among the resident faculty in the academic departments. It was having limited success because of deeply held beliefs among the resident faculty that “applied” work was intellectually uninteresting. Greenwood became involved with PEWS through the efforts of one of its founders, William Foote ^Whyte. As he partici­pated in discussions at PEWS, Greenwood was struck by the radically different mindsets of the PEWS members and the resident faculty at Cornell. PEWS members were attracted to and driven by the needs of their client organizations, whereas the academic faculty were attracted to and driven by the paradigms and the struggle for acceptance within their professional research communities. As a result, a regressive division of labor ensued. Action agents were not expected to write much or to think theoretically, and academic faculty were not expected to write or think in terms of the application of knowledge.

During the period that Greenwood worked with PEWS, he suggested that PEWS try a reconciliation of these positions by attempting to suffuse its client- centered processes with research dimensions that would make use of faculty expertise and interests. As an AR experiment to model this approach, PEWS undertook a pilot project at a nearby manufacturing plant. This plant faced problems implementing new manufacturing systems (manufacturing cells, total quality, statistical process control, and just-in-time production).

As an experiment to increase PEWS’ effectiveness, the participants over­laid the early stages of a typical consultation process with a research perspec­tive. First, PEWS gained access, basic familiarity, and an initial contract with the plant. Well into the process, Greenwood, operating as a professional social researcher, accompanied the PEWS staff (Peter Lazes and Ann Martin) to the plant for 2 days as a participant-observer. During that time and in written analysis afterward, he raised questions and pursued the issues raised by his observations. This helped make the intervention process accessible to others not directly involved.

Next, Greenwood and the staff members joined other PEWS members and Jan Irgens Karlsen, who was visiting the School of Industrial and Labor Relations, to ferret out the research issues relevant to this plant. This provided an opportunity for the PEWS personnel to inform the others about the plant’s problems and to raise questions. The question-and-answer process refined the issues for all involved. An array of important research questions emerged, along with an inventory of further information about the plant that the PEWS consultants needed.

The process pointed in two directions. First, the consultants to the plant with Greenwood and Karlsen identified the larger theoretical issues that the events in the plant embodied. Two large families of issues emerged: the orga­nizational effect of new manufacturing systems and models of organizational change involved in creating manufacturing cells. These, in turn, raised issues about the larger social meaning of the new manufacturing. They also referred to the difficulties organizations face in modeling organizational change.

Second, Greenwood and Karlsen identified what the research literature contained on these issues that could be useful in the plant. This involved for­ays into the literature on organizational learning, models of organization, and new manufacturing systems. Third, they suggested that the PEWS staff develop the basic data needed to address these questions via study-action teams com­posed of plant employees. Experience with such teams has shown that they can become very knowledgeable quickly. They often become a positive part of the change process themselves.

Finally, they organized and collated these research materials. These pro­vided good theoretical and methodological perspectives for the PEWS staff to deploy at the plant. The social research issues were as clear to the AR group as were the client’s needs. Comparative research through library and fieldwork on elements of the new manufacturing systems deployed at the plant was possible. This kind of research would have been exciting to the academic faculty both for its research value and its utility in providing materials for teaching. In reality, PEWS and other extension programs continually face problems at the cutting edge, where their clients live. A body of research built on these experiences could serve as a tracking device for students of industrial society. But the initiative stopped at this point.

What prevented it from going forward? Organizationally, it would have required major changes in both PEWS and the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. The PEWS members would have had to balance their commitments to their clients with the disciplines of research by devoting time to reading, writing, and communicating with resident faculty. Resident faculty would have had to be willing to invest time ferreting out the larger issues in the cases, orga­nizing the relevant literature, and engaging themselves with projects in which action was an element. Although the lack of incentives for academic faculty to do this was clear, it was less clear why action agents did not wish to change the structure they were working in.

Thus, a successful AR model was deployed within the organization, pro­vided uniquely useful results, was replicable in other cases, and was never deployed because of the combined division of labor between academic faculty and extension staff at Cornell University (and elsewhere) and because AR made the job of extension staff both harder and more time consuming than the standard pattern of behavior. The project disappeared without a trace, despite its apparent success, because the initiators did not have the resources and polit­ical clout to take it to the next level.3

Some years later, as a sequel to this process, the resident faculty moved aggressively to eliminate PEWS entirely, many of its key personnel left, and the rift between extension and research has grown even deeper. ^^ile PEWS survives in a modest form, it is certainly clear that doing the right thing, doing it well, and gaining a great deal of external credibility in no way guarantees the success or survival of AR in many academic settings where conventional social science and its concepts reign supreme.

Source: Greenwood Davydd J., Levin Morten (2006), Introduction to Action Research: Social Research for Social Change, SAGE Publications, Inc; 2nd edition.

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