Searching for Pragmatic Action Research

Although we argue strongly for pragmatic, multi-method techniques and work forms, and we have employed many different kinds of techniques and work forms in our practice, one broad and well-defined approach to cogenerative learning is particularly appropriate to our pragmatic approach to AR. It is called searching. We will present it in extenso here, not because we believe it must be used in every AR situation, but because it is a powerful approach that has proved capable of generating significant results and because presenting it in detail will give the reader a much more concrete view of our way of think­ing about AR.

Searching refers to a specific kind of cogenerative learning process. The core idea of searching is to create a situation where ordinary people can engage in structured knowledge generation (from developing plans to execution) based on systematic experimentation. Participants are helped to learn by doing and by constantly searching out and trying out new ways of thinking and acting (Emery, 1993, p. 192).


The search conference is a work form for participatory planning and design. The aim of search conference techniques is to allow for collective plan­ning and design of actions aimed at solving problems directly relevant to the people involved. It is a collective process of inquiry, creating learning options for all those participating, moving from plans to concrete actions.

A search conference is most often a multi-day meeting of a fairly large group ( 15^0) of people in some kind of retreat setting. Prior to the event, the planning of a search conference begins with a process of problem identificati°n by a planning group and the self-conscious selection and preparation of par­ticipants. Once convened, a search conference proceeds with the participant sharing their view of the history of the situation they find themselves in. Then they identify the problems they are addressing collectively through a creative process resvidng in a variety of action plans for solving the problems. In the final stage of the search, participants choose among alternative action plans, making collective decisions about what to work on. Thus, a search conference integrates planning, creative problem solving, and concrete action in the same process. This integration is its most unique feature, and it is a distinctively appropriate methodology for carrying out AR.

Search conferences create many different arenas for dialogue. The struc­ture of the events over the time a search lasts is broadly predetermined. The process moves along according to its inner logic, though under the continued guidance of a couple of search managers. Search conferences almost always succeed in tapping participants’ energy for identifying and solving their own problems, so long as search facilitation is skillful. Bringing people together and providing them with the opportunity to think through and plan elements of their own future inevitably releases creative energy that is constructively chan­neled in the search conference process. We have not so far participated in or been responsible for a search conference that has failed, though we have often seen that the follow-up actions did not fulfill the high expectations set at the search conference.

The search conference integrates five processes. First, it creates a discourse aimed at sharing different stakeholders’ interpretations of history. Second, it develops a common vision (goals) for the future and what will happen if the future is not addressed creatively. Third, it engages the participants in creative activity, searching for action plans to reach desired goals. Fourth, it facilitates a collective prioritizing among action issues; fifth, it links planning to action groups and specific actions. The outcome of a successful search conference is a set of action issues and plans that participants want to pursue collectively.


Search conferences emerged from the industrial democracy tradition in the United Kingdom, Scandinavia, and Australia. The theoretical and method­ological development of searching goes back to key researchers at the Tavistock Institute in London, Fred Emery and Philip Herbst (see Chapter 2). They had very similar professional backgrounds as clinically trained social psychologists, and they worked within the same international research network. One was located in the Southern Hemisphere and the other in the North, and together they shaped the thinking and the practice of searching in parallel. On the Australian scene, Merrelyn Emery played a crucial role in conceptualizing and developing the search process (Emery, 1982, 1993).

Another way of describing how searching developed is to see that it arose from the international networks centered on the industrial democracy move­ment. A major concern among those working on industrial democracy was how to integrate participatory planning in collective actions for change. The main obstacle in most models of AR at that time was domination of the processes by experts, a problem we allude to in our discussion of Kurt Lewin in Chapter 2. Change processes were often planned and executed by the action researchers, and the real involvement of the participants was limited.

A second issue emerging at the time was a concern about the failure of social innovations to spread effectively to broader groups. Many experiments in local social change had turned out to be successful, but very often these suc­cesses were encapsulated at the original site. They did not automatically spread by the sheer virtue of the promising results achieved. This led to a concern with ways to diffuse participative processes to broader strata of society.

Emery and Oeser ( 1958) first stated these latter concerns in a study on the diffusion of agricultural reforms in Australia. Much later, these issues were followed up in two publications in which search conferences emerge as a theme. Herbst’s 1980 article in Human Futures presents a conceptualization of the search conference approach and communicates experiences from the first search conference in Norway, which took place on an island of Skjervey in the north (Engelstad & Haugen, 1972; Herbst, 1980). This search became very important because it provided experience with the method to a broad group of researchers at the Work Research Institute in Oslo and because it created positive results in the local community.

In Australia, Fred and Merrelyn Emery’s work on searching was first pub­lished as a working paper from the Australian National University in 1974. The Herbst and Emery publications became the pivots on which the development of search conferences turned and represented the opening of a line of develop­ments that resulted in the widespread and respected practice of search confer­ences today (Emery, 1998; Martin, Hemlock, & Rich, 1994; Martin & Rich, 1994; Weisbord, 1992).


The general thinking underlying the search conference fit into the Norwegian context of the early 1970s. There was an extended public debate on worker participation in a social democracy. The high-profile AR on industrial democracy created fertile ground for participative approaches to social change. In this context, the thinking underlying search conferences nicely corresponded to the issues of participative planning and the diffusion of change processes.

For example, by this time, the action researchers at the Work Research Institute in Oslo had abandoned the expert model for sociotechnical change (Elden, 1979) and were experimenting with search conference models to enhance change efforts in multiple companies at the same time. Search conferences fit suitably into this situation and led to the first major attempt to use the technique in the planning effort for the municipality of Skjerv0y. Philip Herbst, one major

Norwegian link to the international networks, heavily influenced this first search. This search focused on the challenges of economic and municipal development and was seen as quite radical in the Norwegian context because it based the developmental activity on fairly broad public participation.

Applying search conferences to local community development projects became one of the major development techniques used in Norway, and search­ing became a central element in some government-supported local commu­nity development programs. At one point, more than 60 municipalities were engaged in community development effort, and search conferences were often used to initiate the work. The outcomes were successful enough that the Department of the Interior commissioned the writing of a manual on how to run searches (Brokhaug, Levin, & Nilssen, 1986). Although not everyone foUowed the suggested blueprint, elements of search methodology became widespread, showing that search conferences were a convincing method for many practitioners.

While the deployment of searching in community settings continued, par- alels developed in industrial settings. The search conference was adopted as a tool for initiating change processes in industry. This methodology was suc- cessfuUy adapted to several different industries. In particular, the researchers and consultants connected to the Work Research Institute in Oslo focused a lot of attention on searching as a way of initiating change processes (Hanssen Bauer & Aslaksen, 1991, p. 202). These Norwegian experiences were a major inspiration for the U.S.-based private consultant Marvin Weisbord, who spent part of 1987 learning about searching from Norwegian practitioners. Later he took this knowledge and adapted it in his own particular way for use in U.S. business and public administration.

The Work Research Institute in Oslo developed a work form based on the search conference that let loose most of the rigid structure of search confer­ences and also changed the role of the facilitators. Built on “operationalization” of Habermas’s (1984) ideal speech thinking, they shaped a facilitation prac­tice that was much like policing for democratic dialogue (Gustavsen, 1985; PAlshaugen, 2000, 2002).This type of conference was given the name “dialogue conferences”; as the name indicates, the vital element is to strive for open com­munication among the participants. This model is heavily used in Norwegian industry, where labor and management join in for mutual enterprise develop­mental activity.


Fred and Merrelyn Emery are central in the development of search conferences in Australia, where search conferences have been widely used. Fred Emery was a key international player in the development of the search conference approach along with his role in the development of the industrial democracy movement (discussed in Chapter 2). In the Australian context, his wife, Merrelyn, has played an equally important role, and over the years has written a good deal more about searching than he did.

Many of the challenges faced in Australia parallel those in Norway. Developing social change processes and then achieving their diffusion was not very effective. When they were developed, new democratic work forms tended to remain more or less encapsulated where they were invented. Merrelyn Emery published her important monograph on searching (1982), which devel­oped detailed arguments about participants’ learning processes. She also argued for multiple searches as a way of gaining broader public momentum for par­ticipative planning. This strategy was important and was embodied in what came to be called “Searching Australia/’ an ambitious plan for making search­ing a nationwide effort at social change (Emery & Emery, 1974).

In 1989, Australian work life researchers organized an international con­ference called “Work Place Australia.” One of the major ingredients in this event was having the participants spend 1 week involved in a search confer­ence. Multiple search conferences (20) were organized, bringing together for­eigners and locals. Though we cannot judge the effectiveness of this multiple search program, this effort created international awareness of searching as a methodology for participative design. Indeed, the success of this conference is seen in the subsequent activities of Australian researchers, who routinely travel abroad to train professionals in other countries in search conference tech­niques. For example, Merrelyn Emery has set up a structure in the United States to teach people how to run search conferences.


Searching was first brought to the United States by researchers from the Tavistock Institute. In the early 1980s, both Fred Emery and Eric Trist were affiliated with University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business. During this period, Trist was actively working on a major AR project in Jamestown, New York, and Emery was invited to work with Native American groups in upstate New York. This latter activity resulted in a search focused on the future of the Seneca Indians.

A more powerful influence in the United States came through Marvin Weisbord’s consulting. In one of his books, Productive Workplaces (1987), he coUected several practical examples of search conferences carried out in a broad range of settings and cultures. Weisbord has created a significant con­sulting business by focusing his attention on training consultants to do search conferences. Between his training efforts and his writing, he has been the dom­inant influence in the United States on the development of thinking about search methods.

Although this diffusion might be welcome, it also means that a very par­ticular view of searching has achieved broad currency in the United States. Weisbord’s ( 1992) search conference modus operandi is a variant of searching tailored to fit within the given power structures of U.S. businesses. One of the principal ways Weisbord’s approach differs from those we have discussed is that he accepts certain parameters in advance and agrees to push certain areas of disagreement into the background. Thus, he mainly uses the search as a method for shaping a shared vision and tapping some of the participants’ cre­ative capabilities. There is also little emphasis in his approach on how to sus­tain the development actions initiated through the search process. While some of this stems from Weisbord’s own practices, and although a discussion of power and searching is presented in Ann Martin’s (2000) doctoral dissertation, challenging organizational design and power structures tends to be left out of searches in the U.S. generally.

Another stream of activity centered on searching revolves around Cornell University. A program of the Cornell School of Industrial and Labor Relations called “Programs for Employment and Workplace Systems,”2 inspired origi­nally by William Foote Whyte, explored searching using connections to Morten Levin and the Norwegian University of Technology and Science in Trondheim (Whyte, 1994, p. 307). Given the directness of the connection, the Cornell approach is quite close to the Norwegian one and embodies a stronger link between the Norwegian tradition and U.S. academia than does Weisbord’s.


Although we obviously have our preferences, we emphasize that searching should not be equated with just one technique; there is no one right way of running a search conference. Practitioners vary in approach and skills. In addi­tion, good practitioners are constantly developing and altering their own approaches as they learn more about the processes involved and gain more skills. There is no reason to grant any one of the founders of this methodology the honor of having the “correct” approach. We certainly do not agree with M. Emery ( 1993) that there is only one way of doing search conferences.


Co-optation of searching is a real problem. Searching, like Lewinian AR and sociotechnical systems work before it, has become fashionable. Far too many processes are now labeled as search conferences that negate the neces­sary focus on participatory and liberating social change. Some of this is a consequence of poor planning and a lack of understanding of what a search actually is. However, some of this comes from the increasingly frequent use of search conferences to create “magical moments” for the participants by giving them an illusion of participating in real change processes while the underlying intention of the process is to reduce internal pressure for change. To help action researchers contend with this problem and to provide the reader with more detailed guidelines about search processes, we now discuss the main elements of a search conference as the approach emerged from our own practice.


In our view, six major elements must bepresent if a group process isto be characterized as a search:

  1. Creating a shared history and letting every participant understand how the world looks according to other groups of participants
  2. Creating a shared vision about what is a desirable future or solution to the focal problem of the group
  3. Creating a view of what would be the probable future if nothing were done; sometimes this perspective might be integrated into the work on desir­able future
  4. Identifying action plans for addressing the focal problem
  5. Creating a collective prioritization process in which participants choose among alternative action plans
  6. Initiating concrete change activity and structuring a follow-up process aimed at sharing achievements and learning

These six elements differ in content and structure. Working on developing a history is very different from using the creativity necessary for developing new ideas for action plans. In addition, throughout a search, there is a regular inter­play between plenary sessions and small group work that creates a new social structure. Another important aspect of searches is howthe fairly strict structure and rules create a ritual process that helps shape valuable arenas for dialogue.

Herbst (1980) illustrates the search process as a dual track. Figure 9.1 con­veys an overall conception of the search as a generative and creative process (building shared history and visions, generating creative action possibilities, reflecting on the feasibility of action possibilities, and finally working out priorities among the possible action items).

The work process in a search conference involves both plenary presen­tations and discussions and small group work. These small groups, either homogeneous or mixed in background and interests, are used to prepare ideas and materials for plenary discussions and, thus, to give voice to as many of the participants as possible.

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

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *