Situating Action Research Within the University

Teaching is one but not the only way of situating AR within the university. Universities are structured to suit the convenience of those who earn their livings there and who manage them. Having an array of separate departments, each putatively encompassing a discipline with no ambiguity at the borders, as if the disciplines had been separately created by a clockmaker deity, is the academic bureaucrat’s and the academic disciplinarian’s wish. The depart­ment chairs, college deans, and university leaders (president, provost, vice chancellor, rector) become respectively the foremen, division managers, and CEOs of an aesthetically pleasing Tayloristic work organization. Whatever else they do, such organizational structures assure universities ofhierarchical polit­ical structures internally and “structurally produced irrelevance” to the prob­lems of the world, except insofar as those problems interest powerful business and political elites who demand and pay for work on them. So long as nobody much cared what university researchers studied, this kind of Taylorism could survive, but now that universities are being called to account and to demon­strate their value, not to the careers of academics and academic administrators but to society at large, this situation is untenable.

There is an increasing emphasis on research and discovery processes, particularly in the social sciences, not in the test tube but in the “context of application” (Nowotny et al., 2001). However, proposing Mode 2 knowledge production in the abstract is not the same as having organizational mecha­nisms for achieving it in real universities. Mode 2 knowledge production demands that the knowledge of subjects and methods at universities be easily and quickly mobilized around problems external to the academic professions, in the context of application, and in collaboration with the societal stakehold­ers whose problems they “are.”

At present, most universities have hierarchical, compartmentalized struc­tures with gatekeepers at every level from the department to the college to the university as a whole. The opportunistic gathering of expertise and interest from faculty and students all over the structure and the creation of a work organization that supports engagement in Mode 2 work is a major challenge. Many academics oppose making such changes, and many administrators believe that such changes are impossible to achieve without a radical increase in hierarchical administrative authority, the curtailment of academic freedom and tenured appointments, and the realignment of departmental structures. In other words, we hear all the excuses that business and union leaders gave in the 1970s and 1980s for being unable to improve their performance.

The whole process of creating “entrepreneurial universities” (Marginson & Considine, 2000; Slaughter & Leslie, 1997) is one kind of administrative and policymaker’s response to this challenge. It achieves greater flexibility by mak­ing all units accountable to external authorities, by separating research and teaching into enterprises with different staffs, by imposing quality assurance schemes—all efforts that consolidate central power. Whatever one thinks of the larger meaning of this process of hierarchization, as longtime work researchers and experts in organizational development, we know this is counterproductive to the creation of Mode 2 processes in higher education.

There is a direct analogy here to the recent history of the reorganization of manufacturing industries. Under the impact of global competition, those Tayloristic companies that did not go bankrupt have been transformed in fundamental ways. The boundaries between the firms and their external customers have been lowered and the relationships have been rebuilt on a more cooperative basis. The internal organizational hierarchies have been flattened significantly and decision making has been moved as far down toward the point of production as possible. Multiskilled and interconnected teams have become the preferred production system, and information circulates much more fluidly through the whole system. A much greater portion of the work­force participates in a detailed understanding of the business strategies and challenges and contributes ideas and experience to the resolution of company problems (see, for example, Womack et al. 1990).

Obviously this is an idealized picture, but it is not irrelevant to our argu­ment. What currently are claimed to be more businesslike practices at most universities are nothing like what we have just described. If universities were reconstructed around this new manufacturing model, authority would be redistributed downward along with the right to act, to interact with external stakeholders, and teamwork and multiskilling would all be prominent. If this were done, universities could indeed engage effectively in Mode 2 processes.

We are now in a position to point out that AR research strategies are coter­minous with Mode 2 knowledge production. Collaborative, multiskilled teams with good communication with external stakeholders study and act on prob­lems “in the context of application” and produce “socially robust knowledge.” How then would universities have to be reorganized to make Mode 2 knowl­edge production the dominant research form?

Universities would have to clearly identify the external stakeholders whose problems and cl^ms should be addressed by the university rather than by some other kind of research organization. Because many faculty and external stake­holders already have relationships and ideas about potentialy valuable collabo­rations, internal communicative arenas would have to be created to bring this information to the university’s attention. Once the key stakeholders and prob­lems have been identified, as in any AR project, it would be necessary to find out what kind of professional expertise would be of value in working on the prob­lem. This would have to be an interactive process with the external stakeholders.

Having identified the valuable internal university people, university man­agement would have to restructure work organization to allow them to form an ad hoc team, to relieve them of some other duties, and to give them the flex­ibility to be both on and off campus, to interact with other team members and local stakeholders regularly, and to train themselves more fully in areas that emerge in the course of the projects. The time horizon for such activities would need to be revisited annually until the project ended and the academic people returned to their units, perhaps to be called up again for other projects.

This process would give rise to a wide variety of short-term AR groups and, if properly handled, could also contribute greatly to the academic life of the university. Creating internal university arenas for reports to the community on the projects, taking suitable students along in relevant roles in the projects as part of their undergraduate and graduate training, and using administrative personnel to continue the process of finding external problem owners and sources of support for these activities all seem quite possible.

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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