Improving Together: Action Learning in a Network

JABS_v50_72ppiRGB_powerpoint[We’re pleased to welcome comments from David Coghlan and Paul Coughlan, both of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland. Their paper “Effecting Change and Learning in Networks through Network Action Learning” was recently published in the Journal of Applied Behavioral Science.]

  • Who is the target audience for this article?

Our article describes how a network in the transportation equipment industry engaged in collaborative improvement and transformed its way of working and the relationships among the participating organizations. Because we were working through the action learning approach we observed what took place in the real-live action of the network as it struggled with its challenges and problems.

There is not a single target audience for this article – if there is for any. We see three: fellow researchers in both of our domains; OD practitioners; and supply chain managers. Each will get something different from it. However, as audiences, they are not new to us. We have been writing with them, for them and about them for many years, based upon our collaborative research and action with them.

  • What inspired you to be interested in this topic?

Our interest in this topic is long-standing and ever changing. We work in the area of action learning which guides and inspires our research and teaching. Action learning always begins with the task to be done and an associated problem where there is no single or technical solution. Most complex organizational change projects fall into the category of a problem, as there is no single solution while there are likely to be many opinions as to what the preferred course of action might be. The learning formula which underpins action learning is L=P+Q where learning is a function of current knowledge (P) exposed to critical and reflective questioning (Q) in the light of experience. The components of action learning are that a group forms, comprising members who care about the problem, know something about it and have the power to implement solutions. The members of the group engage in a questioning and reflective process whereby experience is generated and interrogated. The group members have a commitment to both taking action and to learning. These commitments are based on the premise that no real learning takes place unless and until action is taken as implementation, rather than recommendations to others. There is often a facilitator who can play a variety of roles for the group: coordinator, catalyst, observer, climate setter, communication enabler, learning coach among many.

While management research is often criticized for being too theoretical and removed from practice (either in its origins or applications), we enjoy the opportunity to enquire into practice, with practitioners in a way that contributes to practice, theory and methodology. In a way, our approach is to work towards a different definition of quality of research. One of us is from within the domain of Operations Management. In OM, quality is much more than a performance objective, it is a philosophy. What makes for quality in action learning is that there is an engagement with real-life issues, that it is collaborative, has a reflective character through being deliberatively subjective while at the name time being rigorously objective about the facts of the problem and its context, and that there are workable outcomes. Inspiration for our research and writing – this paragraph captures it.

  • Were there findings that were surprising to you?

Traditional management research tends to be pre-occupied with findings. In contrast, action learning research generates data from which new insights emerge. So, in a sense, everything about the process and outcome of an action learning research initiative is surprising. The outcomes could not have been anticipated, even though the motivation, process, techniques and checks for relevance might be articulated and derived in a scholarly fashion and well executed.

  • How do you see this study influencing future research or practice?

Our article offers a contribution to networks and learning in networks theory. We bring network action learning, network types and collaborative strategic improvement together to understand the interactions that occur between organizations and demonstrate how the interactions between them may be seen as a path of transition through network types. Second, we propose a theory of researcher interaction that involves the researcher engaging with managers (or relevant practitioners) as co-researchers in addressing a real-life network problem through iterative cycles of action and reflection leading to practical outcomes and actionable knowledge.

We also offer a contribution to practice: for the supply chain managers who are responsible for the development of relationships with and among their suppliers, and the OD practitioners who work with managers to facilitate their improvement interventions. We invite supply chain managers to consider the usefulness and usability of action learning in identifying and addressing critical shared problems. We alert the OD practitioner to the particular sensitivities of managers to perceived interference with the workings of their firms and to the risk of commercial realities driving out learning.

Finally we offer a contribution to methodology. We show how action learning research has provided a basis for critical inquiry as it has generated insights into the process of effecting change and learning in a network. The actionable knowledge generated needs to meet the criteria of good research, namely was rigorous, reflective and relevant.We describe the process by which the data were gathered, generated and reflected upon. There was disciplined engagement in the interactions with the organizations and the gathering of the associated documents and records of conversation. Through collaborative engagement with the real-life issues of the network, it exposed to exploration the emergent (and latent) tensions, contradictions, emotions and power dynamics in and between the organizations. Throughout, the demands for rigour required the surfacing and exploration of the assumptions and interpretations of the data and events as they unfolded. The explication of the learning as it emerged was tested in action.

  • How does this study fit into your body of work/line of research?

Our collective body of work spans the domains of action learning, organizational learning, operations management and organization development. Our work/line of research frames how action learning constitutes an approach to collaborative management research. In our ground-breaking book, Collaborative Strategic Improvement through Network Action Learning (P. Coughlan & D. Coghlan. Edward Elgar. 2011) we framed action learning as such an approach. We explored and demonstrated how network action learning research provides a basis for critical inquiry in the fields of collaborative improvement and network learning. It generates insights into tensions, contradictions, emotions and power dynamics in and between organizations as they (and teams within them) work together to build their and to sustain an effective network.

Our article captures a locus and focus for our research which, currently, we are extending into the realm of traditional food producers. While the industry and associated dynamics differ from the transportation equipment industry focus of the article, the opportunities for actionable knowledge through engaging in action learning research remain. As noted earlier, our ambition for this research is, as always, to engage on a real life issue, collaboratively, reflectively, blending deliberate subjectivity with rigorous objectivity while aiming for robust theory and workable outcomes.

Click here to read “Effecting Change and Learning in Networks through Network Action Learning” from the Journal of Applied Behavioral Science for free! Want to be the first to know about all the latest research from the Journal of Applied Behavioral Science? Click here to sign up for e-alerts!

tcdadminDavid Coghlan is an action research scholar and an adjunct professor at the School of Business, Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, and a Fellow Emeritus of the college. He specializes in organization development and action research and is active in both communities internationally. He has published over 80 articles and book chapters. Recent co-authored books include Organizational Change and Strategy (2006) and Collaborative Strategic Improvement Through Network Action Learning (2011). He is the co-editor of the four-volume set Fundamentals of Organization Development (Sage, 2010) and the proposed four-volume set Action Research in Business and Management (Sage, 2015). He has recently published the fourth edition of his internationally popular Doing Action Research in Your Own Organization (Sage, 2014).

paulcPaul Coughlan is Professor of Operations Management and Director of Research at the School of Business, Trinity College Dublin. On graduation, he joined the faculty of the London Business School. In addition to his research and teaching he has held senior School and College administrative positions, including MBA Director, Director of Postgraduate Teaching & Learning and Course Co-Director at the TCD-UCD Innovation Academy. Outside of Trinity College, he was President of the European Institute for Advanced Studies in Management (EIASM) from 2003-09. His research in product development and continuous improvement has encompassed an innovative action research dimension involving companies engaged in action learning. This work has led to continuing methodology development and to specialised doctoral training in action research and learning through the EIASM doctoral network.


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