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The reasons for the study were outlined in the prologue. In this section the aims thereof are explained and a motivation for the research is provided. This phase expounds the research methodologies adopted and provides the motivation and justification for the choice of research methodology as well as a description of the nature and character of action research. The research philosophy is explored and the methods of collecting data discussed.
I was fortunate to be presented with an opportunity to develop an educational programme which would result in the promotion of four black supervisors to management positions. This led to an exploratory and experimental process that addressed the research problem: How to design and deliver a management education and development programme for people who did not have the requisite educational qualifications to enrol for formal management programmes at a tertiary institution.
This, in turn, translated into the following research questions?
Do people without the necessary educational standards have the potential and the ability to become effective managers?
What knowledge, skills and attitudes are necessary to be an effective manager and how are these knowledge, skills and attitudes best acquired in a workplace?
The intention was to improve my practice through the design and implementation of a non-traditional management education programme. While at the same time, redressing some of the imbalances resulting from historical political bias that had deprived many black people of the opportunity to fulfil their managerial potential and in so doing make a meaningful contribution to four people's lives . It was also intended to make a contribution to management development, business improvement and socio-economic transformation.
In attempting a project of this nature, there were many obstacles and problems to face that were both complex and sensitive and I needed a clear understanding of what I planned to achieve through conducting the research study. These objectives would also hopefully distinguish this research project from "masqueraded consulting" (Eriksson & Kovalainen, 2008:204)
After careful consideration, the following list of objectives were identified for the study:
Investigate assumptions and practices that I thought needed to be challenged;
Develop an understanding of the concept of education and in particular adult education and how it relates to learning in a workplace;
Explore and experiment with curriculum design for a non-traditional emancipatory management education process in a workplace;
Implement the process and find possible barriers to implementation in order to improve and change the existing situation;
Bring about positive transformation; and
Gain professional knowledge.
Aim of the study
The motivation to accept the challenge was based on the assumption that management skills and leadership behaviour can be developed through relevant training and expert guided experience and the conviction that willing and able non-managerial Black employees can and should be developed to move into management positions.
The aim of the study was therefore to develop and deliver a workable and sustainable method of adult education for the development and advancement of four black female supervisors to management positions, by:
Locating the programme in values of equality and justice with respect for human dignity;
Approaching adult education in such a way that the participants would be involved in their own learning experience;
Identifying the practical implications of introducing the innovation into a specific workplace and implementing the programme; and
Evaluating the programme, with particular reference to its relevance to the participants and their change in behaviour.
From the literature reviews discussed later in the study, there appeared to be a broad consensus that learning and organisational change require a range of development, training and learning approaches; that the traditional external course, while reasonably effective as a briefing device for promoting awareness, is poor at promoting behavioural and organisational change; that change is more likely to be achieved via techniques specifically aimed at particular learning targets related to the individual's practical tasks and experience; and that development, training and coaching should, when appropriate, take place as close to the work situation as possible.
This meant that for the innovation to succeed the company had to adapt and align itself both structurally and culturally to changing circumstances and new approaches, which resulted in the addition of the following criteria:
Involving the whole organisation in the process, using a systems approach, and addressing issues of socialisation, cultures, values, attitudes and perceptions.
The study was conducted in a manufacturing company in Gauteng, in South Africa. It is the most advanced metropolitan region in the country and the industrial hub. Although it covers less than two percent of South Africa's total land mass it contributes more than fifty percent of Gross Domestic Product and accommodates approximately one quarter of the total population (De Beer, 1990).
The town in which the factory was situated was populated by predominantly Afrikaans speaking White people and in 1994 was a Conservative Party stronghold. Until the early 90s a curfew bell was still sounded at 9pm every evening to ensure that the town remained 'White by night'.
The management education programme was implemented in a manufacturing organisation. It is a privately owned company that employed approximately eighty people and had a turnover in excess of five million Rand per annum in 1994. The manufacturing process is complicated and labour intensive with most stages of production requiring a skilled labour force.
The chosen trainees were all Black females with formal education levels ranging from grade 9 to grade 12. Unfortunately even the two ladies with a matriculation certificate were unable to gain entry to tertiary institutions as the subjects they had completed were not recognised for higher learning, for example Bible Studies and Agriculture. All of them were loyal employees who had at least 15 years of work experience in the company and all were employed in a supervisory capacity.
Their elected mentors and coaches were both White males. The Factory / Production Manager had a diploma in Production Management and a number of years of production and management experience. The General Manager had an undergraduate commerce degree and many years of management experience, but had not been actively involved in the production process and was more concerned with the administrative elements of the company.
Unlike many researchers who enter new and strange research environments, I had ready access to the site and was fortunate enough to be familiar with the people involved in the research process and the workplace setting. This made my entry into the situation relatively easy as I did not have to face the problematic situation of getting to know the participants or the workplace environment. However, on reflection this factor created a new set of complexities and problems.
Choice of methodology
I am of the opinion that given the research interests, questions, aims and objectives of this qualitative study together with my theoretical perspective that action research was an appropriate approach.
My multiple and often complex roles of consultant, facilitator, teacher and learner, and 'objective' researcher in the study were a potential dilemma, however, this was resolved by adopting an action research methodology. This decision is substantiated by Eriksson & Kovalainen who state that:
It is important to understand that, in action research, there is no big difference between the researcher and the researched group â€¦ Often the differences between the researcher and management consultant diminish and even disappear, as academic research is geared towards achieving understanding of real-life problems related to business activities and producing change processes and solutions for the problem (2008:194)
Action research differs from conventional or traditional research because as Coghlan and Brannick assert it focuses upon "research in action, rather than research about action" (2005:4). The other distinguishing feature of action research is that it does not place the doctoral student as researcher in an "â€¦external 'objective' role but instead locates her within the research setting to explore whether the cycles of interventions chosen actually work to change the problematic situation to which the research problem is addressed" (Greenwood & Levin, 2007 cited in Grogan, Donaldson & Simmons, 2007:6).
The experimental nature of the research project also required an alternative approach to more traditional qualitative research. Eriksson and Kovalainen suggests that "action research is specifically useful when researching process related problems in organizations, such as learning and change" (2008:199). They further assert that:
Action research is thought to be especially suitable when the research question is related to describing an unfolding series of actions that are taking place over time in a certain group â€¦ Also, if the research question is related to understanding the process of change, development or improvement of some actual problem, then, in order to learn from it, action research is an appropriate application for research (2008 :193-194)
Corey states that the value of traditional research is "determined by the amount of dependable knowledge it adds", while that of action research "is determined primarily by the extent to which findings lead to improvement in the practices of people engaged in the research" (1953:13). This is confirmed by Carr and Kemmis, who assert that "â€¦the testing ground for educational research is not its theoretical sophistication or its ability to conform to criteria derived from social sciences, but rather its capacity to resolve educational problems and improve educational practice" (1986:109).
For some readers the concept of action research will be part of their practice, for others it may seem a strange approach to research.
As action research does not necessarily make a huge difference between research and action, it may give an imprecise and unclear impression of research as a process. It can be argued that it is precisely here where action research has its power: when it remains 'close' to its research objects and is based on reciprocal activities, when done properly, it can also empower its participants, not just the science community (Eriksson & Kovalainen, 2008:202-203)
Action Research has been widely used to improve practice in educational settings (Carr and Kemmis, 1986:162). It is acknowledged as "an appropriate research paradigm for educational, professional, managerial and organisational development" (Zuber-Skerritt, 1996:3) and was the only obvious choice of methodology for this study. As a methodology action research is based on alternative research paradigms.
There is no universally accepted definition of action research in literature and there are a variety of action research models available. As Nofke asserts there has been "â€¦exceptional growth in the extent of action research practices" and we should also be aware of the "â€¦proliferation of meanings and uses of the term action research" (1994:9)
Those of us in South Africa interested in action research recognise that there are contested points of view about what 'action research' means and what practices constitute it. â€¦ It is the recognition of the potential of action research as informed, reflexive and transformative action, however, that holds sway (Walker, 1988:153).
Whitehead and McNiff suggest that most of the action research literature talks about improving practice, but talks less about improving learning as the basis of improved practice, and even less about how this should be seen as new theory and an important contribution to the world of ideas. They believe that theory itself needs to be reconceptualised, not as an abstract, seemingly esoteric field of study, but as a practical way of thinking about social affairs and how they can be improved (2006:8).
The origins of action research can be found in the teachings of Marx, Gramsci and Freire who were engaged in changing social structures and practices for the benefit of those who had been oppressed or marginalised by the status quo (Reason & Bradbury, 2001). Lewin is credited with conceptualising action research which was then further developed by Kolb (1984), Carr and Kemmis (1986) and others. Historically Revans (1986) is its recognised champion. Drawing from the work of Jean Piaget, Revans contended that learning "stems from responsible experience" (1982:2), that is, "all learning is the product of action" (1982:772).
Action research spiral
Lewin's action research spiral, is described as follows by Lewin cited in Burgess (1985:162):
The first step is to examine the idea carefully in the light of the means available. Frequently more fact-finding about the situation is required. If this first period of planning is successful, two items emerge: namely, 'an overall plan' of how to reach the objective and secondly, a decision in regard to the first step of action. Usually this planning has also somewhat modified the original idea (Lewin, 1948:205).
The next step is composed of a circle of planning, executing, and reconnaissance or fact finding for the purpose of evaluating the results of the second step, and preparing the rational basis for planning the third step, and for perhaps modifying again the overall plan (1948:206).
To help deal with the issues concerning the nature of management development, curriculum development and adult education in a structured, yet flexible, manner Lewin's (1946) action research spiral was used as a model.
Initially, I had not considered using the approach to conduct a research study but rather to use the action research spiral as a model to assist with the design and delivery of an experimental management education programme because of its iterative nature and emphasis on continual improvement.
Lewin's model specifies a spiral of activities in the following sequence:
Clarifying and diagnosing a problem situation for practice;
Formulating action strategies for resolving the problem;
Implementing and evaluating the action strategies; and
Further clarification and diagnosis of the problem (and so into the next spiral of reflection and action).
Lewin's spiral recognises the need for action plans to be flexible. In complex social situations it is never possible to anticipate everything that needs to be done and in this model the deliberate overlapping of action and reflection allow changes in plans for action as the participants learn from and reflect on their own experience. The process is summarised in the diagram of an action research spiral below.
Upward spiral of improving practiceFIGURE 1: Action research spiral
My understanding of the action research process, based on Lewin's approach, was that action is followed by critical reflection:- What worked? What did not work? What did we learn? How should we do it differently next time? Once understanding was achieved, conclusions drawn and plans refined or new plans developed then these were again tested in action.
This tied in with the well established learning theory of Kolb and Fry (1975:35-36) which suggests that individuals pass through a cycle of stages in the learning experience:
A period of observation;
A period of reflection;
A period of conceptual modelling; and
A period of active testing.
Therefore the completion of the learning process will involve several cycles and may in fact never end.
Based on the above, I envisaged a process where myself and the other participants in the programme developed a plan of action; acted to implement the plan; observed the effects of the action in the context in which it occurred; reflected on these effects as a basis for further planning, subsequent action and so on through a succession of cycles. This allowed for a flexible curriculum that could be modified as the programme progressed and constantly evaluated and altered in terms of its relevance to the programme's aims.
This initial model was too simple as in reality, life does not go "along one track at a time â€¦" (McNiff, 1988:28) and Susman and Evered's (1978) more complex representational model reproduced below, better fitted the study.
FIGURE 2: The cyclical process of action research Source: Susman & Evered, 1978:582-603 in Administrative Science Quarterly
This notion concurs with that of Walker (1993:107) who finds that the attraction of action research lies precisely in the never ending spiral of action, reflection, inquiry and theorising arising from and grounded in practical concerns, where the search is not for the right answers but towards "practical wisdom â€¦ in particular, complex and human situations" (Elliott, 1991:52).
Lau (1998) discusses the criteria which Checkland (1991) believes are essential for an action research study to be accepted as a legitimate alternative to the more traditional methods. These criteria served as a guideline to my own action research:
There is a real-world problem relevant to the research themes of interest to the researcher;
Respective roles of the researcher and participants are defined in the problem situation;
Inclusion of an intellectual framework by means of which the nature of research lessons can be defined and the method in which the framework is embodied;
Researcher involvement in unfolding the situation with a view to help bring about changes deemed improvements;
Rethinking of earlier stages by making sense of the accumulating experience through the declared framework and method, and revising changes; and
Point of exit for the researcher in order to review the experience and to extract lessons for learning in relation to the research themes and/or definition of new themes (1991:397-403).
Action research includes action learning which Zuber-Skerritt defines as:
Learning from concrete experience and critical reflection on that experience, through group discussion, trial and error, discovery and learning from one another (1993:45).
The story telling approach
According to Eriksson & Kovalainen, in action research
The researchers have full academic 'freedom' to use any stylistic elements they wish and often the ethnography and narrative forms are also used in writing the action research reports (2008:207)
Based on Elliott's argument that action researchers should use a case study approach and that research reports should take a narrative form based on analytic memos and adopting a historical format: "telling the story as it has unfolded over time" (1991:88), elements of case study strategy were adopted in the experimental research phase and elements from a narrative approach with an ethnographic focus, were used in the thesis as the mode for documenting the study (www.Infed.org/research).
It is important to note that, unlike researchers using other qualitative approaches and methods such as case study research or ethnography who tend to be interested observers, in this study I was an active participant (Myers, 2008:57).
Using elements of a narrative approach to management and educational research can be described within the context of the post-modern, which gave me the freedom as writer/researcher to be personally present in the text as opposed to being the third person writing in a passive voice, the traditionally required 'objective' researcher. Dane asserts that "research is an activity, and an active voice conveys that notion" (1990:214), this is substantiated by Van Maanen (1988, cited in Sikes & Gale, 2006) who suggests that by writing in an active voice (confessional tale) the researcher 'tells it as it was' rather than following traditional, formulaic and 'objective' structures that tell of neat, tidy, unproblematic research projects.
The use of a descriptive story of the journey allowed me to capture the socio-cultural setting in which the learning occurred and helped "â€¦make explicit some of the implicit knowledge used to understand and implement the intervention" (Hoadley, 2002: 2).
For most people, storytelling is a natural way of recounting experience, a practical solution to a fundamental problem in life, creating reasonable order out of experience (Moen, 2006:2).
In this thesis I adopted a multi-voiced reporting style, where the views and expressions of all the participants were incorporated into my story. Their voices are actively heard in Phase 7 and 8 where extracts from their written and oral data are reproduced verbatim. On completion of the draft, this report was given to them to read and validate and this factor influenced the style of writing used.
A researcher's scientific beliefs or research philosophy is influenced by the researcher's social purpose or what he/she wants to achieve in the social world and why. According to Whitehead and McNiff:
A strong relationship exists between what you hope to achieve in terms of your existence as a human being and your ontological, epistemological and methodological assumptions, which can influence each other and transform each other (2006:24).
They also suggest that:
Where research traditions differ is how they perceive the positioning of the researcher (ontological commitments), the relationship between the knower and what is known (epistemological commitments), the processes of generating knowledge (methodological commitments), and the goals of research in terms of how the knowledge will be used (social commitments) (2006:22).
Ontology refers to a theory of being, which influences how we perceive ourselves in relation to our environment (Whitehead & McNiff 2006:10).
Action research aims to contribute both to the practical concerns of people in an immediate problematic situation and to the goals of social science by joint collaboration within a mutually acceptable ethical framework (Rapoport, 1970: 499).
This can be seen as problematic in the reporting stage because
The boundaries between people begin to dissolve, as people see themselves as united in a common endeavour to improve their own circumstances and questions can arise about who tells the research story, whose voice is heard, and who speaks on behalf of whom (Whitehead & McNiff 2006:11).
A participative and subjective approach to research is therefore inherent in action research and as Burr argues, objectivity is:
an impossibility, since each of us, of necessity, must encounter the world from some perspective or other (from where we stand) and the questions we come to ask about that world, our theories and hypothesis, must also of necessity arise from the assumptions that are embedded in our perspective". She continues by saying that "The task of researchers therefore becomes to acknowledge and even to work with their own intrinsic involvement in the research process and the part this plays in the results that are produced. Researchers must view the research process as necessarily a co-production between themselves and the people they are researching (1995:160 cited in Colombo, 2003).
Due to my active participation in the study, I acknowledge the inherent subjectivity of this study as well as the impact it has had on both the process and the outcomes of this research. As I reviewed my personal journals and field notes my own emotional reaction to certain events and people was evident and sometimes contradictory inner voices emerged, some of these have been included in the text.
However, I subscribe to Whitehead's theory of the individual 'I' which is always seen to exist in company with other individual 'I's', where meanings and commitments flow between lives, and people perceive themselves not as separate entities, though still unique individuals, but as sharing the same life space as others (Rayner 2002; 2003;Whitehead 2005).
Epistemology (Whitehead & McNiff 2006:23) refers to a theory of knowledge, which involves two parts:
A theory of knowledge (what is known); and
A theory of knowledge acquisition (how it becomes known)
Heron (1981; 1982) suggests that action research implies that knowledge includes multiple ways of knowing and that the epistemology of action research should include:
Propositional knowing - based on theories or received wisdom;
Experimental knowledge - gained through the direct encounter with people, places or things;
Practical knowledge - gained through the doing of things; and
Presentational knowledge - gained by ordering our tacit experiential knowledge into patterns.
According to Carr and Kemmis (1986:42) teachers (in my case a facilitator of an educational process) have professional common-sense knowledge. In addition, they have ideas about educational theory, a philosophical outlook, and social and moral theories. Knowledge has the capacity to change as knowledge and thinking changes, therefore, on the basis of this reflexivity or capacity to change, new forms of social life can be created or reconstructed.
Action research is based on the epistemological assumption that the purpose of action research and discourse is not just to describe, understand and explain the world but also to change it (Reason & Torbett, 2001). Goodson and Walker state that "the task of research is to make sense of what we know (1991:107)" and the sense we make is determined by the selection and politics of our approach.
In this study, a reflective process inherent in action research was used for sense-making or making tacit knowledge explicit. This sense-making was introduced to the reader through a description of how the project was conceived, what was intended, the cycles of action throughout the process and an analysis of both the intended and unintended outcomes.
When reviewing my epistemological stance the comment by Whitehead and McNiff was particularly apt. They state that in action research "knowledge is created, not discovered. This is usually a process of trial and error. Provisional answers, and the process itself, are always open to critique" (2006:27).
Methodologies refer to the way that research is conducted. I found the following paragraph from Whitehead and McNiff useful in this regard and the methodology used in this study has been guided by these assumptions.
Unlike traditional social science, action enquiries do not aim for closure, nor do practitioners expect to find certain answers. The process itself is the methodology (Mellor 1998), and is frequently untidy, haphazard and experimental. Richard Winter (1998) talks about 'improvisatory self-realisation in action research', where a certain degree of entrepreneurialism is involved; and Marian Dadds and Susan Hart (2001) talk about 'methodological inventiveness', where we try multiple innovative ways until we find the one that is right for us. We look out for what might be a useful way forward, and try it out. One step leads to another, and one cycle of action-reflection leads to another. (â€¦) Traditional ways of doing research offer a completed story. Action researchers let their own story evolve. It is as much about the storyteller as about the story (Whitehead & McNiff 2006:30).
Soltis believes that researchers should observe the 'non-negotiable' values of "honesty, fairness, respect for persons and beneficence" (1989:129). This ties in with one of the aims of the study of 'locating the programme in values of equality and justice with respect for human dignity'. In practice this meant being open and honest about the research, its purpose and application; obtaining informed consent from the participants in the process and assuring them of their right to withdraw from the process at any time without penalty. It also meant not harming the company or participants and if possible, leaving them in a better position.
The research process and findings were guided by the ethical consideration of protecting participants' identities and obtaining permission to use their personal development journals and other documents owned by them, as well as obtaining participant validation of this thesis.
The aim of action research is to improve and involve. To improve meant change that was not always comfortable for the participants and throughout the study I endeavoured to adhere to the ideal that everybody has the right to act, the right to be heard and the right to chose.
Hussey and Hussey state that, "Whatever the purpose of the research, empirical evidence is required. They define empirical evidence as, "data based on observation or experience" (1997:10).
According to Eriksson & Kovalainen
One of the challenges of action research in comparison with many other 'research methods' is that data analysis is often done collaboratively with the organization, group of people or community involved. This is to ensure the closeness of results to the organization/group/community in question. At the same time, the analysis needs to fulfil the 'academic requirements', thus often including both language and tools not known to 'laypeople'. Therefore, it is important to add transparency and translation of the analysis of the data to the aim of interventions planned and action planning (2008:202)
In this study, data based on observation was collected through the use of detailed field notes which provided a running account of what happened throughout the process and data based on experience was collected as personal notes in the form of a journal which included notes to myself and a record of my reflections, my feelings and reactions, self doubts and questions, anger and frustrations, and delights. Throughout the study I was meticulous in compiling and updating the field notes and my journal.
Records of meetings and informal interviews and discussions with participants and other stakeholders, as well as the emerging managers' personal development journals recording their stages of development provided additional collaborative sources of data.
Each of the data collection methods used in this research project could be considered part of an overall approach to improving the quality and validity of the research data through an approach known as data triangulation. This would also counter the possibility of low reliability.