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Systemic action research

Systemic action research: A strategy for whole system change

Danny Burns
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  • Book Info
    Systemic action research
    Book Description:

    Systemic Action Research works with real social and organisational issues to uncover their complex dynamics, often revealing unexpected opportunities. This book shows how this process can be integrated, in any context, to the process of social and organisational development and change. The book explains how systemic thinking works and how Systemic Action Research can be embedded into organisational structures and processes to catalyse sustainable change and critical local interventions. Practically written, it details how to design a programme and build it directly into policy and practice development, extending the possibilities of action research beyond the 'individual' and the 'group' to work across whole organisations, multi agency governance arenas, and networks. The book is filled with illustrative stories and pictures which bring the concepts to life enabling the reader to develop a clear picture of how to put it into practice.Systemic Action Research programmes are now being adopted in Government and local governance contexts as well as in national and international NGOs. This book will be invaluable for experienced action researchers as well as social science and social policy researchers who will benefit from an approach to qualitative research which is participative, grounded in practice and allows systemic understandings of complex problems. Policy makers and practitioners will appreciate a process which generates meaningful evidence about the dynamics of change and offers a tangible system for continuously integrating that learning into both formal and informal decision-making.

    eISBN: 978-1-84742-275-0
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
    (pp. 1-10)

    This book is about achieving holistic change in complex social and organisational settings. This is sometimes called ‘whole system change’. A holistic approach to intervention is crucial because complex issues cannot be adequately comprehended in isolation from the wider system of which they are a part. Things that happen within one arena affect, and are affected by, things that happen in other arenas, in ways which are often not easy to see. It is not enough just toseethings holistically. Effective whole system change has to be underpinned by processes of in-depth inquiry, multi-stakeholder analysis, experimental action and experiential...

  2. ONE Action research
    (pp. 11-20)

    By integrating ‘learning by doing’ with deep reflection, action research has always held the promise of an embedded learning process that can simultaneously inform and create change. The approach has been developed and refined over decades so that it is now able to comprehensively answer challenges about its robustness, rigour and quality¹ (see Chapter Eight), but I will argue it has also been limited by scale, by a linear model of change and by an over-reliance on consensual and dialogic processes which, although important, have neglected the impact of power. This book offers a vision of action research that I...

  3. TWO A systemic perspective
    (pp. 21-40)

    In Chapter One I said that the shift from individual and group–based action research was being triggered by calls for systemic learning processes to address large-scale political and policy change. It is also a response to the challenges posed by complexity and non-linearity. It is to these issues that we now turn. Once we have established why systemic thinking is so important, we can draw out its implications for the action research process. My approach is not to conduct a comprehensive analysis of all of the different variants of systems theory, and then apply my favoured approach to action...

  4. THREE Working across systems
    (pp. 41-54)

    In this chapter I want to explore how an understanding of systemic change can offer strategies for action research facilitators, and for organisations that seek to embed action research into their decision-making structures. By tuning into systemic patterns and to the constellation of local interrelationships, we are able to spot small opportunities for action that may open up unimagined possibilities for larger change. Improvised strategies of this type are dependent firstly on opening multiple spaces for exploration and acting on opportunities as they emerge, and secondly on skilfully weaving them into a coherent narrative. This enables us to be strategic...

  5. FOUR Some systemic action research projects explored
    (pp. 55-84)

    The aim of this chapter is to give a feel for the way in which real action research projects can emerge and evolve across a wide social and organisational terrain. Because of the depth and breadth of each of these projects, the examples focus mostly on design. It would be impossible to do justice to the complex issues that each explored, although I do look at some of the detail of the Bristol Children’s Initiatives (BCI) project in Chapter Six. In this chapter, I explore the two forms of systemic action research that I typified earlier:large system action research...

  6. FIVE Some design principles for systemic action research
    (pp. 85-102)

    Despite the diversity of action research designs represented in the previous chapter, there are a number of underpinning characteristics that need to be reflected in most systemic action research designs. The seven that follow are among the most important:

    an emergent research design

    an exploratory inquiry phase

    multiple inquiry streams operating at different levels

    a structure for connecting organic inquiry to formal decision making

    a process for identifying cross-cutting links across inquiry streams

    a commitment to open boundary inquiry

    The active development of distributed leadership.

    By now it should be clear that the way in which we do our work...

  7. SIX Practices of systemic action inquiry
    (pp. 103-136)

    The approach to action research that we have been developing at SOLAR is built on a learning architecture of parallel but connected action inquiry streams. I have illustrated how these might emerge and what shape they might take in the previous chapter. In this chapter I want to look in more detail at what the individual strands look like. The chapter focuses firstly on dialogic inquiry, secondly on visual inquiry, and finally on embodied inquiry. These give a flavour of some of the practices we use at SOLAR, but they should not be regarded as the only way of doing...

  8. SEVEN Issues for action research facilitators
    (pp. 137-154)

    Action research is a multi-skilled job. It is also one in which action research facilitators may be very exposed. This chapter looks at the complexities of action research from the perspective of action research facilitators and those managing action research projects. It explores the following key issues:

    the relationship of systemic action research facilitators to the research

    key roles for systemic action research facilitators

    recording inquiry group sessions

    support for action research facilitators.

    Although many of the issues that I discuss I would see as relevant to all action research facilitators, my comments are focused on the facilitation of systemic...

  9. EIGHT Quality and ethics in systemic action research
    (pp. 155-172)

    Much of the debate on action research quality has emerged in response to a perception that action research is vulnerable to arguments that it is not ‘scientifically’ robust. Various responses to this have been advanced. Checkland and Holwell’s (1998) view is that because action research is not repeatable, the only way that it can claim validity is for it to clearly articulate its methodology in advance:

    Our argument here is that the aim in AR [action research] should

    be to enact a process based on a declared-in-advance methodology

    (encompassing a particular framework of ideas) in such a way that the...

  10. NINE Systemic action research in policy and politics
    (pp. 173-178)

    Given that this book was not intended to be primarily methodological, it is important to place the issues that it raises in the context of policy and politics. With this in mind I want to conclude succinctly with some implications for organisations and for public participation. In this chapter I highlight the importance of the following:

    building emergence into organisational decision-making processes

    generating a different sort of evidence

    rethinking dissemination and roll-out

    re-assessing investment risk (commissioning uncertainty)

    replacing the principle of consistency with the idea of appropriate action

    enabling sustainable interventions

    re-conceptualising participation.

    One of the biggest challenges facing organisations...