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Information systems action research: serving two demanding masters
Information systems action research: serving two demanding masters
About the Guest Editors Ned Kock is CIGNA Research Fellow in the Fox School of Business and Management, and teaches information systems courses in the departments of Management Information Systems and Computer and Information Sciences, Temple University, Philadelphia, USA. He has also worked as a systems analyst and organizational development consultant since 1987. Branches of the Brazilian, New Zealand, and US governments, as well as several private organizations in these countries have funded his research.Francis Lau is based at the School of Health and Information Science at the University of Victoria, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. He specializes in the design, implementation, and evaluation of information technology (IT) in health organizations. He has been actively engaged in IT planning, systems development and implementation, and management consulting during the past 12 years, mostly in health. Currently, he is conducting action research in the areas of virtual teams, knowledge management, improvisation of IT in organizations, and evaluation of IT effectiveness.
"Special issues" of journals usually try to bring a specific topic to the attention of the research community. This is our goal with this special issue on action research (AR) in information systems (IS). Mirroring what happens in other fields (Ledford and Mohrman, 1993), action research has been consistently under-represented in the field of IS (Lau, 1997). We hope that, with this special issue, action research will be practised more widely and better understood within the IS research community.
Many definitions of AR exist; perhaps too many for a research approach that is not yet widely accepted in IS. Still, a careful look at the core essence of different definitions highlights one common characteristic, which is that action research has a dual goal of benefiting a research "client" and, at the same time, generating relevant "research knowledge". In the field of IS, the research client is usually an organization to which the researcher provides "services" such as consultation, change facilitation, and software development in return for access to research data (and, in many cases, research funding). In a smaller number of cases, the client of IS action research may be a group of people or even a single individual detached from any organizational context, e.g. a patient at a clinic who uses a computer system designed by an IS action researcher to aid in his/her cure.
Whatever the case, the IS action researcher serves two different "masters", namely the research client and the research community as a whole. The needs of these two masters are usually entirely different, and sometimes conflict with each other. Fulfilling them is rarely easy, and certainly the main challenge that all IS action researchers have to face.
Origins of this project
If we were to trace back the origins of this special issue, the defining point would probably be the publication of Lau's (1997) widely cited "A review on the use of action research in information systems studies". The paper was subsequently used by Richard Baskerville to organize a workshop on IS action research at Georgia State University, in October 1998. This workshop planted the seeds for the panel "IS action research: can we serve two masters?" at the 1999 Internal Conference on Information Systems (December 1999, Charlotte, NC), and, eventually, this special issue.
Our initial goal was to model this special issue on the two 1993 special issues on action research of the journal Human Relations (Elden and Chisholm, 1993). As such, we wanted to publish a small number of papers that reflected what IS action research is all about. Much to our delight, we received 18 high-quality submissions, from which we were able to accept only six papers (a 30 percent acceptance rate). All papers underwent a rigorous review process, with three to five reviewers serving as referees for each submission. We are indebted to the following 59 reviewers who so generously lent their time and expertise to this special issue: Jos Aarts, David Avison, Richard Baskerville, Joao Batista, Khalid Benbachir, Karin Breu, Frada Burstein, Philip Carter, Akhilesh Chandra, Mike Chiasson, Robert Davison, Kay Fielden, Mauricio Fortes, Shirley Gregor, Michael Gurstein, Ray Hackney, Salmela Hannu, Niall Hayes, Sue Holwell, Jim Huges, Ric Jentzsch, Sten Jonsson, Ann Karjalainen, Linda Levine, Henry Linger, Steve Little, Louis Ma, Shirin Madon, Donald McDermid, Joe McDonaugh, Judy McKay, Bob McQueen, Gavin Melles, Ramiro Montealegre, Enid Mumford, Michael Myers, Peter Axel Nielsen, Sue Nielsen, John Nosek, David Paper, Macario Polo, Sundeep Sahay, Airi Salminen, Suprateek Sarker, Steven Sawyer, Susan Scott, Leiser Silva, Rolf Solli, Paul Swatman, Judith Symonds, Leonie Thomas, Toomas Timpka, Julie Travis, David Tuffley, Klaus Turowski, Morten Vendelo, Geoff Walsham, Dave Wastell, and Pak Yoong.
Three of the accepted papers are considered "conceptual" in that they offer new insights on different ways to view and conduct action research in IS. The remaining three papers are recent field studies done using action research as the methodology. Together, these six papers provide a set of exemplary cases that can be used to guide students, researchers, and practitioners alike who are interested in understanding, reviewing, or conducting action research studies in IS.
In her paper "Advice for an action researcher", Enid Mumford draws on her extensive experience using action research as a method for assisting the successful democratic design and implementation of information systems in organizations. She discusses the role and problems of the socio-technical action researcher at different stages of a project, and provides valuable suggestions for action researchers.
In their paper "Controlling action research projects", David Avison, Richard Baskerville, and Michael Myers argue that, in IS action research, findings have frequently been emphasized at the expense of the research process. They suggest that greater emphasis given to the research process can improve the rigor of IS action research. Their paper focuses on the issue of control in action research projects, and three of its key aspects: the procedures for initiating an action research project, those for determining authority within the project, and the degree of formalization of the project. Seven recent IS action research projects are carefully analyzed and compared, and recommendations are drawn for the establishment of control structures in future IS action research projects.
In their paper "The dual imperatives of action research", Judy McKay and Peter Marshall develop an argument for a deeper and more reflective analysis of the meaning and full implications of action research, culminating in a very interesting and enlightening model of action research with two concurrent cycles. These cycles are a "problem solving interest cycle" and a "research interest cycle". Important implications of this new model are articulated and illustrated through a real-life action research study.
In his paper "GSS and action research in the Hong Kong police", Robert Davison investigates the application of action research to explore how a group support system (GSS) can enrich the training of police officers. The use of an action research philosophy enabled the facilitation of the sessions to be tailored so as to meet the on-going needs of the officers in a precise and focused manner, with the result that their learning effectiveness increased as the sessions proceeded. A candid evaluation of action research is offered, and the issue of rigor in action research is examined.
In their paper "Action learning and groupware technologies: a case study in GSS facilitation research", Pak Yoong and Brent Gallupe describe an action learning approach to the training of GSS facilitators. The paper begins with a description of the different schools of action learning. The application of the "experiential" school of action learning in GSS facilitation training is then explained. Finally, the paper discusses lessons learned for both practitioners and researchers.
In their paper "System development conflict during the use of an information systems prototyping method of action research: implications for practice and research", Mike Chiasson and Albert S. Dexter investigate an action research investigation that resulted in a period of intense structural conflict, and the dismissal of an organizational member. They employed Boehm's information system prototyping (ISP) spiral model in the development of an electronic patient record in a heart clinic.
Serving two demanding masters
As mentioned before, a distinctive characteristic of action research is the fact that there are two "masters", so to speak, which need to be served by the researcher. These are the research client, often an organization (or its members) with IS-related needs, and the IS research community. Since serving only one, the research community, is often seen as challenging enough by most IS researchers, it is very reasonable to ask the question: Why have two masters in the first place?
Much of the literature on action research suggests a bizarre answer to the question above. That is that action researchers are masochists, who like to work harder, deal with more "real world" problems, and face more difficulties getting their work published than their colleagues who do experimental, survey, and case research (Kock, 1997; Kock et al., 1997; Rapoport, 1970; Sommer, 1994).
Another, perhaps more plausible answer to the question is that serving the needs of practitioners, as well as those of the research community, adds elements to the research that make its outcomes more desirable. Perhaps the most important is that action research is, by definition, relevant to practitioners. Recently, there has been much discussion about the role of relevance in IS research and its relationship with rigor (Lee, 1999). It has been argued that rigorous research can often be irrelevant (Davenport and Markus, 1999), and that much of the relevant research currently conducted ends up not being published in academic outlets because it does not conform to traditional standards for rigorous research. In our view, the dual goal of action research provides a partial solution to this problem.
To be sure, the scope of relevance of IS action research findings to practitioners may vary. For example, the outcomes of an action research study may be relevant to a single company, if the problems addressed through the research are specific to that company. The outcomes may be relevant to a whole industry, if the problems are faced by all (or most) companies in the industry; to a whole sector of the economy, if the problems are faced by all (or most) companies in the sector in question, and so on. But, broad or narrow, the relevance will "always" be there.
Action research versus positivism
We would like to end this editorial with a comment regarding the debate as to whether action research is opposed to positivism. It has often been argued that action research is inherently opposed to positivism (Kock et al., 1997; Reason, 1993). This argument is in our view misplaced, since action research and positivism can hardly be placed in the same conceptual category. Action research is a research approach, like experimental research, not an epistemology, like positivism or interpretivism. Thus comparing action research with positivism, is equivalent to comparing a "painting technique" (e.g. oil painting) with a "school of painting" (e.g. Impressionism).
Yet, dismissing the claim that action research is opposed to positivism does not mean the same as suggesting that action research is an appropriate approach for testing models or sets of hypotheses. On the contrary, our experience suggests that action research is particularly useful for the development of theoretical models in the field of IS, and not particularly useful for testing theoretical models. That is, action research is not well suited for positivist research.
Of course, one may choose to conduct an action research investigation in a manner that is characteristic of positivist investigations. For example, one may try to test a model (or a set of hypotheses) by conducting an action research study. The problem with this choice is that the lack of control and narrowly focused data collection, which is typical in action research, will almost always ensure that such tests do not conform to well-established positivist methodological standards. In consequence, reports generated based on the study will be questioned based on methodological standards and likely denied publication in "top-tier" outlets. We can also add to this that IS action research is not a very "efficient" model-testing approach, as it requires considerably more time and effort from the researcher than using, say, experimental research, to reach similar outcomes.
Action research is not opposed to positivism. It is simply not very appropriate for positivist inquiry. Once this fact is well understood and accepted by the IS research community, perhaps a new sets of standards will emerge on which to assess rigor in IS action research. Maybe then the debate between action researchers and practitioners of other research approaches that fall into the broader category of "positivist research" will be replaced by mutual cooperation in attempts to answer longstanding research questions.
Ned Kock Temple University, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA
Francis LauUniversity of Victoria, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada
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