Action Research Applied

Review on the paper ‚Organizational Change and Managerial Sensemaking: Working through Paradox‘ by Lüscher and Lewis

17 December 2014

Abstract

The purpose of this paper is to provide an overview of how Lüscher and Lewis applied action research in their article Organizational Change and Managerial Sensemaking: Working through Paradox published in the Academy of Management Journal in 2008.

Dieser Artikel gibt einen Überblick darüber wie Lüscher und Lewis Action Research in ihrem Artikel Organizational Change and Managerial Sensemaking: Working through Paradox (2008) angewandt haben.

Introduction

In their article Lüscher (in the following: the first author) and Lewis (in the following: the second author) address the following research questions: What does organisational change mean for middle managers? What challenges do come up? What actions are useful to address these challenges? Consequently, during their collaborative and interventive action research addressing middle managers, the authors detect three aspects of organisational change: Paradoxes of performing, belonging and organising. These paradoxes, being used as lenses rather than labels, help the researchers and their subjects work through times of change at the Danish Lego Company. Especially Lego middle managers are affected by a restructuration that targeted the implementation of self-managed teams. The restructuration leads middle managers to a struggle for meaning whilst facing various, novel challenges. Thus, a longitudinal qualitative study following action research seemed suitable to make sense of the Lego change process, first being highly interactive and second, regarding both researcher and subjects as active contributors to the research process. The overall objective of the researchers is to provide practical contributions by means of action research.

Methodology

Rationale
The authors’ rationale choosing action research can be considered two-fold. First, they find studies to managerial sensemaking to be rare. Second, their aim is to understand how middle management interprets organisational change, meaning how their cognitive framings change and adapt. Action research combines collaborative intervention and reflection. Since the researchers decide to work closely with their subjects on a matter of personal concern, action research seems suitable. Part of that process will be managerial actions following intervention then contributing to practice.

Relevance and rigor consequently serve as interwoven criteria of quality. Relevance is defined by a valuation of both, the subjects and social science. Rigor then complements relevance. Maintaining certain closeness to positivist research, rigor accounts for sticking closely to perceptions of researchers and subjects. Therefore, an iterative process of data collection, analysis and systematic triangulation of various perspectives are crucial.

Practical application
I will briefly outline the purpose of action research, the focus group, the role of the researcher and the research process, before focusing on data collection and data analysis. The authors’ intention is to provide contributions that are applicable to managerial practice and inform research. In the case of Lego that means to help managers make sense of their cognitive disorders whilst extending a theoretical understanding of managerial sensemaking. Therefore, the authors choose production managers as focus group. These middle managers are characterised by forming a link between decision-making and daily operations. Meanwhile, the researchers perceive their role as being facilitators and forming an active part of the research scene. The research process itself is guided by social constructivism implying to advance collaboratively and iteratively. It is then guided

  • first by an identification of concerns leading to a plan for intervention,
  • second, by the implementation of sparring sessions,
  • third, by an evaluation informed by review sessions.

The subsequent insights cycled back into the intervention plan.

Data collection and data analysis are informed by three phases: groundwork, intervention and theory building. During the write-up the authors attribute time slots to these phases yet they stress that the phases have considerably overlapped.

Groundwork starts in May 1999 with a phase of data collection, which consists of primary data such as semi-structured interviews with managers and their executive director and secondary, archival data like public information from e.g. newspapers. The authors will later on also define groundwork as a time of mess and unclarity

Interventions dominate the research process since fall 1999. Then, data collection takes place during interventive, individual and team sparring sessions of about ninety minutes with all managers. However, not directly recorded to ease tension, the sessions are taped via dictaphone and logbook depicting concerns, central issues, researchers’ questions, impressions and summary. Additionally, a Lego facilitator observes the sessions, thus contributing to triangulation. In this regard, triangulation is characterised by data gathered by the researchers and the observer. Consequently, the researchers analyse data trying to identify emerging patterns relating to manager roles, relationships and organisation. The subsequent review sessions with the focus group serve to evaluate emerging patterns of managerial issues and sensemaking. This is when theory building first starts. Yet, since the authors are moving in an iterative, cycling process of data collection and analysis, a later stage of intervention will be explained as well.

At a later stage of intervention, sparring sessions are shaped by methods of interventive questioning consisting of five sorts of questions in order to tease out cognitive disorder. Linear questioning helps to define a specific problem and to raise awareness. Circular questions help to detect tensions and feelings of being stuck. Reflexive questions address existing frames and paradoxes and lead to double loop learning meaning a change to the way people think. Interventive questioning shifts thinking further. Finally, strategic questioning challenges existing frameworks and leads to thought experiments.

Theory building starts in October 2000 and happens in various phases. Initially, data collection mainly depicts sparring sessions that are dedicated to managerial issues and emerging patterns of sensemaking as mentioned previously. The first author shapes data analysis who perceives repeating indicators. Therefore, she turns to comparing emerging patterns to literature and finally ends up comparing the findings to theory on paradox which she finds fitting in that case. A subsequent review session with the focus group leads to a common understanding of evident managerial paradoxes. Taking paradox as the starting point to a rather inductive research process and theory building, more review sessions and outsider perspectives circle around that topic until the write-up of the final report in spring 2002. The circling process is shaped by the first researcher feeding back identified issues and patterns to the focus group. Meanwhile, the second researcher, who joins the study at a later stage, criticizes identified patterns and poses alternative explanations. Now, the researchers’ target is to craft a theoretical model. Yet, before doing so, they need another phase of data collection to verify the path to the model. That phase is first shaped by review sessions with the focus group to elaborate on emerging, model-related themes, observed by Lego consultants who again take an outsider perspective. Second, the researchers conduct semi-structured interviews with top executives on how the restructuring has impacted the production managers. Collaborative theory building then leads to the theory of paradox and is conceptualized as paradox of performing, belonging and organizing. The final phase of theory building is characterized by sparring that becomes essential to dealing with paradoxes. Going back and forth within these paradoxes, then using them as a lense helps to re-examine the initial themes.

In sum, data collection is characterised by tapping on multiple viewpoints beyond these of the focus group. However, the selection of the focus group itself happens deliberately. First, the first researcher already knows the division due to former training: Access is eased. Second, the production managers in the chosen manufacturing division in Billund, Denmark form a microcosm of their own. Third, the executive director shares and supports the researchers’ interest in sensemaking and change.

Data analysis is shaped by iterative cycling and triangulation. Moving back and forth between emerging themes characterises iterative cycling. Triangulation bases on interaction and negotiation of reality leading to findings. Both aspects can be regarded as contribution to the consciously chosen social constructivist approach. In this regard, social constructivism is further characterised by the researchers actively involving and interacting with their subjects whilst acknowledging that in doing so, they influence the study itself.

Presentations of the research and findings

After a brief to the point-introduction, the authors provide a literature review, which is kept concise mainly providing a theoretical base as a starting point to their action research. The subsequent methods section is rather extensive including both, premises of action and design of the study. Premises of action are outlined by references to action research. The study design itself is detailed by time planning. In sum, the methods section is a rather exact description of the intersubjective comprehensibility of methodological decisions during the process of action research. The findings are presented in great detail. The section depicts the process of action research and shows tabulated findings. Also, findings are presented narratively, giving repeatedly voice to the subjects using direct and indirect quotes. Thus, the presentation of findings becomes quite vivid despite them being compared to existing literature constantly. The discussion combines a brief summary of findings with an extensive section dedicated to the practical and theoretical contributions of the research. The subsequent section outlining the limitations of the study displays a logic and detailed reflectivity of the researchers. The conclusion is brief, mainly depicting final implications.

Evaluation

General
The following evaluation will account for both, a theoretical and personal evaluation of the paper of Lüscher and Lewis. First, I rate credibility high since the outlined theoretical foundation to the study of sensemaking and change was limited. Therefore, first, bringing together action research with managerial sensemaking seems logical and second, the collaborative and interventive approach seems not only accessible but also beneficial to the subjects themselves.

Second, transferability seems given due to restructuring processes forming part of firms’ daily agendas. However, I do question the transferability of the researchers’ approach to facilitation. I do not doubt the approach in itself, I actually regard it quite applicable. But I would hold that following the same approach in another firm will require similar executive support and a clear assignment to a person or team in charge, thus capable of dedicating time and energy to the change project. Third, I rate dependability quite high due to a high transparency of how and why data is collected, a detailed timeline, tabulation of findings and repeatedly mentioned interview protocols, log book, recordings and notes. Finally, confirmability is given due to the on-going linkage of data and emerging themes to existing literature. During the literature review the authors describe a theoretical base, methodology is explained in detail and findings are extensively related to literature of organisational change and sensemaking.

Limitations outlined by Lüscher and Lewis
Before describing the practical implications of the study to my research, I would like to briefly outline the limitations mainly referring to the paper and the authors themselves. I will do so because I really appreciate the reflectivity and I could not have critiqued the overall approach any better myself. Lüscher and Lewis regard the impact of their study as limited by the design mainly combining action research and sensemaking. Additionally, they question their own, limited viewpoint foremost addressing paradoxes. Also, they wonder about the long-term impact of their study, since when they finished their study all they took with them was the promise of various middle managers to continue with sparring sessions. Ultimately, the authors address the concern of generalizability based on their limited focus on Lego middle managers.

Summary

In the following section I will address lessons learned and practical implications. Relating to lessons learned, I have received a confirmation of a gut feeling: Even though researchers conduct research, they can contribute practically to personal concerns of their subjects. I also liked the detailed, very narrative description of the iterative cycling process focusing on one case. It helped me understand that there is nothing wrong with getting lost and letting the reader feel it. Yet, the authors finally achieve to formulate a theoretical model that I find to be accessible and practical. In sum, I enjoyed reading the paper of Lüscher and Lewis since it provided a good overview of action research and sensemaking in the context of managerial change.

Reference

Lüscher, L. S., & Lewis, M. W. (2008). Organizational change and managerial sensemaking: Working through paradox. Academy of Management Journal, 51(2), 221-240.

This post is part of a weekly series of articles by doctoral candidates of the Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society. It does not necessarily represent the view of the Institute itself. For more information about the topics of these articles and associated research projects, please contact presse@hiig.de.

This post represents the view of the author and does not necessarily represent the view of the institute itself. For more information about the topics of these articles and associated research projects, please contact info@hiig.de.

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