Exploring the Exciting Possibilities of Action Research Consulting

I really appreciated the experience of working with two of my classmates on an in-class case study. What struck me was that it was not so hard – it was tiring, but not incredibly difficult in the way I remember analyzing a piece of literature to be difficult. I have some doubts about group work, so this experience alone made me less afraid of the group project ahead and of working with an outside organization. 

I was really interested in the point that the purpose of all the exercises we did during the in-class case study was to allow our conversations on the topic to deepen and evolve. It was interesting that none of the exercises we did were so important in and of themselves, and none of the exercises was a goal in and of itself as a finished deliverable, but that the deepening of our understandings of each other and the situation at hand, as reflected in our verbal conversation, was the goal of the exercises. 

Understanding the goal of our action research consultancy as being to deepen conversations within the client organization around the nature of its own challenging situations lifts a great deal of the anxiety I have previously associated with consulting. I used to think that a consultant was an “expert” who would enter the consulting situation already armed with useful insights, impressively convey those to the organization’s leadership, and at the end of the process somehow transfer over to them a deep understanding of their situation, challenges and solutions. Instead, we are saying that to enter a situation with an expert’s mindset and a set of answers would be a mistake. As the Zen master Suzuki Roshi famously stated, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.”

We can of course become more adept with study and experience at pulling from an increasingly large toolbox of frameworks, ideas, activities, and questions that could be applied to the situation as they are deemed useful. But these tools are elements of a process, not answers. Indeed, this approach is more process-oriented than it is results-oriented because in fact it is through the process of exploring the organization’s situation with its staff that we deepen our understanding of it. And I can see it would be much more valuable to help initiate a habit and a culture of exploring the issues within an organization than it would to come up with one possible solution to one pressing issue, because problems will continue to arise and need to be solved long after the consultants have left.

Another meditation reference comes to mind, which is the fact that practicing meditation in and of itself does not solve any of your problems. Frequently people come to meditation hoping for some solutions or answers to problems in their life. But the process of sitting still and letting the contents of your mind settle gradually allows for clearer seeing and for insight to arise. In the end, you still have to solve your own problems, but you can see your situation more clearly and consequently better ideas for solutions may occur to you. Or perhaps you can gain a different perspective on your problem that leads you to approach it in a new way.

I am also interested in this action research consulting’s emphasis on the primacy and importance of conversation. I’m currently looking at aspects of the dominant “white culture” and it occurs to me that the idea that conversation is important could actually be seen as revolutionary according to the dominant, white style of working. One characteristic of white dominant culture as it shows up in organizations is the “worship of the written word,” the idea that “if it’s not in a memo, it doesn’t exist.”[1] This is no doubt why the action research method is often contrasted with a “traditional” consulting approach involving structured meetings, interviews, and reports, instead of open conversation. I would guess that for many other cultures, a conversation-based approach may be the more intuitive one.

How my understanding of organizational sustainability ideas has changed over time: since I wrote the last essay, the ideas have gone from being purely theoretical to completely practical. I certainly do not know how to apply everything I have read, but the experience of the in-class case study has made me see better how to use frameworks and do exercises with a group. Overall, I am starting to see the ideas as more practical and applicable to social change work, whether or not I currently know how to use them.

Originally written on February 18, 2017 for a graduate course on organizational sustainability.


[1]Compiled from Dismantling Racism: A Workbook for Social Change Groups, by Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun, ChangeWork, 2001. http://www.cwsworkshop.org/PARC_site_B/dr-culture.html