THE ACTION RESEARCH CASE STUDY: How Consultants and Managers Evolve Their Interventions The MSC Program: Organization Development (MSOD)
The "Action Research Case Study" aims at learning by reflecting and doing: During the research on their own practice, the students in the MSOD program go beyond the interpretation of their own practice. Thus they close the action research circle (observation—interpretation—planning—implementation—observation: see 2.4) within the framework of a Master's thesis. The problem-solving cycle of action research itself becomes an object of the master's thesis.
The students examine ongoing change processes, they are involved in as consultants or leaders or project managers and thus become practitioners who reflect on and create their own futures. The change case becomes a research project during the production of the master's thesis. Thus the practitioners are challenged to think in multiple systems and frameworks, which is also in accordance with the requirements of organization development.
Figure 5.3. The action research case study as master's thesis (Spindler, 2010).
This additional level of metareflection and learning is interwoven with the complete concept of the Master's program. In this process the perspective of observation and the various functions of the practitioner as researcher and actor receive special attention. As self-observing systems, social systems are learning systems which develop in ways that influence their future through the process of self-observation. How they perceive themselves has a great impact on their actions and development which implies that they are learning systems. For this reason, they cannot be considered stable realities because they are in a state of permanent change. Many people have noticed that how an organization is perceived strongly depends on which people, departments, leaders, and employees are observing it. The various self-observations of the social system and the differences in individual impressions are important elements of respective social realities (see Grossmann & Scala, 2012).
The complex requirements for understanding of interventions by organization development practitioners are accordingly the focus of the complexity of the organization as living system (see Grossmann & Scala, 2012)
The student as practitioner is interwoven with the complex self-steering system and thus obtains insight into its logic. His or her capability to reflect becomes the starting point for his or her own learning and the change of the whole system. Therefore it is important for the practitioner to be clear about the different functions—for example: line management, internal consultant, project manager or researcher: From which perspective do I interpret my actions at this moment? What is my goal from each of my perspectives? From which perspective do I set which intervention? In which context am I interwoven in which function at this moment?
Dealing with the following questions was central to the support of the practitioners:
• What do I do when my procedures fail? Is my Master's thesis then also a failure?
• What do I do when the change process varies from the goal, the time frame, and so forth?
• How can I effectively limit the change process so that I can use my ability to act in these various functions and roles well?
System definition: Finding the right system framework for entry into the change process which will be worked on in the Master's thesis—that is, the action research case—is usually a tedious process. The concept of the "case for action" (Prammer, 2010, p. 12) has proved helpful for this investigation and decision. This approach places the future both as a picture and as the energy for change in the center of the work.
The special learning focus in the "action research case study" is observation and learning "with the engine running."
This action research approach for the intervention practice of the practitioner (and of course also for the case) is especially supported by the research and intervention laboratory situation of the program, which is integrated into the program of 2 years. In this protected and supervised "action research laboratory," the consequences of the students' own interventions can be meticulously studied and plans for interventions can be developed and evaluated.
Support for the case studies is given through the guidelines of the master's program:
• A requirement for admission to the program is that the applicant has a case study which can serve as the basis for the master's thesis. Special attention is paid to this in the application interview.
• The contents of the MSOD program is systematically designed so that the case developments and the students' own interventions can be reflected on. Special consideration is paid to the principle of case studies in the methodological-didactical planning of the seminars.
• Professional supervision of the cases and of the students' own actions is provided in stable coaching groups.
• A mentor relationship is established between the student and a manager of the company for which the student works, which is also the location of the case study. This ensures that the student's work on the case study has the company's backing and facilitates the company's learning from the case study.
• Three workshops with consulting and scientific support of the case studies focus on enjoying the case studies through scientific and simultaneously learning-orientated work. Special attention is paid to the selection and boundaries of the case study in order to maximize the student's learning in his or her own role.
• The students consider the peer groups for reflection on their master's theses to be a special support, both "emotionally and with regard to content."
This multidimensional, tailor-made approach to the students' own interventions in the case has proven itself valuable for organizational development over the years because of the developments and learning requirements which are relevant to the case: these are individualized with regard to the practitioners and their professional backgrounds. Through this, customized learning paths and action solutions are considered and supported, for the students and indirectly for their organizations as well.
Examples of master's thesis topics from these programs give an idea of the complexity which the students have to deal with in their cases and intervention research:
• Title: Organizational transformation through reorganization of ICT services in the area of conflict between national and international changes
The strategy process of a private hospital was the motive for moving toward centralization of its ICT services. The 3-year ICT project turned out to be an important catalyst to balance national and international organization and leadership dynamics for the hospital.
• Title: Development of cooperation spanning organizations and regions. Critical observation of and learning from the roll-out phase
The head office of a health insurance fund pursued the goal of increasing the quality of its patient services as "case management." The implementation process and roll-out phase required the collaboration of the stakeholders.
• Title: Steering actions in public administration for education— dealing with momentum for change
Massive criticism by teachers created an urgent need for a Ministry of Education to implement a project considering decentralization of decisions relating to choice and application of teaching material. The long-term project weakened the "hierarchic-bureaucratic patterns."
Perception and mastery of complexity, the alternation between action and reflection are at the center. Metalearning for complex, organized change situations is essential:
• Recognition of the connection between one's own perception and intervention.
• The necessity of questioning one's own mindsets, intervention sets and problem-solving patterns.
• Connecting one's own various observation perspectives with various links to action.
• Adapting one's own intervention capabilities in organizational contexts by changing and broadening one's observation perspective.
This type of learning and intervening is essential in complex change processes which are facing an uncertain future.