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  • What Is Action Research? | Definition & Examples

What Is Action Research? | Definition & Examples

Published on January 27, 2023 by Tegan George . Revised on January 12, 2024.

Action research Cycle

Table of contents

Types of action research, action research models, examples of action research, action research vs. traditional research, advantages and disadvantages of action research, other interesting articles, frequently asked questions about action research.

There are 2 common types of action research: participatory action research and practical action research.

  • Participatory action research emphasizes that participants should be members of the community being studied, empowering those directly affected by outcomes of said research. In this method, participants are effectively co-researchers, with their lived experiences considered formative to the research process.
  • Practical action research focuses more on how research is conducted and is designed to address and solve specific issues.

Both types of action research are more focused on increasing the capacity and ability of future practitioners than contributing to a theoretical body of knowledge.

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action research in project management

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Action research is often reflected in 3 action research models: operational (sometimes called technical), collaboration, and critical reflection.

  • Operational (or technical) action research is usually visualized like a spiral following a series of steps, such as “planning → acting → observing → reflecting.”
  • Collaboration action research is more community-based, focused on building a network of similar individuals (e.g., college professors in a given geographic area) and compiling learnings from iterated feedback cycles.
  • Critical reflection action research serves to contextualize systemic processes that are already ongoing (e.g., working retroactively to analyze existing school systems by questioning why certain practices were put into place and developed the way they did).

Action research is often used in fields like education because of its iterative and flexible style.

After the information was collected, the students were asked where they thought ramps or other accessibility measures would be best utilized, and the suggestions were sent to school administrators. Example: Practical action research Science teachers at your city’s high school have been witnessing a year-over-year decline in standardized test scores in chemistry. In seeking the source of this issue, they studied how concepts are taught in depth, focusing on the methods, tools, and approaches used by each teacher.

Action research differs sharply from other types of research in that it seeks to produce actionable processes over the course of the research rather than contributing to existing knowledge or drawing conclusions from datasets. In this way, action research is formative , not summative , and is conducted in an ongoing, iterative way.

As such, action research is different in purpose, context, and significance and is a good fit for those seeking to implement systemic change.

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Action research comes with advantages and disadvantages.

  • Action research is highly adaptable , allowing researchers to mold their analysis to their individual needs and implement practical individual-level changes.
  • Action research provides an immediate and actionable path forward for solving entrenched issues, rather than suggesting complicated, longer-term solutions rooted in complex data.
  • Done correctly, action research can be very empowering , informing social change and allowing participants to effect that change in ways meaningful to their communities.


  • Due to their flexibility, action research studies are plagued by very limited generalizability  and are very difficult to replicate . They are often not considered theoretically rigorous due to the power the researcher holds in drawing conclusions.
  • Action research can be complicated to structure in an ethical manner . Participants may feel pressured to participate or to participate in a certain way.
  • Action research is at high risk for research biases such as selection bias , social desirability bias , or other types of cognitive biases .

If you want to know more about statistics , methodology , or research bias , make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples.

  • Normal distribution
  • Degrees of freedom
  • Null hypothesis
  • Discourse analysis
  • Control groups
  • Mixed methods research
  • Non-probability sampling
  • Quantitative research
  • Inclusion and exclusion criteria

Research bias

  • Rosenthal effect
  • Implicit bias
  • Cognitive bias
  • Selection bias
  • Negativity bias
  • Status quo bias

Action research is conducted in order to solve a particular issue immediately, while case studies are often conducted over a longer period of time and focus more on observing and analyzing a particular ongoing phenomenon.

Action research is focused on solving a problem or informing individual and community-based knowledge in a way that impacts teaching, learning, and other related processes. It is less focused on contributing theoretical input, instead producing actionable input.

Action research is particularly popular with educators as a form of systematic inquiry because it prioritizes reflection and bridges the gap between theory and practice. Educators are able to simultaneously investigate an issue as they solve it, and the method is very iterative and flexible.

A cycle of inquiry is another name for action research . It is usually visualized in a spiral shape following a series of steps, such as “planning → acting → observing → reflecting.”

Sources in this article

We strongly encourage students to use sources in their work. You can cite our article (APA Style) or take a deep dive into the articles below.

George, T. (2024, January 12). What Is Action Research? | Definition & Examples. Scribbr. Retrieved January 29, 2024, from https://www.scribbr.com/methodology/action-research/
Cohen, L., Manion, L., & Morrison, K. (2017). Research methods in education (8th edition). Routledge.
Naughton, G. M. (2001).  Action research (1st edition). Routledge.

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Please note you do not have access to teaching notes, using action research in innovation project management: building legitimacy and organizational learning in an sme during a merger process.

International Journal of Managing Projects in Business

ISSN : 1753-8378

Article publication date: 23 June 2021

Issue publication date: 1 March 2023

The purpose is to explore how the process of action research (AR) can support building legitimacy and organizational learning in innovation project management and portfolio practices in merger contexts.


Meta-reflection on method issues in Action Research through an action research case study with an innovation group during an organizational change process. This case demonstrates an example of an action research cycle focused on building practitioner legitimacy rather than problem-solving.

Key findings include (1) demonstrating how AR can be used for building legitimacy through visualizing the innovation process, and embedding those visuals in top management practices of the organization; and (2) demonstrating how AR can work as an organizational learning tool in merger contexts.

Research limitations/implications

This study focuses on an action research cooperation during a two-and-a-half-year period. Thus, findings offer the depth of a medium term case study. The processes of building legitimacy represent this particular case, and can be investigated in other organizational contexts to see the extent to which these issues can be generalized.

Practical implications

For researchers, this paper offers an additional type of AR cycle to consider in their research design which can be seen as demonstrating a form of interplay between practitioner action and organizational level legitimacy. For practitioners, this paper demonstrates a connection between legitimacy and organizational learning in innovation contexts. The discussion of how visuals were co-created and used for building legitimacy for an innovation process that differs from the standard stage gate model demonstrates how engaging in AR research can contribute to developing visuals as resources for building legitimacy and organizational learning based on connections between theory and practice.


This case rethinks AR practice for innovation project management contexts to include legitimacy and organizational learning. This focus on legitimacy building from organizational learning and knowledge conversion contributes to our understanding of the soft side of innovation project management. Legitimacy is demonstrated to be a key concern for innovation project management practices.

  • Action research
  • Organizational learning


The authors would like to acknowledge Dr. Shankar Sankaran for his inspiration, advice and sparring in the process of developing this paper.

Kampf, C.E. , Brandt, C.J. and Kampf, C.G. (2023), "Using action research in innovation project management: building legitimacy and organizational learning in an SME during a merger process", International Journal of Managing Projects in Business , Vol. 16 No. 1, pp. 92-118. https://doi.org/10.1108/IJMPB-02-2020-0044

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Copyright © 2021, Emerald Publishing Limited

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  • Published: 03 December 2019

Co-designed strategic planning and agile project management in academia: case study of an action research group

  • Enric Senabre Hidalgo 1 &
  • Mayo Fuster Morell 2  

Palgrave Communications volume  5 , Article number:  151 ( 2019 ) Cite this article

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  • Science, technology and society

Strategic planning, a standard activity for project management in different areas and types of organisations, can contribute to improving the dynamics of collaboration in academia, and specifically in research processes. This paper joins the still scarce studies on strategic planning within research groups, contributing to the field of both team science and organisational management from a social sciences perspective and “strategy-as-practice” paradigm. Through the case study of an action research group, after the experimental co-creation of its long-term strategy involving different participatory design methodologies, we quantitatively analyze how this process influenced communication and group relations, both internally and in relation to its participation in the ecosystem with other stakeholders. Thus, as a result of a detailed content analysis in the different communication channels and tools of the group, we address its impact on the team’s agile project management (APM), adopted in a novel way by its members. Data compared between periods, once the strategic plan was co-created, suggest that this type of approach to co-created strategic thinking can improve coordination, cohesion and joint vision among participants. In agreement with emerging academic literature in this field, pertaining to the need to understand strategic planning as a process of socialization and dialogue, other relevant results of the study point to the particular suitability of this type of planning in research environments interested not only in its academic, but also social and ecosystemic impact. The results obtained and discussed also provide elements of assessment when considering the applicability of this type of strategic co-creation process in other areas of knowledge and disciplines.


Despite the current competition among academic institutions for resources and prestige in the adoption of evaluation systems, ranking mechanisms and performance indicators (Ordorika and Lloyd, 2015 ), regarding current challenges in the organisational dynamics of academic systems there’s little evidence of successful strategies and practices for research project management (Derrick and Nickson, 2014 ). This is especially the case when it comes to the additional need to adapt the production of scientific knowledge to collaborative and interdisciplinary teamwork (Wuchty et al., 2007 ), connecting networked academic organisations and researchers (Wang and Hicks, 2015 ), in a new context that Jasanoff ( 2003 ) defined as the “participatory turn of science”. From the fields of social studies of science and science of team science, authors like Jeffrey ( 2003 ) or Bozeman and Boardman ( 2014 ), describe how collaboration across teams and disciplines also requires progressive adaptation of a shared language and different types of tools. For these reasons, strategic planning seems to be one of the elements that could possibly contribute to better management practices in academia (Wilbon, 2012 ), which is usually a complex and ever-changing process (Eccles et al., 2009 ). On the other hand, when considering alternative modes of knowledge production in academia, as well as the paradigmatic transition of universities in the global context (Santos, 2012 ), strategic thinking usually emerges in research groups oriented to achieve impact beyond the academic domain, like in the cases of action research (Fuster Morell, 2009 ) or mission-driven research (Holm et al., 2013 ). This article provides an analysis of how far co-creation could have a role in the application of strategic planning in academic contexts, in this case through an action research group, and its impact at the levels of management and interrelationships.

Strategic planning in the field of project management

With its foundations in the principles of action research and organisational development (Argyris and Schön, 1997 ), project management is generally considered as the practice of planning and executing the work of a team, based on specific control models and theories, to achieve specific goals and success criteria (Kerzner and Kerzner, 2017 ). From a social science perspective, however, project management has also been studied and applied in understanding projects as social processes, focusing on human behavior and actions within groups and organisations (Blomquist et al., 2010 ). Strategic planning, on the other hand, as applied in project management, can be defined as “deliberative, disciplined effort to produce fundamental decisions and actions that shape and guide what an organisation (or other entity) is, what it does, and why” (Bryson, 2011 , pp. 4–5). Strategic planning, in this sense, is one of the most widely used strategy tools in business, but is also used in public and non-profit organisations (Ferlie and Ongaro, 2015 ).

Besides the fact that empirical evidence of a positive relationship between strategic planning and organisational performance remains inconclusive (Wolf and Floyd, 2017 ), after Mintzberg’s ( 1994 ) critique of the fallacies of rational and centralized strategic planning as a top-down process, from the field of organisational studies it has also been analysed as a key mechanism for team integration and coordination, and as a basis for both centralizing and decentralizing organisational decision making (Spee and Jarzabkowski, 2011 ). In this regard, influenced by the mentioned social science perspectives, in recent years there has been a shift in the field of project management research on strategic planning (Wolf and Floyd, 2017 ), pointing to its benefits from the perspective of participative and socialized process models (Andersen, 2004 ). From this second perspective, strategic planning can be studied more as a “process” than a “product”, and strategy development, therefore, as an evolutionary and integrative activity (Jarzabkowski and Spee, 2009 ), within a strategy-as-practice paradigm (Whittington, 1996 ). However, even considering how strategic planning has evolved towards these more integrated and process-oriented approaches, there has been little focus in management literature on addressing to what extent and, specifically, how it could be co-created using participatory methodologies.

State of the art on strategic planning applied to research

Again, with regard to the current challenges of academic systems and research activity from an organisational perspective, although there is scarce academic literature about strategic planning for research organisations, studies in this area show how it has gained some popularity in the general operation of universities (Srinivasa et al., 2015 ; Dooris et al., 2004 ), and also with open and participative approaches (Amrollahi and Rowlands, 2017 ). More specific studies about the application of strategic thinking in research examine its implementation in R&D processes in firms (Bemelmans, 1979 ), in industry-academic collaboration (Burke et al., 1985 ), in research teams in the health sector (Leischow et al., 2008 ), in global initiatives of medical research (Berkley et al., 2010 ), in strategic collaboration within scientific centers (Boardman and Gray, 2010 ), or for the administrative management of research (Drummond, 2003 ).

In this respect, focusing on scholarly activity and academic organisations, relevant case studies on achieving collaborative and participative consensus for strategically planned research agendas address how to combine online tools and offline sessions during the process (Wilbon, 2012 ), or how to engage iteratively different academic communities of practice around research strategic planning (Best et al., 2015 ). Sá and Tamtik ( 2012 ), on the other hand, highlight the diversity of the approaches and perceptions of academics about the research mission, usually constrained by broader social and organisational structures of universities, and by the complex nature of the research enterprise itself. In all cases, however, there is still scarce literature on how to collaboratively develop strategic plans in academic research organisations, and its effect on group dynamics.

The co-creation approach: participatory design and agile project management

Co-creation (or co-production), which refers to processes of collective creativity, is a very broad term, with its applications ranging from the added value of customer participation in the definition of a product or service (Ranjan and Read, 2016 ), to public participation, collaborative governance or community involvement in civic-oriented projects (Voorberg et al., 2015 ). Within this broad concept, participatory design (or co-design) refers to a specific instance of co-creation that occurs when designers and people not trained in design work together in a design development process, with participants as “domain experts” of their own needs and experience (Visser et al., 2005 ). Some key principles of co-design, in this sense, connect with the perspective of iterative and participative strategic planning, as defined above, especially when it comes to the involvement of diverse stakeholders (Flood and Jackson, 1991 ). This points to the opportunity for adopting visualization techniques derived from co-design (Sanders and Stappers, 2008 ) in order to integrate different perspectives, mutual understanding, inspiration and engagement between participants in the research strategic thinking process (Eppler and Platts, 2009 ), thereby enhancing visual and textual representations of contexts and strategies (Giraudeau, 2008 ).

On the other hand, some approaches analyse strategic planning from the perspective of how it can be improved by adapting agile project management (APM) (Cervone, 2014 ; Rand and Eckfeldt, 2004 ). APM, which can also be considered as a co-creation practice (Spinuzzi, 2015 ), consists of a set of methods and principles originally conceived for flexible and participative software development, but currently adopted in many other different domains (Ciric et al., 2018 ). This wider adoption of APM is due to its attributes of adaptive teamwork, transparency, continuous improvement and small and frequent releases for early delivery (Cao et al., 2009 ). APM, more so than other project management frameworks, emphasizes teamwork by focusing on the social aspects of project development, channelling co-creation between participants in self-organized, cross-functional teams (Hoda et al., 2013 ), with collective ownership and collective responsibility as key attributes (Robinson and Sharp, 2003 ). Among the different practices within APM, some typical ones are the regularity of short feedback meetings (“standups”) and the use of kanban boards for visualizing the workflow and team tasks from conception to completion (Polk, 2011 ).

Research questions

The arguments exposed above justify the interest in an analysis connecting such diverse bodies of literature, in order to fill the gap and contribute to the questions about how strategic planning could be based on co-creation methodologies. And also, from a meta-research perspective (Ioannidis et al., 2015 ), how such an approach could be applied to research processes. More concretely, to what extent participatory design could be used for articulating the research planning phase, and afterwards integrated with the APM for the research development phase. This leads to the following two research questions, which form the basis of this study:

How can co-creation methods be used to lead the strategic planning process of a research group?

What would be the impact of co-created strategic planning on the agile project management of research?

Answering these two questions requires, in the first case, to describe in some detail how participatory design can be combined with strategic planning principles, explaining the integration of both approaches. In relation to the second question, a quantitative approach is needed considering the general lack of empirical evidence, especially in the fields of social studies of science and team science, on how strategic planning can impact research management. In this regard, our analysis of the co-creation approach to research strategic planning is applied to the participants, sequence and methods used in the entire process.


In order to address the two research questions, a distinctive methodological design has been applied to each one of them. Articulated around a specific case study on the Dimmons research group, this methodological approach is twofold. The first part is based on participatory design, utilised to conceptualize and prototype the Dimmons strategic planning according to co-creation principles. The second part analyses the impact of co-created strategic planning on the group’s day-to-day APM, through content analysis of the online tools used for coordinating teamwork. On this basis, the results allow us to discuss which insights of the study could be generalized to current challenges in research project management.

Background of the Dimmons case study

Created in 2016, Dimmons ( http://dimmons.net/ ) is one of the eleven research groups of the Internet Interdisciplinary Institute (IN3), the research center of the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC) based in Barcelona. Following the development of strategic planning of the IN3 Footnote 1 , which took place after the main strategic planning exercise of the UOC Footnote 2 in 2016, the Dimmons group developed its own strategic planning with the aim of establishing its strategic objectives for the period 2018 to 2023. On the one hand, the selection of the Dimmons research group as a case study is due to how it is immersed in a strategic planning context that crosses several levels of the academic institution to which it belongs, reflecting an increasingly recurring but still little studied trend. On the other hand, Dimmons also represents a paradigmatic example due to its diversity, since it is composed of members with a consolidated scientific career, but also of PhD students, external collaborators and management-oriented profiles. Since the beginning of its activity, in that sense, Dimmons operates in a framework of competitive evolution between universities and research centers, and at the same time in new collaboration dynamics to achieve not only academic impact but also social impact, as we will see. In that sense, therefore, the case study reflects a way of addressing a series of current challenges and complexities that research groups experience between long-term strategic vision and day-to-day project management.

The Dimmons research group is focused on transdisciplinarity and action research for the study of socioeconomic innovation and the collaborative economy, from the perspectives of economic and public policy analysis. The group’s composition since its beginning has evolved into a networked structure (Spinuzzi, 2015 ) which consists of different “layers” of participation (all of them involved with its strategic planning, as we will see in the results section). The action-oriented character of the research group, and its specialization in collaboration dynamics, makes it a case study particularly adapted to develop a novel approach, concretely in terms of opening up its strategic planning process by applying co-creation methods. This was seen early on as an opportunity to engage with its core team members and network of close collaborators, as well as with other representative stakeholders from the Dimmons community and ecosystem. In sum, the coincidence that the research group had to develop its own strategic planning, has an experimental and action-oriented approach, which added to its expertise on collaborative dynamics, made the Dimmons group a good case for the study. Regarding the first research question on how co-creation methods could be adapted for strategic planning, Dimmons was a good choice due to the group’s regular adoption of participatory design techniques. On the other hand, Dimmons’ novel adoption of APM (Senabre Hidalgo, 2018a ) also favours addressing the second question, regarding the impact of the co-created strategic planning on the group’s day-to-day management.

As a general result of the co-creation of the strategic plan, in which more than 40 people participated, there were a total of 38 actions defined in accordance with 6 strategic goals for the period 2018–2023, each one with an average of three key performance indicators (KPI) associated (97 in total). Its final version was published online on the Dimmons research group webpage. Footnote 3 After one year of implementation, by the end of 2018, 24 of the 97 KPIs were accomplished satisfactorily. This result represents an accomplishment of 24%, and considering that a 5-year period is envisaged for full implementation of the plan, suggests satisfactory performance in terms of achieving the co-defined goals during the first year.

Participatory design for how to apply co-creation in strategic planning

Regarding the first research question (“How can co-creation methods to be used in leading strategic planning process of a research group?”) the methodological approach was qualitative, based on participatory design. Departing from the key consideration that participatory design is indeed a methodology of action research (Spinuzzi, 2005 ), and benefiting from co-creation derived from design thinking methodologies (Kimbell, 2012 ), which have proven to improve participant engagement in research (Senabre Hidalgo et al., 2018 ), we established different visual and discussion techniques at each stage of the process for the effective participation in a transdisciplinary context. The participatory design was developed and data collected from the fall of 2016 through 2018. The methodology applied is consistent with the participatory design notions of user-centered co-creation, in detailed stages and techniques such as those described by Naranjo-Bock (2012) for (1) self-reflection of research methods (focusing on research goals and questions, who the participants are and what tools they can use, the stage of the project, etc.); (2) running co-design activities onsite, with techniques and “placements” like context mapping, storyboards, inspiration cards, diagrams or paper prototyping; (3) pilot testing and results, where the data obtained is generally visual and tangible, accompanied by the important debrief of the results of each participatory design session or process.

Following that approach, and adopting the framework of Spinuzzi ( 2005 ), through different qualitative techniques the co-creation process was structured around the three key phases of: (1) Initial exploration of work, where participants meet each other and commonalities are identified, as well as for preliminary discussions; (2) Discovery processes, when design facilitators employ various techniques to understand and prioritize work organisation, clarifying the participant’s goals and values; and (3) Prototyping, a final stage for iteratively shaping outputs and assessing results. The data came from a range of sources, including offline co-creation sessions and team meetings, meetings and interviews with some researchers and collaborators, as well as documentation resulting from the different phases and sessions of the strategic planning. Outputs of each participatory design stage were recorded in detail as they took place, through documents shared online.

Content analysis for the impact of a co-created strategic planning on APM of research

Regarding the second question (“What would be the impact of co-created strategic planning on the agile project management of research?”), the approach was based on quantitative data collection and text analysis, in order to address how far the co-creation methodologies had an impact on the group’s project management, focusing on the researchers’ discussions and behavior through digital channels. The analysis was based on extensive content analysis of two of the main online coordination tools for the AMP of the group: a chat group for daily communication and an online kanban board platform for task management.

Telegram chat content analysis

The “Dimmons al dia” Telegram chat group was adopted from February 2016 until the end of 2018 as a first approach to daily standup meetings, inspired by the Scrum method derived from APM for software development (Cervone, 2011 ). Scrum, which is one of the most adopted agile frameworks for managing knowledge work, facilitates the coordinated activity of participants who break their work into small tasks that can be completed within fixed duration cycles or “sprints”, tracking progress and re-planning in regular meetings in order to develop projects incrementally (Senabre Hidalgo, 2019 ). Via Telegram, on a daily basis from Monday to Friday each Dimmons team member (a total of 15 users, through different periods over time), via a short message during the morning period, informed others about the planned tasks for the day (Fig. 1 ), among other coordination discussions that took place regularly on that chat tool between team members.

figure 1

Screenshot of the Telegram chat group for daily updates about tasks.

A combination of computer-assisted massive text analysis and comparative visualizations Footnote 4 for these chat discussions on the Dimmons Telegram group was used, after dumping and extracting to plain text the full history of the “Dimmons al dia” chat group since its creation (a text corpus mainly in Catalan, which is the normal language of team members). The data gathered consisted of the complete history of messages from 2 September 2016 to 27 December 2018 (28 months of activity). This represented a corpus of 6520 messages, with a size of 794,464 characters in 6941 lines of text.

Afterwards, in order to compare the different flows of communication in relation to the co-designed strategic plan of the research group, it was decided that the date on which the first strategic planning team workshop took place (20 December 2017) would be used as the key date for dividing the chat history in two plain text documents: “Xat Telegram Dimmons al dia 2017” (pre-strategic plan period, until 20 December 2017, with 78,644 total words) and “Xat Telegram Dimmons al dia 2018” (post-strategic plan period, after 20 December 2017, with 83,200 total words).

As a first step in the analysis, prior to coding, the plain text obtained from each document was processed as a tabular view of terms frequently used in the entire corpus. That is, a list of the most used terms for the period 2017 and a list of the most used terms for the period 2018. This facilitated an initial overview of recurrent terms, which could then be filtered and coded, identifying multiple stop words to exclude (non-relevant meaning, numbers, ambiguous terms, etc.) and on the other hand selecting specific words related to categories to include in the analysis. The coding of data obtained in this way consisted of the clustering of words relevant to the following two categories:

Coordination-related terms : data about terms related to time periods or days (today, tomorrow, now, etc.), general work-related keywords (meeting, call, document, task, pending, etc.), as well as specific verbs (preparing, sending, finishing, etc.).

Strategy-related terms : data about terms related to the six main goals of the Dimmons strategic plan (as described in the results section), for (1) academic impact (paper, data, review, survey, specific projects, etc.); (2) open tools (platform or toolkit-related); (3) ecosystem (specific partners mentioned, dissemination or projects); (4) team care and empowerment (words related to good climate among members, greetings, gender topics, etc.); (5) sustainability (new proposals, specific projects for new funding); and (6) university shift (references to the university or research center).

Kanban board content analysis

In January 2017 (when the strategic planning was co-designed) the Dimmons team adopted an open source project management software ( https://kanboard.org/ ) for additional APM practice, such as the use of an online kanban board for visualizing the flow of tasks accomplished by core team members (Fig. 2 ).

figure 2

Kanban board reflecting the workflow of tasks of team members, related to strategic goals and specific projects.

For this, in connection with the six strategic goals defined in the co-design phase, each planned task could be properly tagged (selecting “academic impact”, “open tools”, etc.) according to the researchers criteria. In addition, tasks could be classified by selecting from a dropdown menu the corresponding project or category (specific projects, management tasks, dissemination, publications, events or initiatives related to networking, etc.). An analysis of this workflow-related data on the Dimmons online kanban board during the mentioned period (with different levels of participation among the nine core team members, depending on their familiarity with digital tools and perception of utility) allows for an understanding of the evolution of planned and achieved tasks in relation to the Dimmons strategic plan, as well as among team members.

Data obtained from the Kanboard log comprised details about a total of 166 user-defined tasks, in relation to tags selected (for the six strategic goals), category of project selected (among the 11 existing projects and initiatives during 2018), user activity, level of accomplishment, due dates and task description, among others. In this case, the coding related to the strategic goals was self-generated by each user at the moment of naming and defining the task, by selecting the most appropriate tag in relation to the strategic goals.

This results section is divided into two parts, which address the research questions with the methodologies described above. First, we outline how the co-design process of the Dimmons research group planning unfolded, describing the methods used, as well as its internal and management implications, based on the participatory design process itself. Secondly, we summarise the main results of the impact of the process on the group’s project management and regular communication in relation to its experimental co-creation approach, derived from the content analysis of the main coordination channels used during the regular activity of Dimmons.

How can co-creation techniques and principles be used in leading the strategic planning process of a research group? Insights from the participatory design of the Dimmons strategic planning

In relation to the first research question, about how can the strategic planning process of a research group can adopt co-creation methods, the participatory design practices and principles adopted resulted in an iterative, dialogic and eminently visual approach to strategic planning. Questions related to participants (“who”), sequence (“when”) and methods (“how”) were of critical importance since the beginning of the process (Table 1 ).

“Who”: Participation as ecosystem

In contrast to the traditional strategic planning process, developed by the group’s core team only (i.e., those with strong ties to it), Dimmons adopted a broader perspective in which the basic principle for co-creation that emerged was the concept of “participation as ecosystem” (Fuster Morell, 2010a ). That is, the Dimmons research group could be considered a research ecosystem with diverse forms and degrees of involvement, following the structure of a “power law dynamic” (or “1/9/90”) in online collaborative production (Fuster Morell, 2010b ). This reflects the composition of the participation that took place when articulating the strategic planning process, according to the three layers of the Dimmons research ecosystem:

Core Team: Director, postdocs and PhDs with grants, and research assistants (9 people).

Dimmons “Community”: University professors, former visitors, external researchers, experts and practitioners on Dimmons areas (12 people).

Dimmons “Ecosystem”: Representatives of a network of institutions with further collaborative relations, target impact or audience (10 participants from a total of 32 private and public organisations).

In relation to this, a first observation regarding how to apply co-creation in strategic planning has to do with the suitability of adopting a broad, open and participative approach, as well as decentralised approaches for higher engagement and performance in dynamic environments (Andersen, 2004 ). For this reason, who to involve in the process became a critical aspect, considering that ecosystemic participation is also meant to engage the research group community and stakeholders in the process (not only highly involved team members). In this case, the open invitation to all members of each layer of the ecosystem, as defined above, resulted in the “power law” distribution, of which only a small representation were engaged in the process but with a high level of involvement through the different co-creation sessions. Defined as a modular sequence, with the possibility of joining the process at different times, also allowed for a wider participation than if following a rigid and traditional strategic planning approach.

“When”: Iterative sequences of convergence and divergence

The iterative unfolding of the co-creation process was another main characteristic. That is, rather than a predefined sequence of steps, the guiding principles were based on the participatory design notions of “convergence” and “divergence” (Sanders et al., 2010 ). This allowed for several divergence instances (during which a considerable number of possibilities regarding goals, ideas, SWOT factors Footnote 5 , etc. were generated by participants), followed by intense convergence stages of synthesis (where the main options were presented, discussed and finally selected via different mechanisms).

Departing from that key consideration in co-creation, and its adaptation of a sequence guided by participatory design methods (Spinuzzi, 2005 ; Sanders and Stappers, 2008 ), the overall approach of the participatory design integrated key notions in literature for effective strategic planning (Wilson, 1994 ). In this respect, the organic and iterative development of the process as a co-creation sequence was consistent with the four stages of a strategic plan, as defined by Eppler and Platts ( 2009 ): analysis, development, planning and implementation (Fig. 3 ).

figure 3

Stages followed in the co-creation of the strategic plan of the research group, connecting co-creation approaches (Spinuzzi, 2005 ; Sanders et al., 2010 ; Spinuzzi, 2015 ) with visual strategic planning (Eppler et al., 2006 ; Eppler and Platts, 2009 ).

As reflected above, a key consideration derived from the case study in relation to its temporal sequence is that it was possible to establish a clear coherence between the literature of co-creation and participatory design (Spinuzzi, 2005 ; Sanders et al., 2010 ; Spinuzzi, 2015 ) and of visualization techniques for strategic planning (Eppler and Platts, 2009 ; Eppler et al., 2006 ).

“How”: Integrating°co-creation methods in strategic planning

The co-creation process unfolded by connecting the different participatory design stages to specific phases of strategic planning, via a combination of five sessions in total and the adoption of nine co-creation methods (in offline but also online formats), and with the regular participation of diverse participants from the Dimmons research ecosystem (Table 2 ).

In this way, the first co-creation workshop (Fig. 4 ) focused on mapping personal attitudes and strengths, experience in methods and research approaches, which contributed to visualizing methodological affinities within the group.

figure 4

Different moments and materials used for the workshop sessions with the research team.

Following the mentioned co-creation principles of “convergence” and “divergence” (Sanders et al., 2010 ), the second co-creation workshop departed from the first survey results to engage in a broader discussion about the mission and guiding principles of the group, which were discussed and re-edited offline during the debate. That second session also adopted a card-sorting technique for clustering the survey results of the SWOT. During the second co-creation workshop, a first version of the map of the Dimmons ecosystem was also drafted and discussed. An important part of this participative analysis stage of the planning was the collective identification of the “ecosystem” or external environment in which the group operates. For this, a key activity was the collective mapping of the different institutions and agents with which Dimmons collaborates or has a relevant relationship, bringing the concept of ecosystemic research closer to the perspective of the Quadruple Helix for innovation systems (Carayannis and Campbell, 2012 ). In contributing to the generation of an internal environment of transparency and openness, it is important to consider that all the dynamics took place in a context of action research where the majority of participants were familiar beforehand with similar methodologies and processes to integrate diversity and explicit points of view. Also noteworthy is the general absence of conflict situations during the whole process, and that initial discussions about methodologies and specific theoretical perspectives were activated early on. This was probably due to the fact that it was based on a small core of participants who were already cohesive around the Dimmons team, joined by other actors with diverse theoretical backgrounds and experience, and for that reason each session was oriented towards the search for synergies and learnings, making explicit the knowledge, expectations and opinions of the majority of the group. However, it should also be pointed out that sometimes during the discussion, the opinion of those with a consolidated academic profile tended to weigh more and took more preeminence, in contrast to predoctoral researchers or participants with a profile not linked to academic research.

As another important element of the group’s strategic thinking in this case, the final stages of the process not only had as benchmark reference the IN3 research center’s strategic goals, but also the potential connection with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) and Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) principles. The SDGs are a collection of 17 global goals set by the United Nations for addressing urgent issues like poverty, education, gender equality, energy, environment or social justice, among others (Griggs et al., 2013 ). RRI is a multidisciplinary approach promoting the involvement of stakeholders and civil society in scientific activities for developing more inclusive innovation processes (Owen et al., 2012 ). This element of strategic planning around external indicators represented for all participants a first approach to new principles and a series of values, leveraging perspectives and discussions around the key aspect of social impact of research beyond the academic context.

As a final result, among the different key elements that are usually integrated into a strategic plan (Eppler and Platts, 2009 ), the definition of six strategic goals were incorporated into the first draft of the document (considered as a “prototype”) of six strategic goals: (1) Academic impact (“generate a high-quality research corpus of theoretical framework on socio-economic innovation”); (2) Open tools (“contribute to processes in action for the resolution of social challenges by developing research-based resources”); (3) Ecosystem building (“consolidate a ‘glocal’ network of partner organisations for quadruple helix collaboration to favour social impact and resilience”); (4) Empowered team (“consolidate the team with complementary backgrounds, healthy environment and gender-balanced talent”); (5) Catalytic sustainability (“obtain funding for action research from competitive calls with high impact and visibility”); and (6) University shift (“engage with open access, “commonification” processes, transdisciplinarity, agile principles and other changing paradigms in the academic culture”).

What would be the influence of co-created strategic planning on the agile project management of research? Insights from the analysis of impact in Dimmons coordination

Once the strategic plan was finished and shared online as a definitive version, it was incorporated into the day-to-day activities of the research group, both explicitly (by incorporating the strategic goals as categories in the group’s agile kanban board for task management) and implicitly (by guiding topics of conversation, and being in the background when regularly communicating online and offline). In order to analyse it and answer the second research question of this study, on what would be the influence of a co-created strategic planning on the APM of research, a series of content analysis on the main coordination digital channels provides different elements for discussion, especially from an action research perspective.

Dimmons Telegram chat content analysis

The evolution of user’s daily participation on the Telegram chat during 2017 and 2018 suggests that once the strategic planning was co-designed and adopted (at the end of 2017), the communication dynamics evolved from being relatively asymmetric (with just a few very active users) to a much more balanced distribution where all members contributed, following the “standup” meetings and derived conversations (Fig. 5 ).

figure 5

Evolution of user participation in “Dimmons al dia” Telegram group chat during 2017 and 2018.

More specifically, from a medium used by nine participants over a timeframe of approximately two years, the co-design and implementation of the Dimmons strategic plan between December 2017 and January 2018 seems to set a landmark between a relatively unequal distribution of messages among team members (where only a few of them contributed, at very different levels) to a regular pace and volume of interventions by the majority of participants. This probably derived from applying the strategic planning as a co-creation sequence, thereby as an integrative and socialization process. In this sense, it should be noted that among the observations about the daily communication of the group through the Telegram channel, most messages and discussions focused on the planning and execution of tasks, both academic (writing articles, organisation of workshops, data collection, etc.) as administrative (agenda management, budgeting, event logistics, etc.). In contrast, during the day-to-day of the group and outside of the co-creation process itself, theoretical or conceptual discussions normally took place in other spaces and moments, normally during the development of face-to-face meetings between two or more members of the group (before and after the strategic planning process).

On the other hand, if we look at data from the content analysis of the daily update “standup” messages in 2017 (again, prior to the strategic plan) compared to the corpus of terms used in 2018 (once the strategic planning was in place) patterns also demonstrate a coincidence with a significative increase of terms related to the different strategic goals, and therefore a probable influence of the strategic planning on the daily communication of the group (Fig. 6 ).

figure 6

Comparison of mentions to Dimmons strategic plan related terms in Telegram between 2017–2018.

This reflects a relative imbalance in how the different goals were addressed during both periods. While, according to these results, the attention to the group’s ecosystem and to academic impact where at the center of activity, there was much less activity, in terms of percentage, related to others such as the generation of open tools or team care. This imbalance simply demonstrates that after year one, of the five goals covered by the strategic plan, the group gave priority to tasks and processes related to its ecosystem (specific partners, collaborators or events), as well as pertaining to academic impact (publications, data, surveys, specific projects under development). What seems significant from this data, apart from how it can serve as a parallel indicator to the group’s agreed KPIs, is the increment and diversity of terms related to the strategic plan in the regular conversations and update messages on the Telegram chat for the 2018 period (and to what extent they were more relevant than in the previous year, before the co-design of the strategic plan took place).

In relation to the adoption of APM methods (in this case, establishing additional regular weekly meetings and the use of a digital kanban board, beyond the daily updates via Telegram), the increment there between 2017 and 2018 in vocabulary related to coordination tasks, timing and other key terms is also significative. Specially the preeminence of messages containing words like “today”, “pending”, “version”, “tasks” or “meeting”, which doubled in general compared to 2017.

Again, patterns show a wider use of vocabulary in coordination-related communications, with reference to tasks informed on a daily basis, once the co-creation process around the strategic planning of the research group took place. This suggests not only that team communication incorporated more perspectives related to the Dimmons strategic goals, as observed above, but also more references to general coordination and therefore the operative awareness of the group.

Finally, if we focus on 2018 (the period of the co-designed strategic plan), another relevant analysis of the content data gathered via the daily updates and conversations on the Telegram group chat, is the extent to which it reflects a very similar proportion of conversations about specific areas of the strategic goals (Fig. 7 ) for the tasks defined on the kanban board. In both cases, the majority of references during 2018, coincidentally, focus on academic impact and ecosystem building, followed by a corpus of team-related and university shift terms.

figure 7

Percentage of terms related to Dimmons strategic goals on Telegram chat during 2018.

Dimmons kanban board content analysis

“As mentioned above, the results of the tags used most on the kanban board related to the strategic goals, when informing the regular tasks of team members, point to a very similar distribution as in the previous analysis of the Dimmons main Telegram chat, where academic impact and ecosystem creation are the most selected ones, followed by a smaller proportion of the other four categories”.

This suggests that both patterns coincide as an indicator of the most influencing priorities for the team derived from the strategic plan, but more importantly points to a coherence on a shared vision as an action research group derived from the co-design process. Also, this result when comparing content on the coordination channels, suggests a consistent integration of the strategic goals with the APM methods, ensuring an interconnection between the strategic plan goals and the daily activities.

Another result from the task-related data gathered via the kanban board is to what extent there’s a good balance of members contributions to the projects and initiatives connected to the strategic goals. Instead of a specialization pattern or “monolithic” distribution of projects to researchers, despite the different levels of participation informing planned tasks between users, results show a relevant quality of teamwork in terms of shared projects and cross-functionality.

In addition, the extent to which specific projects not only comprehended tasks related to different researchers but also to the various strategic goals, suggests a coherent and transversal categorization when researchers classified their regular activity in relation to the strategic plan. Data obtained from activity on the kanban board, when compared with activity on the Telegram chat informing about planned tasks for each day, also shows a clear correlation between the content generated in both channels and terms related to the different strategic goals. As already indicated, however, not all the core team members used the kanban board with the same level of regularity (as opposed to the Telegram daily updates, where participation followed the same volume and pace for all team members), with the main reason probably related to the difference in the levels of familiarity with digital tools for management.

With this study a prototype and analysis of a co-creation methodology for the strategic planning process of an action research group was developed. Regarding participation, guided by a ‘strategy-as-practice’ approach in project management and the concept of ecosystemic research, the case study integrated the diversity of perspectives and voices of more than 20 participants in total. This way of proceeding generated a key mechanism for team integration and coordination within the group, and also with its external layers of collaborators and stakeholders, which were also represented through the process. As data indicate, this required a combined approach of co-creation methods and iterations, which followed principles of participatory design and online participation. As a consequence, besides a fully defined document for the strategic roadmap of the group activity, the different actions co-defined by the core team and its ecosystem of collaborators achieved a satisfactory level of accomplishment after the first year of implementation.

In relation to the first research question, on how co-creation methods can lead the strategic planning of a research group, our study points to the possibility of developing strategic planning processes with such methods. In this respect, our contribution reflects the key methodological aspect of integrating participatory design techniques for structuring the process. This aligns with theories connecting principles of action research in social sciences, and especially co-design in the context of organisational learning, in terms of tacit and explicit knowledge transfer processes, as well as constructivist approaches to addressing complexity and uncertainty in teamwork (Argyris and Schön, 1989 ). The analysed case study of Dimmons, in this sense, seems coherent with a wider consideration of design thinking as a practical approach for enabling transdisciplinary collaboration and as a process for “shaping processes” (Lindberg et al., 2010 ). In our opinion, as addressed in this case, this connects to the need to adapt strategic planning to co-creation practices as a decentralized, integrative and iterative dialogue (Wolf and Floyd, 2017 ). Our analysis also suggests the opportunity for the utilization of academic strategic planning as a means of integrating the values of the social impact of research, such as those derived ones from SGD and RRI, which can be adopted as a landmark when addressing academic and scientific activity from a collaborative and ecosystemic perspective. Observations and outputs from this process reflect that it allowed for deeper insight into discussions and comparisons about research methods, in many cases for the first time among team members. By “voting” for preferences and visualizing expertise in such explicit ways, and selecting a wide range of possible methods, the iteration and parallel discussion allowed for the identification (later on the strategic planning process) of several areas of improvement and implications for the group composition in the mid and long term. All the data generated and shared as open documentation during this first initial exploration stage of the strategic planning, concerning the group’s composition, allowed on the one hand, the identification and mapping of opinions, basic assumptions and implicit understandings around research that needed to be surfaced, and on the other one the initiation of the co-creation of the strategic planning with the needed openness and implication of all participants.

Regarding the applicability of the model to managing research projects in other scientific research contexts, the type of participatory co-design described and the degree of involvement of the different layers of stakeholders probably require departing from reduced, cohesive teams and familiarity with principles of action research or community-based research, frequent in the social sciences. In this sense, it is important to highlight that, as detailed in the first part of the study, the concept of impact of research was regularly taken into account beyond the academic context, as a requisite to integrating in the strategic planning other perspectives that do not come from the scholarly context. As another relevant element derived from the results of the study, when prototyping the co-design process in connection with previous research on visual strategic planning (Eppler et al., 2006 ; Eppler and Platts, 2009 ), it should be noted that the iterative sequences of convergence and divergence of each phase allowed the described levels of participation and integration of perspectives. Again, considering it a strategic thinking process that is likely to be generalizable in research contexts in which, beyond academic and administrative tasks, there are conditions for the consideration of different types of research impact for initiatives in the medium and long term.

Regarding the second research question, the results pertaining to the impact of the co-created strategic planning on the group’s APM coordination and communication routines (and specifically data about terms related to the strategic plan) suggest that it contributed significantly to a shared vision and helped to deal with the inherent complexity of research activity (Fuster Morell, 2012 ). In this sense, with respect to the positive influence of a co-created strategic planning on the APM of research, our method provided results complementing previous studies (Rand and Eckfeldt, 2004 ). Specifically, we described how the integration of strategic goals with the agile management of daily tasks can serve as a parallel indicator to KPI used in strategic planning, and how such integration can provide immediate user-generated information for assessing the implementation of the plan (as compared to the usual retrospective checking of KPI over longer periods of time). Taking into account the need to connect strategic plans with managerial practices during the implementation phase (Poister, 2010 ), this combination of co-design techniques and AMP practices for the strategic planning of the Dimmons research group reflected the importance of design features and social mechanisms for successful strategic planning (Barzelay and Jacobsen, 2009 ). The data compared between the period prior to the strategic plan and its co-creation process suggest, on the one hand, an increase in the group’s cohesion through its daily communication and coordination channels, and on the other, an alignment in terms of discourse and follow-up of the objectives set. Again, in relation to being able to extrapolate the results of this process to other contexts, it is probably key to start with some previous experience with basic principles and practices of project management, and especially those based on AMP. However, as we reflect in the first part of the study, on the state of the art in social studies of science and team science with respect to the management of research projects, as well as the progressive need for mechanisms of efficiency and collaboration in academia, it is likely that this type of approach could be useful and produce similar results in other types of scientific and research initiatives.

Despite the above, the results also show a relevant imbalance between the accomplishment of some of the strategic goals after the first year of implementation of the strategic planning, with a significant dedication of efforts to “ecosystemic activity”. This suggests that, from an action research perspective, after the participative design process there was a greater priority given to the perceived need for addressing tasks related to community events, meetings with stakeholders, institutional agreements or online dissemination. In contrast, according to the data derived from the combination of KPI compared with the volume of specific tasks defined in the APM coordination channels, critical aspects of research management related to team building or open tools did not receive as much attention and effort in comparison. In our view, besides the experimental character of the case study (and the novelty of its research group focus), this result also relates to the current context of pressure and complexity within “accelerated” academic organisations (Vostal, 2016 ), which represents a challenge in front of competition for excellence (Sørensen et al., 2016 ) and the “projectification” of university research (Fowler et al., 2015 ). In this sense, in relation to the day-to-day activity of the group connecting strategic planning with co-creation principles of APM in research, it was observed that the experience also increased the need for the project management role or main facilitator of the entire co-creation process. In this regard, it was usually complicated to separate that function, as the guide of the participatory design of the strategic plan, from the wider role of APM coordinator.

This study’s limitations and potential mainly have to do with two areas. On the one hand, the content analysis of the kanban board covered an early stage of its adoption, but in comparison to the Telegram chat activity not all participants used the system with the same level of intensity and engagement. As explained in the results section, however, the relative coincidence with percentages of strategic-related terms between both channels suggests it worked as a relevant source of data for assessing the implementation of the strategic plan. In relation to the co-creation process, this limitation (related to an unequal adoption of APM coordination by the majority of the group), represented a challenge for some participants, and probably affected its impact during the implementation stage of some of the strategic goals. As mentioned, the degree of familiarity with digital tools for project coordination, as well as with internal discussion processes and personal positioning in research projects, seems a key factor that also requires future analysis in other academic contexts, to determine to what extent similar processes of co-creation and strategic thinking can be applied in the field of social sciences and in other disciplines. On the other hand, following this type of exploratory analysis, the need to observe and compare data generated by other research groups that apply similar (or different) methods for project management and strategic planning creates in our opinion a potential for future research, and would allow for further understanding of such an important area of meta-research. In this line, another analysis based on the case study of the Dimmons research group for a different period in the near future, in order to compare the evolution of KPI in parallel to communication and coordination related to tasks until 2023, would be needed to confirm some of our initial results.

Through this study we have described how strategic planning could be applied to research in order to confront current challenges in academic collaboration, and how to do so through the opportunities offered by co-creation methodologies applied to project management. Our analysis has identified potential benefits and challenges in this respect, suggesting further development of this field in the social sciences and action research, and proposing it as a possible area of research and development in parallel to other documented and studied efforts to deal with innovative and agile management of scholarly work. Besides an analysis of its impact at the communication and relational levels, our study also offers a detailed description about how co-creation for strategic planning in research could be applied, which could be of practical interest for scientific institutions in relation to their project management practices.

Data availability

Due to privacy reasons, the datasets analysed during the current study are not publicly available but are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.

IN3 strategic plan: https://www.uoc.edu/portal/en/in3/coneix/pla-estrategic/index.html

UOC strategic plan: https://www.uoc.edu/portal/en/universitat/pla-estrategic/index.html

Dimmons strategic plan: http://dimmons.net/strategic-plan-2018-2023/

Via https://voyant-tools.org/ (web-based text reading and analysis open source environment) and https://rawgraphs.io/ (open source data visualization framework).

SWOT analysis is a strategic planning technique used to help an organisation identify strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats related to project development (Osita et al., 2014 ).

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Senabre Hidalgo, E., Fuster Morell, M. Co-designed strategic planning and agile project management in academia: case study of an action research group. Palgrave Commun 5 , 151 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41599-019-0364-0

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action research in project management

action research in project management

Action Research: Steps, Benefits, and Tips

action research in project management


History of action research, what is the definition of action research, types of action research, conducting action research.

Action research stands as a unique approach in the realm of qualitative inquiry in social science research. Rooted in real-world problems, it seeks not just to understand but also to act, bringing about positive change in specific contexts. Often distinguished by its collaborative nature, the action research process goes beyond traditional research paradigms by emphasizing the involvement of those being studied in resolving social conflicts and effecting positive change.

The value of action research lies not just in its outcomes, but also in the process itself, where stakeholders become active participants rather than mere subjects. In this article, we'll examine action research in depth, shedding light on its history, principles, and types of action research.

action research in project management

Tracing its roots back to the mid-20th century, Kurt Lewin developed classical action research as a response to traditional research methods in the social sciences that often sidelined the very communities they studied. Proponents of action research championed the idea that research should not just be an observational exercise but an actionable one that involves devising practical solutions. Advocates believed in the idea of research leading to immediate social action, emphasizing the importance of involving the community in the process.

Applications for action research

Over the years, action research has evolved and diversified. From its early applications in social psychology and organizational development, it has branched out into various fields such as education, healthcare, and community development, informing questions around improving schools, minority problems, and more. This growth wasn't just in application, but also in its methodologies.

How is action research different?

Like all research methodologies, effective action research generates knowledge. However, action research stands apart in its commitment to instigate tangible change. Traditional research often places emphasis on passive observation , employing data collection methods primarily to contribute to broader theoretical frameworks . In contrast, action research is inherently proactive, intertwining the acts of observing and acting.

action research in project management

The primary goal isn't just to understand a problem but to solve or alleviate it. Action researchers partner closely with communities, ensuring that the research process directly benefits those involved. This collaboration often leads to immediate interventions, tweaks, or solutions applied in real-time, marking a departure from other forms of research that might wait until the end of a study to make recommendations.

This proactive, change-driven nature makes action research particularly impactful in settings where immediate change is not just beneficial but essential.

Action research is best understood as a systematic approach to cooperative inquiry. Unlike traditional research methodologies that might primarily focus on generating knowledge, action research emphasizes producing actionable solutions for pressing real-world challenges.

This form of research undertakes a cyclic and reflective journey, typically cycling through stages of planning , acting, observing, and reflecting. A defining characteristic of action research is the collaborative spirit it embodies, often dissolving the rigid distinction between the researcher and the researched, leading to mutual learning and shared outcomes.

Advantages of action research

One of the foremost benefits of action research is the immediacy of its application. Since the research is embedded within real-world issues, any findings or solutions derived can often be integrated straightaway, catalyzing prompt improvements within the concerned community or organization. This immediacy is coupled with the empowering nature of the methodology. Participants aren't mere subjects; they actively shape the research process, giving them a tangible sense of ownership over both the research journey and its eventual outcomes.

Moreover, the inherent adaptability of action research allows researchers to tweak their approaches responsively based on live feedback. This ensures the research remains rooted in the evolving context, capturing the nuances of the situation and making any necessary adjustments. Lastly, this form of research tends to offer a comprehensive understanding of the issue at hand, harmonizing socially constructed theoretical knowledge with hands-on insights, leading to a richer, more textured understanding.

action research in project management

Disadvantages of action research

Like any methodology, action research isn't devoid of challenges. Its iterative nature, while beneficial, can extend timelines. Researchers might find themselves engaged in multiple cycles of observation, reflection, and action before arriving at a satisfactory conclusion. The intimate involvement of the researcher with the research participants, although crucial for collaboration, opens doors to potential conflicts. Through collaborative problem solving, disagreements can lead to richer and more nuanced solutions, but it can take considerable time and effort.

Another limitation stems from its focus on a specific context: results derived from a particular action research project might not always resonate or be applicable in a different context or with a different group. Lastly, the depth of collaboration this methodology demands means all stakeholders need to be deeply invested, and such a level of commitment might not always be feasible.

Examples of action research

To illustrate, let's consider a few scenarios. Imagine a classroom where a teacher observes dwindling student participation. Instead of sticking to conventional methods, the teacher experiments with introducing group-based activities. As the outcomes unfold, the teacher continually refines the approach based on student feedback, eventually leading to a teaching strategy that rejuvenates student engagement.

In a healthcare context, hospital staff who recognize growing patient anxiety related to certain procedures might innovate by introducing a new patient-informing protocol. As they study the effects of this change, they could, through iterations, sculpt a procedure that diminishes patient anxiety.

Similarly, in the realm of community development, a community grappling with the absence of child-friendly public spaces might collaborate with local authorities to conceptualize a park. As they monitor its utilization and societal impact, continual feedback could refine the park's infrastructure and design.

Contemporary action research, while grounded in the core principles of collaboration, reflection, and change, has seen various adaptations tailored to the specific needs of different contexts and fields. These adaptations have led to the emergence of distinct types of action research, each with its unique emphasis and approach.

Collaborative action research

Collaborative action research emphasizes the joint efforts of professionals, often from the same field, working together to address common concerns or challenges. In this approach, there's a strong emphasis on shared responsibility, mutual respect, and co-learning. For example, a group of classroom teachers might collaboratively investigate methods to improve student literacy, pooling their expertise and resources to devise, implement, and refine strategies for improving teaching.

Participatory action research

Participatory action research (PAR) goes a step further in dissolving the barriers between the researcher and the researched. It actively involves community members or stakeholders not just as participants, but as equal partners in the entire research process. PAR is deeply democratic and seeks to empower participants, fostering a sense of agency and ownership. For instance, a participatory research project might involve local residents in studying and addressing community health concerns, ensuring that the research process and outcomes are both informed by and beneficial to the community itself.

Educational action research

Educational action research is tailored specifically to practical educational contexts. Here, educators take on the dual role of teacher and researcher, seeking to improve teaching practices, curricula, classroom dynamics, or educational evaluation. This type of research is cyclical, with educators implementing changes, observing outcomes, and reflecting on results to continually enhance the educational experience. An example might be a teacher studying the impact of technology integration in her classroom, adjusting strategies based on student feedback and learning outcomes.

action research in project management

Community-based action research

Another noteworthy type is community-based action research, which focuses primarily on community development and well-being. Rooted in the principles of social justice, this approach emphasizes the collective power of community members to identify, study, and address their challenges. It's particularly powerful in grassroots movements and local development projects where community insights and collaboration drive meaningful, sustainable change.

action research in project management

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Engaging in action research is both an enlightening and transformative journey, rooted in practicality yet deeply connected to theory. For those embarking on this path, understanding the essentials of an action research study and the significance of a research cycle is paramount.

Understanding the action research cycle

At the heart of action research is its cycle, a structured yet adaptable framework guiding the research. This cycle embodies the iterative nature of action research, emphasizing that learning and change evolve through repetition and reflection.

The typical stages include:

  • Identifying a problem : This is the starting point where the action researcher pinpoints a pressing issue or challenge that demands attention.
  • Planning : Here, the researcher devises an action research strategy aimed at addressing the identified problem. In action research, network resources, participant consultation, and the literature review are core components in planning.
  • Action : The planned strategies are then implemented in this stage. This 'action' phase is where theoretical knowledge meets practical application.
  • Observation : Post-implementation, the researcher observes the outcomes and effects of the action. This stage ensures that the research remains grounded in the real-world context.
  • Critical reflection : This part of the cycle involves analyzing the observed results to draw conclusions about their effectiveness and identify areas for improvement.
  • Revision : Based on the insights from reflection, the initial plan is revised, marking the beginning of another cycle.

Rigorous research and iteration

It's essential to understand that while action research is deeply practical, it doesn't sacrifice rigor . The cyclical process ensures that the research remains thorough and robust. Each iteration of the cycle in an action research project refines the approach, drawing it closer to an effective solution.

The role of the action researcher

The action researcher stands at the nexus of theory and practice. Not just an observer, the researcher actively engages with the study's participants, collaboratively navigating through the research cycle by conducting interviews, participant observations, and member checking . This close involvement ensures that the study remains relevant, timely, and responsive.

action research in project management

Drawing conclusions and informing theory

As the research progresses through multiple iterations of data collection and data analysis , drawing conclusions becomes an integral aspect. These conclusions, while immediately beneficial in addressing the practical issue at hand, also serve a broader purpose. They inform theory, enriching the academic discourse and providing valuable insights for future research.

Identifying actionable insights

Keep in mind that action research should facilitate implications for professional practice as well as space for systematic inquiry. As you draw conclusions about the knowledge generated from action research, consider how this knowledge can create new forms of solutions to the pressing concern you set out to address.

action research in project management

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Action Research model (Lewin)

Action research - Toolshero

Action Research model: this article explains the concept of Action Research (AR) , developed by Kurt Lewin in a practical way. It covers what AR is, what steps should be taken, based on the model and example and what conditions should be met. After reading you will understand the basics of this research method. Enjoy reading!

Background of Action Research theory

The German-American professor Kurt Lewin was mainly concerned with child psychology.

He became known for his contributions to “ Gestalt psychology ” and in 1951 he carried out ground breaking research into the way in which human behaviour could be changed towards democratic values and leadership. This is why he is considered to be the founder of Action Research .

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What is the Action Research model? The theory

Kurt Lewin ’s approach of Action Research is a research method in which the researcher intervenes in and during the research. This serves two purposes: firstly, according to Kurt Lewin , it will bring about positive change and secondly, knowledge and theory will be generated.

It is important that the researcher acts as a social change expert who helps and encourages employees to change their behaviour towards democratic values and leadership. A cooperation between fundamental and applied research is essential in this.

According to Lewin scientific research is best achieved through cooperation between the researcher (academic) and the people in the work field (practitioners).

The definition of Action Research

The term was first suggested by Kurt Lewin . He described the practice as ‘a comparative research on the conditions and effects of various forms of social action and research leading to social action’ that uses ‘a spiral of steps, each of which is composed of a circle of planning, action and fact-finding about the result of the action’ .

Participatory action research in education

AR is also called Participatory Action Research (PAR). This concerns an individual method of this research method. Other working methods are community-based participatory research and school-wide action research.

Other names for the methodology are action cycle or research cycle . In education, action research refers to various evaluative, investigative, and analytical research methods, which are especially designed to study organizational, academic or educational problems or deficiencies.

In addition, these methods help teachers to develop practical solutions to address the aforementioned problems.

Action Research model and steps, an example of education

It is referred to as a cycle because the method usually consists of a predefined process that is repeated over time. Below is an action research example of what the cycle might look like. The model is aimed at education.

Action research, the steps - Toolshero

Figure 1 – the steps of action research example in education

1. Selecting focus

The AR-process starts with a reflective action aimed at discerning one or more topics worthy of the teacher’s or researcher’s time. Since different actions and teachers in the classroom are in high demand, all activities should be worthwhile for the researcher.

Therefore, focus selection is considered the first step in the action research process. Focus selection begins with the researcher or team asking questions about which elements of the research benefit practice or learning.

2. Clarifying and establishing theory

The next stage in the AR process is to identify and discern the values, beliefs and theoretical perspectives the researchers have about the focus they have chosen in the first step.

When researchers or teachers are concerned about a particular development in the classroom, it is helpful to first clarify which approach or method would work best. For example, should the teacher set up a reward system? Or should the students experience the consequences of their behavior in a natural way?

3. Identifying research questions

Now that the selection of focus areas has been completed and the perspectives of the researchers or lecturers have been clarified, the next step is to generate research questions that are intended to shape the research.

4. Collecting data

Accurate data and information is important because everyone bases decisions on it. This is also the case for researchers or teachers. Action researchers ensure that the data used to base decisions on is reliable and valid at the same time. Valid in this context means that the information accurately represents and conveys the researchers’ message.

Typically, researchers ensure that they get their information from multiple data sources. Many of them use triangulation. This is a process to increase the reliability and validity of data.

Triangulation is explained as studying or observing an object or information by looking at it from multiple perspectives. This helps a researcher to compare things and look at a topic from multiple angles.

Data collection is one of the trickiest parts of the action research process.

5. Analyzing data

Data analysis usually refers to complex statistical calculations and relationships. However, this is not always the case for teachers and researchers. There are easy-to-use procedures and best practices that help the user identify patterns and trends in the data.

6. Reporting

Although it may sound contradictory, many teachers consider their profession to be lonely. Many teachers spend every day teaching others, designing lessons and doing this on their own. Reporting action research is therefore very important. This usually takes place in an informal setting, unlike the formal setting where scientific research is shared.

7. Action planning

Action planning is also referred to as informed action. This is the final step in the research method process. When a teacher or researcher writes a plan or develops a program, he or she is usually also involved in the planning process. Action planning is more of an approach than a method.

It is a statement of what someone wants to achieve in a certain period of time. Drawing up and executing an action plan is an effective way to achieve goals.

Examples of AR

Different tools are used to support AR, depending on the working method and the problem to be studied. Examples of these methods are:

  • Observation of groups or individuals;
  • By means of audio and video recordings;
  • Through interviews;
  • Monitoring and taking notes;
  • By means of photos or questionnaires.

Action Research and Intervention

Besides the research of social systems, Action Research is all about solving problems in order to bring about social change. During the research method, the researcher does not merely observe and interpret information but he is also an active participant in the process.

This allows him to intervene faster and better and bring about change. One major advantage is that he will have a better understanding of the problems. Close cooperation with the field will increase the perceptions of the researcher and the practitioners. During research method the focus can be centred on the activities or the research itself.

Conditions for Action Research

For this research method to be successful, Kurt Lewin established a number of conditions must meet:

  • the research must be problem-oriented
  • the employee (client) must be at the centre
  • the current situation (status quo) must be included in the discussion
  • the research must produce empirically demonstrable propositions (direct and indirect observations)
  • propositions and findings must systematically fit into a useful theory.

Cyclical approach

Changes in accordance with the Action Research approach have the nature of an exception, in which stability (Freeze) is the standard, change the deviation from that standard and behaviour modification (Unfreezing) a response.

This research method is a cyclical process of change and is connected in his change model . During the Unfreezing stage a period of problem awareness takes places (Planning), during the change stage new forms of behaviour are tested (Action) and during the refreezing stage this new behaviour is reinforced and will become a habit over time (Results).

Action Research in practice

Action Research is a form of collective self-reflective enquiry, undertaken by participants in social situations such as employees within an organization.

Because of the research they are able to analyze and improve their own social and/ or educational skills. Research that produces nothing but books will not suffice according to Kurt Lewin .

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It’s Your Turn

What do you think? Do you conduct Action research? If so, what are your experiences? If not, which new insights did you get by reading this post? What are in your opinion success factors for conducting Action research?

Share your experience and knowledge in the comments box below.

More information

  • Coghlan, D. &amo; Brannick, T. (2014). Doing Action Research in Your Own Organization . Sage Publications Ltd.
  • Dickens, L., & Watkins, K. (1999). Action research: rethinking Lewin. Management Learning , 30(2), 127-140.
  • Lewin, K. , & Gold, M. E. (1999). Group decision and social change .
  • Lewin, K. (1946). Action research and minority problems , in: G.W. Lewin (Ed) (1948) Resolving Social conflict. Harper & Row.

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Action Research in Project Management: An Examination of Australian Project Managers.

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action research in project management

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This paper will propose a framework for the development of the next generation of project managers based on research conducted with senior project managers in Australia. These experienced project managers, from public and private organizations, suggest they acquired related knowledge through non-project management qualifications, developing their ‘head’. More importantly, according to the project managers, was acquiring knowledge from practical on-the-job experiences. In most cases, the development of the project managers’ capability was more likely to come from trusted ad hoc mentors. A combination of reasoned and experiential knowledge acquisition was informally integrated into the workplace by the experienced project managers. This integration resulted in the creation of project management capability, which was at times accidental. More deliberate ways of acquiring and converting project management knowledge included storytelling, reflection, and the establishment of informal communities of practice. These settings facilitated the conversion of tacit knowledge to explicit knowledge, and were found to be most successful when employers supported the development of project managers and their teams. This research also shows that the views of experienced project managers can be problematic for professional associations. Research pointed to a gap where these project managers were not inclined to join a professional association to acquire project management knowledge as they did not see value in participating in forums targeting less experienced practitioners. The gap between these two groups of project managers may be reduced through thoughtful, integrated, and relevant programs to engage and develop the next generation, from their ‘heads’ to their ‘feet’.

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The purpose of this paper is to examine decision-making in project management, and the considerations which project managers need to take into account in order to make informed evidence-based decisions. The specific aim of this paper is to present an understanding of how project managers use experiences, recalled through reflection and facilitated by storytelling, to make decisions. The paper provides an insight into how project managers may utilize decision-making approaches to accommodate a balance between factual observation, other evidence, a project manager’s recollection and reconstruction of facts, and facts imbedded within experiences. The drive to embed formal, structured approaches to decision-making is discussed against a background of unstructured and informal interpretation of experiences. The research conducted by the author used an action research methodology to gather and analyze data through four interventions conducted with experienced project managers in Australia. The examination reveals that through reflecting on experiences relating to past projects, project managers make considered decisions. This approach to decision-making may be seen as paradoxical and interpreted as biased. Perhaps this is a valuable bias which may provide an opportunity to extend the premise of an evidence-based management approach where the aim is to reduce bias.

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Project management and action research: two sides of the same coin?


  • 1 School of Health Sciences, Massey University, Palmerston North, New Zealand.
  • PMID: 16375072
  • DOI: 10.1108/14777260510629715

Purpose: To put forward the, to date, unidentified viewpoint that organisational action research and project management have many shared properties--making it a useful exercise to compare and contrast them in relation to organisational management structures and strategies.

Design/methodology/approach: A conceptual exploration, drawing on a wide range of supporting literature, is used here.

Findings: Project management represents a mainstay strategy for much of the organisational research seen in health care management--and has done for many years. More recently, the exploratory literature on project management has identified many limitations--especially when matched against "traditional" examples. Many health services have witnessed a more recent organisational management drive to seek out alternative strategies that incorporate less hierarchical and more participatory research methods. Action research certainly fits this bill and, on further examination, can be incorporated into a project management ethos and vice versa.

Research limitations/implications: The views expressed here are of a theoretical construct and have not been implemented, as they are presented in this paper, in practice. The intention, however, is to do so in some of the author's future studies.

Practical implications: If the management of health service organisations are to evolve to incorporate desirable structures that promote consumer-oriented empowerment and participation (where the consumers also include the workforce), then having a wider array of research tools at one's disposal is one way of facilitating this. Incorporating action research principles into project management approaches, or the other way round, or marrying them both to form a "hybrid" research strategy--it is argued here--represents an appropriate and representative way forward for future organisational management studies.

Originality/value: In terms of originality, this represents a conceptual piece of work that puts forward constructs that have, to date, not featured in the health care literature. Its value lies in suggesting further options for organisational-oriented health care research.

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Action research for transformative change

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  • Thami Croeser   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0003-1966-1864 1 ,
  • Sarah Clement 2 , 3 ,
  • Marta Fernandez 4 ,
  • Georgia E. Garrard 5 ,
  • Ian Mell 6 &
  • Sarah A. Bekessy 1  

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As major policy actors (e.g. governments, global organisations) grapple with 'wicked’ sustainability challenges, the use of demonstration projects or ‘living labs’ has promise in showcasing potential solutions. However, these projects can struggle to realise enduring change, with initial experimental deliverables tending not to be replicated and remaining as once-offs. As well as demonstrating solutions, projects also need to overcome the considerable inertia in the complex systems of organisations and institutions that govern (or indeed generate) sustainability problems. Here we argue that demonstration projects, while initially impactful, could be more likely to realise transformative change if they were designed more thoroughly as action research projects, working with partners to not only deliver and measure demonstrations of solutions, but also demonstrate changes to organisations and institutions to remove barriers and facilitate replication. We note the important role of both engaged leadership and explicitly-stated theories of change in maximising the potential of projects designed in this way.

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Demonstration projects: in pursuit of transformative change

Powerful national and international organisations (such as the European Union, the World Bank and the United Nations) spend billions of dollars annually on projects that seek to address enduring sustainability challenges, ranging from traffic congestion and energy efficiency to biodiversity loss and disaster risk reduction (Fay et al. 2019 ; Davies et al. 2021 ; Torrens and von Wirth 2021 ). These projects draw together universities, research centres, government agencies, businesses, and non-profits as collaborators, and typically provide support such as funding, expertise, and networking over finite project periods (usually from 2 to 5 years). The goal of these demonstration projects ‘(sometimes called ‘living labs’ or ‘real-world labs’) is usually to demonstrate and validate solutions to societal challenges (Bergmann et al. 2021 ). As demonstrations are spatially, financially and temporally limited, it is expected that these experiments will later be replicated to realise more substantial benefits (Wamsler et al. 2014 ; Peng et al. 2019 ; Cortinovis et al. 2022 ), although this replication must be understood as a careful translation of these initiatives into new contexts rather than simplistic copying (Schäpke et al. 2018 ). This process of (sensitive) replication is critical to drive ‘transformative change’, defined as ‘fundamental systems-wide change in the structure and functioning of a system’ (Ferguson et al. 2013 , p. 1). For example, a project that successfully delivers a field of ultra-efficient solar panels may be impressive, but it is not impactful on challenges like climate change mitigation unless the demonstration is replicated many times and across various contexts, such that the cumulative impact of multiple projects is reflective of the changes needed.

While demonstration projects can deliver substantial short-term outcomes, their enduring impact is less clear and there is limited evidence that replication occurs, despite the expertise, funding, and diversity of skills involved in these projects (Suškevičs et al. 2018 ; Davies et al. 2021 ; Torrens and von Wirth 2021 ). The establishment of new knowledge, discourses and networks can all be valuable precursors to changes in governance, yet these activities alone are rarely sufficient to break institutional inertia and path dependency; any resulting change is generally incremental rather than transformative (Pahl-Wostl 2009 ; Arnouts et al. 2012 ; Suškevičs et al. 2018 ; King et al. 2023 ). As project funding concludes, old ways of implementing infrastructure and services often return. As the intervention and scrutiny of international financiers ends, bureaucracies that bent their rules to enable one-off demonstration projects may regress back to the status quo, reapplying familiar rules, processes and norms that often reinforce unsustainable decisions (Dijk et al. 2018 ; Olejniczak et al. 2020 ; Davies et al. 2021 ; Torrens and von Wirth 2021 ; Fuglsang and Hansen 2022 ). Showpieces rushed past normal processes and deliberations in the hope of inspiring replication therefore tend to remain one-offs, and ‘learnings’ are absorbed quietly into reports (Torrens and von Wirth 2021 ). Indeed, the literature highlights how the role of learning in experimental projects pursuing transformative change remains poorly understood (Van Poeck et al. 2020 ). Repeated experiences suggest that the creation of knowledge and experience within the officer levels of organisations may offer immediate value in the short term, but does not usually equate to ongoing (and eventually transformative) change (Suškevičs et al. 2018 ).

This paper offers insights into how funding agencies and project teams can design demonstration projects to better improve chances of replication, and thereby progress towards transformative change. Drawing on our experience as practitioners, and using a case study of an EU demonstration project, we contend that three key issues can be addressed in demonstration project design to achieve this outcome. First, we explain how action research can (and should) be much more than just a straightforward collaboration with researchers to gather data about project action. Second, we argue that a theory of change must be transparently stated and rigorously examined—in this case, project teams must convincingly articulate how change via extensive replication is expected to arise from demonstrations. Third, flowing from this requirement, we advocate that institutional change is pursued and tested as part of the project scope, and that projects include leaders that have the power to enact enduring institutional change. This logic is summarised in Fig.  1 , and each focus area is explained (with relevant definitions) in greater detail below.

figure 1

Summary of the argument presented in this paper. On the left, we sketch a generalised status quo of unsuccessful replication. On the right, we present more complete Action Research as a precursor to institutional change that supports replication and ultimately aids progress towards transformative change

Action research can be much more than measurement

Being some decades old, action research is a broad family of research approaches rather than a single neat concept, but most broadly it involves a problem-oriented collaboration between practitioners and researchers to both diagnose an issue and also develop and implement solutions to it (McNiff and Whitehead 2006 ; Byrman 2008 ). While definitions of the approach are diverse and discipline-specific, action research (AR) is often posited to include three elements that we consider key to the value of this approach in demonstration projects.

Firstly, AR can introduce questions about what will be effective prior to the initiation of actions. These are often questions about what will work, and why it will work, and (crucially) how future actions might be improved (McNiff and Whitehead 2006 ). So, for example, a team working this way may determine that ‘we think trees will be effective at managing flooding at our project location’, but also ‘we think implementing trees at this location will be difficult under current civil engineering guidelines, so we’re going to trial a modified set of guidelines that we believe will support tree planting and manage engineering risks’.

This links to a second crucial aspect of AR—it can incorporate more interpretive approaches to research and learning, thereby enabling participants to look ‘inwards’ at the systems in which they work, rather than confining research to measurement of project outcomes (McNiff and Whitehead 2006 ). This additional perspective is very valuable, because the complex organisational and institutional settings that are typical to major demonstration project participants (e.g. government agencies, large corporations) are often barriers to replication (Suškevičs et al. 2018 ).

Lastly, AR is at its best when it not only integrates diverse skillsets as project partners ‘on paper’, but also brings them out of disciplinary or organisational silos. Practitioners, leaders and researchers should collaborate in both the diagnosis of the problem and the development of solutions based on this diagnosis (Byrman 2008 ; Cowling et al. 2008 ; Mell et al. 2022 ). This leverages the deep knowledge that many practitioners have of their contexts, while also adding the independent perspectives of researchers, without limiting their roles to detached observership (McNiff and Whitehead 2006 ; Byrman 2008 ).

The more reflective, collaborative action research we advocate lies close to the concept of Transdisciplinary Research, which also emphasises the inclusion of researchers as participants in problem-oriented, contextually aware collaborations with practitioners (Wickson et al. 2006 ). Indeed, the blend of both concepts—Transdisciplinary AR—remains a field of active development (Keahey 2021 ). For the improvement of demonstration projects, the critical elements of value we see in this family of research approaches are the three outlined above.

Theories of change are critical: they must be carefully articulated and examined

Underlying each demonstration project—successful or otherwise—is a theory of change. A theory of change is essentially a rationale for why particular outcomes can be expected (van Tulder and Keen 2018 ); some definitions add the requirement that this is openly stated, as a means of exposing assumptions (Reinholz and Andrews 2020 ). Articulation of expectations and visions is posited as a critical early step in urban experiments (Peng et al. 2019 ). However, in many cases a project’s theory of change is implicit in its design, rather than openly stated, and as such does not receive the same careful examination that is applied to budgets, timeframes and individual deliverables (Archibald et al. 2016 ). While subtle, an incorrect (or incomplete) theory of change can undermine a project’s chance of delivering lasting improvements (Archibald et al. 2016 ; Douthwaite and Hoffecker 2017 ).

Even when assumptions behind a theory of change remain unstated and unexamined, they still play a substantial role in shaping project design (Archibald et al. 2016 ). For example, project consortia often dedicate intense focus to measurement of demonstration projects, and the impact of these demonstrations in terms of metrics, case studies, and technical expertise. Communication activities are also a common emphasis, and activity to disseminate the acquired knowledge to the public and practitioners can include reports, workshops, and on-site demonstrations of services of infrastructure. However, experiential learning and compelling data rarely equate to lasting change (Suškevičs et al. 2018 ). The heavy reliance on metrics and case studies in project designs may reflect a tacit theory of change based on the widely-debunked ‘knowledge deficit model’: a persistent notion, particularly in scientific circles, that change is held back primarily by a lack of information (Simis et al. 2016 ). Project designers may assume that with enough evidence, documentation and demonstration sites, organisations will ‘see sense’ and adopt innovative practices smoothly—but this is rarely the case. Articulating an explicit theory of change allows these kinds of assumptions to be transparently examined and critiqued, and flaws more readily exposed. We contend that well-executed AR creates ideal conditions for formation (and iterative development) of a realistic theory of change by engaging practitioners and researchers in contextual observation and reflection well in advance of project actions (McNiff and Whitehead 2006 ).

Institutional change must be in scope, and powerful leaders must deliver it

An extensive literature highlights the critical role of institutions in enabling (or blocking) transformative change (Geels 2002 ; Avelino and Rotmans 2009 ; Dhakal and Chevalier 2017 ; Qiao et al. 2018 ; Peng et al. 2019 ; Croeser et al. 2021a , b ; Davies et al. 2021 ). There is much more to delivering enduring innovation than writing an ambitious strategy, debuting a new service, or cutting the ribbons on a set of novel demonstration sites. The formal and informal rules and systems that deliver strategies, projects and services must change too, or they can act as significant obstructions (Cowling et al. 2008 ; Pahl-Wostl 2009 ). For systems-level change to occur, novel ideas, technologies, and lessons must be diffused across networks and transferred and contextualised in new places; this represents not only a need for on-ground replication of successful sustainability demonstrations, but also a revision of the settings in which replication is intended. For innovations to have enduring influence beyond the life of these urban experiments, this process needs to influence systems of governance, through a realignment of institutional arrangements, resources, and networks of actors (Peng et al. 2019 ). For simplicity, we refer hereafter to this suite of changes as ‘institutional change’.

Changing these alignments is a substantial task, both within and between organisations (Clement and Mell 2023 ). These are quite static systems, as holders of power tend to favour stability and avoid confrontation (Flyvbjerg 1998 ). Existing organisational routines are strongly self-reinforcing or ‘path dependent’; existing actors and rules are coordinated in allocating resources to deliver an existing output, rather than the desired innovation. The status quo enjoys legitimacy, clarity of roles in delivery, and a tailored set of rules and norms that actors have learned to act effectively within, often through considerable repetition. Risk, conflict and costs are low, and delivery is fast, particularly relative to unfamiliar new practices (Uittenbroek 2016 ). Institutions can provide stability and predictability to governance systems, but they are notoriously resistant to change, even in the face of compelling statistics, case studies or direct experiences that favour transformative change (Clement 2021 ).

It is vital that projects engage senior leaders as AR partners. These leaders need to be both motivated and collectively powerful enough to enact reforms even in complex, entrenched organisational contexts (Avelino and Rotmans 2009 ). Knowledge-sharing arrangements established around these projects can support the reflexive learning processes that help challenge norms and identify reform opportunities, and champions in project teams can be empowered by demonstration projects to chip away at informal rules and norms, expand intra-organisational networks and negotiate new projects of work (Wamsler 2015 ; King et al. 2023 ). However, the vital work of revising formal institutions and structures—changing regulations, organisational roles, and decision-making procedures—is a task that requires buy-in and action from powerful senior leaders (Cowling et al. 2008 ; Wamsler 2015 ). It is important to note that in a leadership context, ‘power’ must constitute more than just formal authority; mobilising support for new rules, norms and processes requires considerable trust from siloed holders of informal power in organisations (Cowling et al. 2008 ; Avelino and Rotmans 2009 ; Evans et al. 2015 ).

Project design as an opportunity to support transformative change: a case study

Urban GreenUP is an EU-funded project demonstrating interventions and building capacity to plan and deliver NBS in cities. The project delivered millions of euros of urban greening in three ‘frontrunner’ cities in Spain (Valladolid), Turkey (Izmir) and England (Liverpool) to plan, implement and test the benefits of NBS in cities. Outcomes include the planting of thousands of trees (Izmir, Liverpool), numerous large green walls (Liverpool, Valladolid), and a major restoration of a concrete canal back to a streambank (Izmir). Project delivery has been facilitated by the creation of a large network of local governments, technical consulting firms, non-profits, research centres and universities, ensuring that project teams in the frontrunner cities were supported as they carried out the planning, procurement, construction and monitoring of novel NBS. Four ‘follower’ cities in Vietnam, Colombia, Italy and Germany have been closely supported with technical guidance and knowledge exchange projects in planning to replicate these demonstration projects. A further network of over twenty additional cities was brought into the consortium to observe and learn from the delivery of the demonstration NBS via reports, webinars and site visits. The authors of this paper that participated in the project directly (TC, SC, IM, SB) are university-based researchers that played active roles in producing both pre-defined project content (plans, metrics, reports) as well as ad-hoc research pieces in the academic literature (e.g. O’Sullivan et al. 2020 ; Croeser et al. 2021a , b ; Clement and Mell 2023 ); the reflections we offer arose from discussions between the authors over the years of the project, with conversations taking place at meetings, webinars, and during production of project reports and metrics.

Research approaches varied across the cities, with a strong focus on metrics and data collection by researchers. All the greening, data collection and reporting to be undertaken in the project was rigorously and rigidly defined prior to the project, and roles were firmly delineated between project participants. In some cities researchers were participants in each stage of delivering these tasks (e.g. co-development of indicators, active participatory design and delivery of NBS, and monitoring). Data assembled by these activities indicates substantial benefits for many NBS delivered by the project (for example, localised cooling and stormwater retention). Some project teams also engaged in critical reflection and captured ‘lessons learned’ in general terms, and knowledge about barriers were disseminated as part of the project. However, this was largely a descriptive, backward-looking exercise; many individuals built understanding of institutional barriers and prepared reports on these barriers as directed by the contract, but action to address these barriers was not formally within the scope of the project, and the project ‘s design required focus on a pipeline of prescribed deliverables.

As is common in these projects, the theory of change implicit in this project remained tacit and unexamined. The focus on metrics and descriptive reports suggests that there was an expectation that other cities would engage with communication materials, recognise the merit of these investments, and begin delivering NBS. Examination of organisational barriers within the project focused on simply identifying barriers in broad terms (‘social barriers’, legal barriers’ etc.) rather than using the project’s design to require serious critical evaluation of each city’s institutional context, or mandate at least some testing of institutional changes. Similarly, the potentially critical role of executive leaders in the project was not explicitly outlined in the project’s design, with much of the work of NBS delivery being led by project-funded staff at officer level (Croeser et al. 2021a ). Nevertheless, project staff had some ad hoc success as policy entrepreneurs, informally renegotiating some processes and roles, but the extent of serious change to alignments of actors, resources or institutions was quite limited (Clement and Mell 2023 ).

It is evident that this project’s approach to AR could have been significantly expanded, thereby enabling leaders on the project to deliver not only a suite of nature-based solutions, but also a legacy of facilitative institutional changes. With GreenUP leaving a material legacy of NBS interventions, we consider the next frontier in the future design of these types of demonstration projects.

As coming rounds of demonstration project teams pursue transformative change, the three foci advocated in this paper can guide project design to maximise their success in not only producing examples, but also enabling vital large-scale replication. These principles are (1) a deep engagement in action research, (2) an explicitly-stated theory of change and (3) an inclusion of institutional change in the project scope.

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TC, SC, SB and IM have received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under Grant agreement no. 730426 (Urban GreenUP). SB and GG were partly supported by funding from the ARC (Grant IDs: DP210103787, DP200103501, LP160100324, LP190100453). SC receives funding from the ARC (Grant ID: DE210101163).

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Marta Fernandez

School of Agriculture, Food and Ecosystem Sciences, The University of Melbourne, Melbourne, VIC, 3010, Australia

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  1. What Is Action Research?

    Try for free Action research models Action research is often reflected in 3 action research models: operational (sometimes called technical), collaboration, and critical reflection. Operational (or technical) action research is usually visualized like a spiral following a series of steps, such as "planning → acting → observing → reflecting."

  2. Action research in business and management: A reflective review

    Relationships developed through the 1 • Three sequential AR cycles.• Four AR phases were implemented within each AR cycle.• Research team guided the AR project. • Insights clustered in three levels: Process, cultural, strategic and structural.•

  3. Action Research: A Methodology for Organizational Change

    In 1991, Elliot suggested that action research is a cyclical process that requires repeated evaluation and change. This process in ongoing with changes taking place over time. Action research is a methodology for intentionally and deliberately devising first, what needs to change, and second, how to go about change.

  4. PDF What is Action Research?

    Introduction Action research - which is also known as Participatory Action Research (PAR), community-based study, co-operative enquiry, action science and action learning - is an approach commonly used for improving conditions and practices in a range healthcare environments (Lingard et al., 2008; Whitehead et al., 2003).

  5. Enhancing the quality of project management through action research

    The article brings the quality characteristics of action research to project management and explores how these quality characteristics of well-designed and executed action research can inform and enhance the practice of project management. Design/methodology/approach A reflective paper.

  6. (PDF) Action Research in Project Management: An Examination of

    Action Research in Project Management: An Examination of Australian Project Managers. Conference: 5th International Conference of Education, Research and Innovation (ICERI2012) Authors:...

  7. Action Research as a Meta-Methodology in the Management Field

    There are many definitions of AR, but one of the most frequently cited appears in Rapoport (1970): "Action research aims to contribute to the practical concerns of people in an immediate problematic situation and to the goals of social science by joint collaboration within a mutually acceptable ethical framework" (p. 499).In this way, AR brings together researchers and, in the case of ...

  8. Project management and action research: two sides of the same coin

    To put forward the, to date, unidentified viewpoint that organisational action research and project management have many shared properties - making it a useful exercise to compare and contrast them in relation to organisational management structures and strategies. Design/methodology/approach

  9. Using action research in innovation project management: building

    The purpose is to explore how the process of action research (AR) can support building legitimacy and organizational learning in innovation project management and portfolio practices in merger contexts.,Meta-reflection on method issues in Action Research through an action research case study with an innovation group during an organizational ...

  10. Action Research Design

    Action research is a change-oriented approach. Its key assumption is that complex social processes can best be researched by introducing change into these processes and observing their effects (Baskerville, 2001).The fundamental basis for action research is taking actions to address organizational problems and their associated unsatisfactory conditions (e.g., Eden & Huxham, 1996; Hult ...

  11. Project management and action research: Two sides of the same coin?

    Incorporating action research principles into project management approaches, or the other way round, or marrying them both to form a "hybrid" research strategy--it is argued...

  12. Co-designed strategic planning and agile project management in ...

    With its foundations in the principles of action research and organisational development (Argyris and Schön, 1997), project management is generally considered as the practice of planning and ...

  13. Action Research: Steps, Benefits, and Tips

    Basics Action Research: Steps, Benefits, and Tips Action-oriented research focuses on solving real-world problems and engaging in systematic inquiry. Read more about action research in this article. Lauren Stewart Qualitative Data Analysis Expert & ATLAS.ti Professional Introduction History of action research

  14. Action Research model (Lewin)

    The theory. Kurt Lewin 's approach of Action Research is a research method in which the researcher intervenes in and during the research. This serves two purposes: firstly, according to Kurt Lewin, it will bring about positive change and secondly, knowledge and theory will be generated. It is important that the researcher acts as a social ...

  15. Implementing Organizational Change Using Action Research

    Action research is used as a means of implementing organizational change especially in complex social situations where the people whose lives or circumstances are being changed need to be involved in designing and implementing the change that affects them (Burns, 2007; Somekh, 2006; Parkin, 2009).

  16. (PDF) Action Research: A Guide to Process and Procedure

    From the project perspective, [Estay and Pastor, 2000a] have proposed to use project management to improve the rigor of an IS-AR project by relating and mapping project management...

  17. (PDF) Action Research in Project Management: An Examination of

    Using Reflection and Storytelling to Inform Evidence-Based Decisions: An action research study of Australian project managers 2014 • Chivonne Algeo The purpose of this paper is to examine decision-making in project management, and the considerations which project managers need to take into account in order to make informed evidence-based decisions.

  18. Action Research: What it is, Stages & Examples

    Here are two real-life examples of action research. Example 1. Action research initiatives are frequently situation-specific. Still, other researchers can adapt the techniques. The example is from a researcher's (Franklin, 1994) report about a project encouraging nature tourism in the Caribbean.

  19. Action research for innovation management: three benefits, three

    Given that the innovation landscape is changing, and new forms of organization and management are emerging, this study discusses the potential benefits of action research for innovation management (IM) as it provides closeness to living emergent systems, generates rich insights as well as knowledge for both rigorous theory development and change in practice.

  20. Communication in Project Management: An Action Research Approach in an

    According to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) guide 6th edition , project management can be organized in five processes groups: initiating, planning, executing, monitoring and controlling and closing. In addition, it can be organized in ten project management knowledge areas, one of them being Communications Management.

  21. Action Research Model

    Action research, also known as participatory research, is learning by doing in the sense that a group of workers identify a problem, ... Project Management: Elements of a Project

  22. Guide Project Management Book Knowledge Action Research

    This paper explains the reliance on A Guide to the Project Management Book of Knowledge (PMBOK(r) Guide)-2000 Edition as a base to prepare IS qualitative researchers focused in action-research. Action-research was selected because it is presently the preferred research method among information systems (IS) researchers. But action-research has several weaknesses when applied, such as a lack of ...

  23. Project management and action research: two sides of the same ...

    Purpose: To put forward the, to date, unidentified viewpoint that organisational action research and project management have many shared properties--making it a useful exercise to compare and contrast them in relation to organisational management structures and strategies. Design/methodology/approach: A conceptual exploration, drawing on a wide range of supporting literature, is used here.

  24. Action research for transformative change

    Being some decades old, action research is a broad family of research approaches rather than a single neat concept, but most broadly it involves a problem-oriented collaboration between practitioners and researchers to both diagnose an issue and also develop and implement solutions to it (McNiff and Whitehead 2006; Byrman 2008).While definitions of the approach are diverse and discipline ...

  25. List templates in Microsoft 365

    List templates in Microsoft 365. Microsoft Lists help you organize, collaborate, and share the information you care about. You can create and share lists that help you track issues, assets, routines, contacts, inventory, and more. Start from the Microsoft Lists app, Microsoft Teams, or SharePoint using a template, Excel file, or from scratch.

  26. PDF Contents

    include research components as a foundation for demonstration, technical assistance, training, education, and/or outreach projects. These types of applications should clearly articulate this linkage, explain why the research component is necessary for the project's success, and ensure that such research does not already exist.