The increasing influence of socio-organizational issues in information
systems poses serious challenges to the applicability of most traditional
research approaches, since the mechanisms from which they derive their
rigor and validity become more and more unrealistic in the new contexts.
Indeed, traditional problem decomposition, standardization of procedures,
and rigorous quantitative measurement under the control of independent
researchers often lose sense in such contexts. We analyze action-research
as an alternative approach, bearing in mind that its adoption requires
careful consideration of the epistemological foundations that legitimate
its use. In particular, we address the legitimacy of generalizing
from the researcher's findings, bearing in mind Karl Popper's critical
rationalism, to conclude that a virtuous relationship exists between
critical rationalism and the mechanisms from which action-research
draws its rigor and validity.
We have been witnessing a dramatic evolution in the way information
systems support organizations.
Once merely devoted to the automation of unambiguous repetitive tasks,
information systems now deeply influence the very business models
on which companies rest, affecting all actors at all levels.
Project issues, once confined to the merely technical, are now dominated
by complex socio-organizational concerns, making conventional information
systems design approaches quite inadequate (Avison & Fitzgerald,
1999; Baskerville, Fitzgerald, Fitzgerald, & Russo, 1995). To
complicate matters even further, the research methodologies traditionally
used to develop new approaches also became inadequate, since the principles
from which they derived their rigor and validity problem decomposition,
standardization of procedures and collection of rigorous quantitative
measures under the control of independent researchers also ceased
to apply in the new contexts. This has brought to the information
systems arena what Kurt Lewin had described as "the limitations
of studying complex real social events in a laboratory, [and] the
artificiality of splitting out single behavioral elements from an
integrated system" (Foster, 1972) in (Checkland & Holwell,
Indeed, it is now increasingly acknowledged that studying new information
systems design methodologies, or alterations to existing ones, is
impossible from a socio-organizational viewpoint without intervening
in the real word to test the techniques (Baskerville, 1999; Baskerville
& Wood-Harper, 1996).
A research study under such conditions, and the additional need to
take the responsive and flexible posture required to grant that the
knowledge gathered in practice informs the developing theory, raises
a whole new set of difficulties.
To start with, going out in the field compromises any attempt to exert
control over the variables that affect the study a common approach
in traditional laboratory experiments since in such rich environments
it is not even possible to acknowledge every relevant variable, much
less control them on an individual basis.
The usual requirement of researcher independence also becomes compromised,
both by the need of direct involvement to provoke the changes to be
studied, and by the individual perception of the results, seldom objective
The ability to repeat experiences as a way to confirm results presented
by others, or as a way to try out different alternatives for the same
initial conditions, is, almost always, utterly impossible. On one
hand, due to the presence of human beings, the research setting is
not statically waiting for its governing laws to be "discovered".
It is, rather, in a state of permanent (re)construction (Checkland
& Holwell, 1998), strongly contrasting with the stability of phenomena
studied in the natural sciences, such as those resulting from gravity
or magnetism. On the other hand, the very changes provoked by the
researcher in such a setting are irreversible, and affect it forever.
Several authors have delved into the topic of finding research approaches
capable of answering those challenges, pointing to action-research
as a suitable alternative (Avison, Lau, Myers, & Nielsen, 1999;
Baskerville, 1999; Baskerville & Wood-Harper, 1996; Checkland
& Holwell, 1998; Galliers & Land, 1987; Lau, 1999; Salmela,
Lederer, & Reponen, 2000). As (Baskerville & Wood-Harper,
1996) put it, action-research is "one of the few research approaches
that we can legitimately employ to study the effects of specific alterations
in systems development methodologies in human organizations".
In the remainder of the paper we discuss this research methodology.
This is done on the basis of the reflection we have conducted when
supporting its use to establish a new information systems development
approach presented elsewhere (Cunha & Figueiredo, 2000), (Cunha
& Figueiredo, 2001).
In particular, we analyze issues pertaining to the rigor and validity
of results and to the ability to generalize from findings obtained
through action-research by examining them under the light of Karl
Popper's critical rationalism.
In the following section we briefly review the origins and generic
characteristics of action-research. In section 3 we analyze the mechanisms
used by this methodology to ensure the rigor of the research process
and the validity of the results. The ability to generalize from findings
is the subject of section 4. Section 5 sums up with some final considerations.