Community Action Research
Peter Senge and Otto Scharmer
( Parte 1 | Parte 2 ) / Torna a Indice AR
Published in:Peter Reason and Hilary Bradbury, eds., Handbook of Action Research,Thousand Oaks, California, Sage Publications.1Special thanks to Peter Reason, Hilary Bradbury, Peter Hawkins,and Robin McTaggart for their valuable comments.

This article presents an emerging approach to building knowledge for large scale transformational change. Laying behind this approach is a core premise: that Industrial Age institutions face extraordinary challenges to evolve which are unlikely to be met in isolation. Collaboration and joint knowledge building is vital. Competition, which fueled the Industrial era, must now be tempered by cooperation. Without this balance, organizations of all sorts will be unable to survive the hyper-competition of today's global marketplaces. While competition and competitiveness remain the mantra of traditional market advocates, the frenzy for optimal return on financial capital today threatens health and sustainability on all levels, not only of individual institutions but of their members and indeed the larger social and natural systems in which they are embedded.Community action research represents an approach to collaborative knowledge creation with which we have been engaged now for some ten years. Community action research builds on the tradition of action research by embedding change oriented projects within a larger community of practitioners, consultants, and researchers. Like action research, community action research confronts the challenges of producing practical knowledge that is useful to people in the everyday conduct of their lives (Reason and Bradbury, Introduction). Like action research, community action research values knowing-in-action, embracing Humberto Maturana's dictum that "all knowing is doing, all doing is knowing." But, unlike traditional action research, community action research focuses on:

1. fostering relationships and collaboration among diverse organizations, and among the consultants and researchers working with them;

2. creating settings for collective reflection that enable people from different organizations to "see themselves in one another;"

3. leveraging progress in individual organizations through cross-institutional links so as to sustain transformative changes that otherwisewould die out.

For example, Gustavsen's (Chapter 1) account of cross-institutional democratic dialogues in Sweden in order to develop "learning regions" is a good example for what we refer to as community action research. In short, community action research places as much emphasis on building cross-organizational learning communities as on undertaking action research projects.Such communities grow from common purpose, shared principles, and common understanding of the knowledge-creating process. The purpose, building knowledge for institutional and social change, defines why the community exists. Shared principles establish deep beliefs and ground rules for being a member of the community. Understanding the knowledge creating process enables everyone to see how their efforts fit within a larger system -- a continuing cycle of creating theory, tools, and practical know-how -- and how they inter-depend on one another.Today, this knowledge-creating system is profoundly fragmented in the fields of management and institutional change. The consequences are ivory tower university research disconnected from practical needs (Levin and Greenwood, Chapter 9), consulting projects that generate intellectually appealing change strategies that never get implemented, and "flavor of the month" management initiatives that lack any underlying theory or long-term strategic coherence and engender more cynicism than commitment within organizations. The ultimate consequence of this fragmentation is the inability of Industrial Age institutions of all sorts -- corporations, schools and universities, and public and non-profit organizations -- to adapt to the realities of the present day. Especially in times of deep change, sustaining adaptive institutional responses requires better theory, method and practical know-how.But bringing the theory of community action research to life involves conditions that are only just now being understood. It starts with genuine commitment on the part of a group of managerial practitioners from diverse organizations, consultants and researchers to work together. It further requires an agreed upon system of self governance and learning infrastructures that enable relationship building, collaborative projects, and sharing insights across the entire community andbeyond. Lastly, it entails appreciating and encouraging emergent learning networks that arise in ways that can be neither predicted nor controlled.The aim of this paper is to present the basic ideas underlying community actionresearch and illustrate their potential to produce both organizational impact andnew knowledge. While building such communities is challenging, the alternative is continued reliance on traditional, fragmented consulting and academic research, and on episodic organizational change programs driven by top management's latest ideas. We believe this status quo will never produce the breakthroughs in theory and practice needed to reinvent Industrial Age institutions.

A Brief History of One Effort at Community Action Research: From the MITCenter for Organizational Learning to SoL (The Society for Organizational Learning)
In 1991, a group of large, primarily US-based corporations came together to found the MIT Center for Organizational Learning. The collaborative originated from interest inapplying the "five discipline" tools and principles for organizational learning (Senge 1990, Senge. et. al. 1994) and from a belief that sustaining progress with such tools required deep and extensive change, and that this was more likely with a group of organizations willing to work together, providing examples, help, and inspiration to one another (Senge 1993).During the early 1990s, the collaborative gradually grew into the beginnings of a community. This incipient community was evident in enthusiasm for early successful projects (eg., see Senge et. al. 1994 and Roth and Kleiner 1996) and for support extended to those involved in projects that ran into difficulties (e.g., Wyer and Roth 1997). For example, when managers left firms that were not prepared to sustain innovations they had initiated, they immediately began helping other consortium companies who were not so cautious.But, as the MIT OLC community grew to include about 20 member companies and many change projects within those companies, basic problems becameevident (Bradbury 1999). It became increasingly awkward to be organized as a research center at MIT. As responsibility for the success of the community became more widely shared, in a sense the "center" became increasingly distributed. Ambiguous power relationships developed. Dealing with the cross-currents of a "de-centering" organization diverted increasing amounts oftime away from research and initiating new projects. Revenue growth slowedand staff expansion to serve the growing community was deferred. At the same time, despite slowing growth, the overall revenue volume was several times what it had been when the Center was founded and there was pressure from the MIT administration for a larger share of the OLC revenue to go to traditional faculty research.Beginning in 1995, a design team was formed, composed of twenty five people including representatives from member companies, senior consultants and researchers, including several MIT faculty. The task was to rethink the OLC. It was clear to all that the promise of this emerging learning community was being lost amid growing complexity and confusion.

A Theory of Learning Communities
The OLC redesign team met for almost two years. What some had hoped would be a quick identification of solutions became instead a deep and demanding process of reflecting on who we were and why we were here. We were fortunate to be guided in this process by VISA founder Dee Hock. Dee's ideas on "chaordic organizations," radically decentralized organizations which consistently generate order out of chaos, inspired the group to imagine that there might be a viable alternative to the centralized organization structure of the OLC (Hock 1999).Eventually, we realized that where the MIT OLC had succeeded, the success arose from three sources: a talented group of people committed to linking deep change at the personal and organizational levels, employing powerful tools based in deep theory, and a common aim to better integrate research and practice. In effect, there existed a common purpose although we had never articulated it: building knowledge for organizational transformation. There also existed an implicitly shared understanding of what we meant by knowledge and knowledge creation: advancing theory, tools, and practical know-how. What we had never addressed was how best to organize to support this common aim.In the second year, a guiding image emerged which catalyzed the shift from reflecting on our past to creating our future. We began to think of the knowledge creation process metaphorically as a tree. The roots symbolize underlying theory, below the surface -- yet, though invisible to many, the ultimate determinants of the health of the tree. The branches symbolize tools and methods, the means whereby theory is translated into application. The fruit of the tree is the practical know-how whose tangible benefits ultimately prove the value of the knowledge.The tree is a living system. It continually regenerates itself, creating new roots, branches, and fruit. This self-creating arises from the interdependence of the elements. Can you imagine new branches being created in a tree without roots? Or fruit that arises without branches? Moreover, the system as a whole nurtures itself. What happens if all the fruit is consumed and none falls to the ground? Of course, there will then be no new trees.This simple metaphor of living interdependence has powerful implications for thinking about knowledge creation. In contrast to this model of living interdependence, the present managerial knowledge creating system is deeply fragmented. Academics create theory with little connection to practice. Consultants develop tools that are often unrelated to theory. Managers focus exclusively on practical know how and results. Members of the OLC redesign team observed that, in their eagerness to "eat all the fruit," managers may actually undermine future advances in theory, method and, ultimately, new know-how and results. "The picture of the tree showed me that I had a personal responsibility for better theory, which was a completely new awareness," says David Berdish, director of process leadership and learning for Ford's Visteon corporation.Lastly, the tree as a living system embodies a transformative process that has deep parallels with the transformative nature of genuine learning. For the tree, this transformative process is photosynthesis, whereby complex carbohydrates are produced from the "fixing" of atmospheric carbon dioxide with water and nutrients drawn up through the tree's roots. These carbohydrates are the building blocks for the tree's fruit. Just so, at the heart of all learning is a deep, transformative process that creates new awarenesses and new capabilities, the building blocks for new practical know-how. The byproducts of this transformative process are especially interesting. Carbon fixing releases 7oxygen, without which life as we know it would not exist. So too does genuine learning release the life and spirit that pervades an organization where people are growing.The tree's transformative process is driven by energy from the sun, just as the learning process is driven by the energy of committed people. Thus, it was natural that, when it came time to pick a name for the new organization that emerged from rethinking the MIT OLC, we chose the Society for Organizational Learning SoL, Spanish for sun.Over this two year period, the simple picture of the tree emerged as an icon for the OLC redesign team. It also became a springboard for articulating a theory of what constitutes a learning community. A learning community is a diverse group of people working together to nurture and sustain a knowledge creating system, based on valuing equally three interacting domains of activity:

  • research: a disciplined approach to discovery and understanding, with a commitment to share what's learned;
  • capacity building: enhancing people's awareness and capabilities, individually and collectively, to produce results they truly care about; and
  • practice: people working together to achieve practical outcomes.

Such a community continually produces new theory and method, new tools, and new practical know-how.The following diagram shows the three domains of activity and their consequences. (the activity streams or flows are represented by the solid arrows; the rectangles represent accumulated consequences of activity streams, stocks increased or decreased by the flows arising from these activities; the lighter, curved arrows represent causal connections among and between the different domains).

The activity of research produces a flow of new theory and method, which accumulates in a stock of theory and method. But general method, the sorts of approaches taught to graduate students, differs from practical tools, tested and refined extensively in real work situations (the second set of stocks and flows in the diagram). This is typically the work of consultants who develop reliable approaches to address practical problems. Tools and methods do not just help in solving problems, they also help in developing new capabilities. Hammers are essential to carpentry but they are equally essential to creating carpenters. In the words of Buckminster Fuller (1976), "If you want to change how people think, give them a tool the use of which will lead them to think differently." So, creating and using tools is the core activity in the domain of capacity building, the ultimate result of which is new practical know-how (the third set of stocks and flows in the diagram). This is the domain of managerial practice. Because practical know-how is inseparable from the practitioners who embody that know-how, it disappears when those who embody it leave the system. "Knowledge (is) primarily tacit... deeply rooted in an individual's action and experience" (Nonaka and Takeuchi 1995, 8 ) Thus, the stock of practical know- how must be continually replenished through new knowledge creation.In a new field, the cycle of theory creation and its extension into practical tools and ultimately into a broad base of practical know-how may take many years. If this new knowledge represents a deep shift in prevailing ways of thinking and problem solving, it may take generations. Consider, for example that the Quality Management movement begun in Japan in the 1950's and gradually spread worldwide by the1980's had its roots in theory established in the first half of the 19th century, Poisson's law of large numbers and Quetelet's binomial or "normal" curve. By the turn of the century, basic statistical theory and method were taught widely in university sciences classrooms and, by the 1920's, were being applied by statistics experts to analyze variation in production lines. But, the quality management revolution really only started after World War II, when people like Deming and Juran, building on earlier work by Shewhart (1931), led the movement to translate the philosophy and method into ideas and tools like control charts that could be understood and used by non-experts. This then led to capacity building and practical know- how and results on a significant scale. One interesting feature of this example is the critical role of consultants in developing and applying the tools that bridged theory and practice through capacity building -- Deming's personal letterhead said, simply, "consultant in statistics," and he frequently credited other consultants and managerial practitioners with crucial ideas and practical insights in his writings (e.g., Deming 1982).But, why does the knowledge creating cycle take so long? Can it be accelerated? To address such questions we need to understand how this knowledge creating system becomes fragmented. This arises through breakdowns in each of the major linkages that interconnect the three domains. Sources of these breakdowns can be found in the taken-for-granted attitudes and activities of each of the respective professional communities. In effect, while incomplete learning cycles within organizations usually can be traced to cognitive or structural causes (March and Olsen 1975, Kim 1993), differing cultures and institutional norms create additional sources of fragmentation for the larger knowledge creating process. In short, the worlds of academia, professional consulting firms, and managerial practitioners in both business and non-profit organizations differ in ways that make greater integration extremely difficult.For example, the development of new theory and method is isolated from the larger system through breakdowns in both "outputs" and "inputs." In particular, assessment of most academic research is dominated by peer review. While peer review is a valid source of outside critique of new theory or analysis, it rarely considers the practical consequences of research. As a result, the outputs of most academic research, journal articles, have little impact outside self-defined academic communities. Although the array of journals continues to expand, this is driven by the growing number of academic researchers to needing to publish, and most are readable only by the initiated. The fundamental problem with this entire publication-review-promotion system is that it is self-referential. The academic paper mill tends to produce a growing number of papers in increasingly narrow fields. (Levin and Greenwood, Chapter 9) Most academic research is equally fragmented in its "inputs." Few academics spend enough time in work organizations to appreciate the actual challenges confronted by managerial practitioners and engage in mutual learning. Those that attempt to do so find that they confront significant dilemmas. For example, to understand deeply what is going on within a work situation, it is necessary to gain the confidence of the practitioners in that setting. This often takes more time than academic researchers can give, and it also takes establishing a perception of adding value.
As Edgar Schein puts it, managers are unlikely to tell an outsider what is really going on unless that outsider can offer real help. (Schein, Chapter 21) Researchers there to "study" what is going on are rarely seen as providing much help, so people are not likely to share with them the most important, and problematic, aspects of what is happening. Connecting practitioners knowledge, much of which is tacit, to developing better theory and method requires a genuine sense of partnership between researcher and practitioner based on mutual understanding and on embracing each others' goals and needs. This rarely occurs in academic research.The consulting profession generates its own forces of fragmentation. For example, most consultants aim to solve problems, not to develop new capabilities on the part of their clients. They practice what Schein (1999) calls "expert consulting," selling technical solutions to technical problems. But most difficult problems in work organizations are not purely technical. They are also personal, inter-personal, and cultural. The consequence is that expert consultants' solutions often prove difficult to implement. Large consulting firms are driven by "billable hour" business models that require common problem solving frameworks that can be applied by large numbers of expert consultants. These firms are naturally in conflict about teaching manager clients how to do what they do, because they regard their problem solving skills as the key to their competitive advantage. In short, although expert consultants may develop new tools, they usually do not employ these tools to build their client's practical know-how.Lastly, managerial practitioners play their own part in fragmenting the larger system through defining their work as producing results not knowledge. For example, with today's emphasis on short-term results, they look for consultants who can provide quick fix solutions to pressing problems rather than challenge prevailing assumptions and practices. This often results in a kind of co- dependence between consultants and corporations. Consultants get better and better at quick fixes. But these quick fixes only mask deeper issues. The deeper issues remain unaddressed, which means that new, often more difficult, problems will arise in the future. These then require more quick-fix consulting. Some firms, like AT&T, realizing just how strong this reinforcing cycle has become, have even declared temporary moratoriums on external consulting, in a extreme move to stop the vicious spiral. (Lieber, 1997) The net effect of these breakdowns is that the knowledge-creating system is dominated by the "minor connections" that link each stock back to its own respective in-flow, as suggested in the figure below:

about hereIn other words, theory begets theory: new theory development is driven primarily by current theory, rather than by wrestling with the dilemmas and challenges of managerial practice -- as academics talk mainly to other academics. Similarly, consultants continually extend their tools in order to remain competitive, but with little connection to articulating and testing new theory -- for that would mean exposing private theory to public scrutiny. And practitioners continually share their views and tacit knowledge with one another.. As with the other minor linkages of the knowledge-creating system, this sort of "single loop" learning is important (Argyris and Schoen 1996). But it rarely leads to breakthroughs in new capabilities. For this new theory, method and tools are needed that challenge current assumptions and practices.In summary, the sources of fragmentation arise due to self-referential, self- reinforcing activities in each of the three professional worlds of academia, consulting, and managerial practice. Each creates its own separate island of activity rather than contributing to research, capacity building and practice as interacting domains within a larger system. These breakdowns in the overall knowledge-creating system do not result in no growth in theory, tools, and practical know-how; rather, they result in fragmented and superficial growth.These are the challenges confronted in building learning communities. They require a kind of meta-knowledge, knowledge of the knowledge-creating process itself. Building such knowledge is the fundamental task of community action research.