Practitioner inquiry in complex social systems

colliver's picture

I got involved in facilitating inquiry by practitioners pretty soon into my career, without really intending it. The first project was in 1985, the Classroom Relationships Project, which Trish Williams, an innovative teacher and like myself a sociodramatist. The sponsor's goal was to support development of schools, by building a collegial and self-reflective culture that considered relationships. Trish and I used Kemmis' ideas and Morano's idea of enacting interactions in order to understand them and generate new optison for yourself and others. We taught teachers to observe action in the classroom and entertain hunches about what was going on, and taught them to support reflection into practice. Then we paired them up, and required them to observe each other in the classroom, and then talk about what they had observed and what (on the teacher's end of things) they had been thinking, feeling and deciding. It was challenging for teachers, it changed them, and it was (in a way) easy to do. I just hung onto Trish's coattails and picked it up as I went along. A few years after this, I took pretty much the same approach in a national R&D project on professional development for teachers, with another group of facilitators and an educational academic, but it wasn't as much fun as working with Trish.

Then there was a bit of a pause for some years. I took an action learning approach to manager develoment, but there was never the room to let go of the content. There was always so much the organisation thought managers needed to learn, and not enough trust to go with learning per se. I must have read Schon's The Reflective Practitioner somewhere in this period, and that totally opened my mind to practice as a process of learing in action.

I next used action learning in a full-on way to develop organisational capacity and managers' competence in a three year project in the Water and Rivers Commission. This was a part of a wider change program, and it worked really well. Some learning sets formed around current practice issues within the organisation, such as community engagement, and the management of conflict around stream allocation, where the organsiation needed to grow its knowledge and change its practice. The focus was the organisation, not the individuals in the group. Around this time, the mid '90's, I read my way into the learning organisation literature, and then into knowledge management, where some people were seeing how knowledge and its mobilisation around organisational task was essentially a social process, and only secondarily a matter of hardware and software. I saw that action research could be one of the engines of knowledge creation. Then the senior management sponsor moved on and was replaced by someone who thought this stuff was a waste of time.

In 1999, I spent 18 months developing knowledge and skills in working in and building social networks, with extension staff in sustainable agriculture in WA Agriculture. I was flying under the corporate radar, with sponsorship from a couple of mid-level managers who had stashed away some cash and wanted to do something about extension in a difficult-to-staff part of the West Australian Wheatbelt. I had to work hard to get the commitment of individual staff. Previously, a corporate injunction had led people to the door, as it were, but here I had to go out and find participants. They were busy people, working on their own pretty much and wary of wasting time on bullshit, but we got together, and the learning was strong.

What I learnt was to strip away my desire to teach a method and leave them a space to talk with each other. They found their own way to action research as a method, and I just wrote down what they found both in relation to working in networks, and in relation to learning in the midst of action and from action. I was reading Wenger's Communities of Practice at the time, and I discovered that the process of actionlearning was embeded in a community of practice. This gave me the social form for learning within organisations. You're not working with a learning set: your working with a more or less developed community of practitioners. I go back to read that book to soak up the power of Wenger's imagination.

By this time I'd settled into natural resource management (NRM) as my niche, one because I like the people, and two because it is an excellent setting for improving the way we make decisions and take action for the common good, which is my mission. I facilitated a lot of strategic planning in community-based, multi-agency groups. I spent a couple of years in Victoria working out what social capacity in NRM drives change in practices and lthe environment, and how to measure that capacity. Along with facilitation and training roughly in the social capacity/community engagement area, that work got me warmed up for my current project - to work out how community-based Landcare groups can grow their capacity to influence landscape change.

And waddya know ... I'm using action research as the core methodology, not just because it's how I like to work, but principally because Landcare groups don't want anyone from outside coming in to tell them what to do, and there's too much anyway that they have to develop, without resources to do it or even a language for it. I've been used to doing action research in organisations that ooze jargon about learning and management. Landcare groups have just the basics - the desire to make the place they live and work better, and knowing they'll have to learn as they go. That and a mighty complex situation!

Dianne.ALLEN's picture

Welcome to practice debate


Thank you for this.  It refreshes my memory.  It reminds me of other routes in to Action Research/ Action Learning, and why I need to be a colleague of you - for the expertise in sociodrama as a significant (for me) adjunct to exposure to intelligent action learning.  (And is the reference there to JLMoreno and his work on psychodrama?, or is it another "moranean"?)

An interesting connection with your "Then the senior management sponsor moved on and was replaced by someone who thought this stuff was a waste of time."   ARLIST is currently running with a discussion about AR and sustainability, started off by a post from David Tripp.   And somewhere else in the past week or so, I have seen a practitioner lament this impact of non-understanding, of new key stakeholders.

Ah ... the issue of 'space', and 'practitioner' humility - "What I learnt was to strip away my desire to teach a method and leave them a space to talk with each other. They found their own way to action research as a method, and I just wrote down what they found both in relation to working in networks, and in relation to learning in the midst of action and from action."

Again, thank you for joining the practice debate, and sharing this.

Dianne Allen KIAMA, NSW

colliver's picture

Connect high and early

Yes it is JL Moreno.

Re: sponsors moving on, equally relevant is R&D projects that exist on the periphery of mainstream decision making. I've had significant work never make it out of the parking lot because the parking lot didn't have an exit to the main highway. On two jobs over the last three years, no amount of waving from the edge of the highway has slowed anyone down. So when I started my most recent project, the Landcare Network Readiness Project, I decided to "connect high and early." In the past I've underestimated the time it takes for new ideas to move into the mainstream, so I'm trying to signal early the kind of changes that will emerge for the project, and to find the people who will make the funding bids and the funding decisions that might action any recommendations.

Ross Colliver, TTDG, 0411 226519

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