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A Reflection on Action Research: Inquiry in an organization with strong culture

As part of this term’s work, my professor asked me to consider what I would put in a chapter or article concerning this term’s action research project.  My group has been looking at the change management curriculum development process in an Army college (the Command & General Staff College). In terms of practices and concepts expressed in  a chapter, I think I’d explore the dynamic of AR conducted in the strongly hierarchical culture of the US Army.  Here are some insights I’d try to weave into the discussion:
1. It is true that from the outside, and at many times on the inside, Army culture can be characterized as male dominated, linear, scientific, hierarchical, action oriented, externally focused, protective of boundaries to the point of being insular, and reluctant to change, and by its nature adept in the use of force & violence and directive in nature.  It wouldn’t be a shock to find these qualities listed in a sociology text as an operational definition of traditional masculine western culture. And yet, this is also a simplistic view of a culture.  I suspect no culture can be so easily characterized, idealized and fit into neat boxes like that. Army culture also formally and informally values: initiative, humility, selfless service, speaking truth to power, listening, restraint, toleration of others, openness to new ideas, a tradition of service to others, and protecting the weak. The soldiers that constitute the forces come from a heritage of rugged individualism, and who have had a mistrust of formal authority and central authority.  In short, there are elements of both yin and yang in Army culture. It is fair to say that it is a strong culture in that broad and local norms, once established, have much power and tradition.

2. Based on this notion of strong culture, I began the AR effort with some assumptions that have not been proven through experience, which surprised me given my 25 years of experience in which being a judge of project merits and procedures has been a strength. I anticipated and developed contingency plans for a lot of resistance to our AR project, but have discovered not only no resistance but enthusiastic acceptance for the opportunity of stakeholders to participate. The administration has been far more receptive than I expected, in part because there has been a growing awareness of a need to go beyond business as usual with respect to leader cognitive development.

3. A draft chapter then would examine the relationship of culture and AR, and the dynamic of 1st person AR as I would review how I formed certain assumptions and found them invalid and then through reflection was able to adjust and adapt the plan basically as we went along. Traditionally I might have had to stop the project and reorient deliberately in my own study and returned to engage later. In the AR project this adaptation and reorientation happened as part of normal business inside of stakeholder meetings. So there was some 1st and 2d person learning going on simultaneously. The eagerness and proficiency of the stakeholders in adopting AR practices and values is evidence of the power of 3d person AR.

4. The last bit of surprise for me was that I expected it to be more difficult to muster support for a broad set of initiatives that would emerge from multiple stakeholder inquiries, but in fact, since the stakeholders have shared a common central focus, their individual ideas have tended to be mutually supportive, and thus easier to implement as a bundle as compared to the traditional change mgt advice which suggests that you should narrow the scope and take change in smaller chunks, and build momentum linearly and sequentially.  The momentum our project has seems to be more like a wildfire with positive 2d and 3d order effects joining together. This has been a case of  larger being better. Am still thinking my way through this reflection.



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