PAR in Organizations: A Small Business study

I am fascinated in exploring how PAR might be applied within organizations and outside its traditional domains of development, education and health. What does PAR look like within, for example, a business? One example is seen in the work of Chris Street and Darren Meister* who used PAR in helping a small business manage change.

The researchers decided on a PAR approach because:

  • it offered the ability to satisfy both the needs of the researchers to explore a theoretical issue – in this case the relationships between small business growth, internal transparency and information systems – as well as a practical business need – here a document specifying for potential suppliers the company’s information system needs;
  • it allowed the researchers “to become deeply involved in the organization”, “engages the practitioners directly with the research questions” and “researchers gain investigative value from an insider’s view of a problem context;”
  • and offered a flexibility to adapt the project to organizations needs as they emerged.

Street and Meister outline an evolving research process identifying how each stage of the research process built on data generated in the previous stage. For example, in the first stage, labelled “Baseline analysis”, the importance of strategic planning was identified. Within each stage there were five sequential activities – action planning leading to action taking, followed by a period of evaluating, specifying learning and diagnosing issues for the next stage. The researchers describe their changing roles: starting as analysts with the management team acting as informants to ending the project in a more advisory capacity.

Challenges with PAR

Street and Meister identify some issues with PAR. Of concern is that PAR needs to be differentiated from consulting and the importance of demonstrating research validity. They use Lincoln and Guba’s qualitative research criteria: credibility; fittingness; auditability; and confirmability. They recognize the possibility of a “Hawthorne effect”- that the issues were created by the research participants – but overall believe their case to be a strong one.

But how does this project focused on a CEO called Nick and his 5 year retirement plan connect with the work of Swantz in Tanzania (see post) – are we really talking about the same research method just applied in a different setting or are there fundamental differences? The emphasis on participation, the focus on solving an issue important to the participants and the involvement of organizational members in stages of the research process is clearly evident in this business case. However, it is hard to see who is really marginalized and the researchers do not explore in any depth issues of power and politics, a central feature of PAR in other domains. In addition, “participation” in this business case really only involves 5 of the 32 staff and these are all senior managers. There is no obvious engagement with stakeholders outside of the organization.

The project also did not result in lots of different ideas emerging – the original aims of the project were quite clearly defined and met within a 6 month period. Even if we recognize that the process in the middle was interactive and flexible and involved the business rethinking its strategic plan, it’s a far cry from PAR approaches where the researchers spent years in the field and participated in everyday tasks. This raises a number of questions. Is this case a good representation of the reality of PAR suited to certain organizational settings such as a business where there is less emphasis on full participation and less concern with issues of power? Or is it, as I suspect, in fact more representative of a collaborative piece of research (see post) rather than PAR?

Street, C., & Meister, D. 2004. Small business growth and internal transparency: The role of information systems. MIS Quarterly, 28(3): 473-506

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