Consultancy or Action Research?

by Philip Boxer
Consider the relationship between a client and a service supplier in which a problem is being presented. They can each ask “who knows who knows best” what to do about the problem, and there are two possible types of strategy for how they can work together:

The consultancy approach:

  1. The senior management, knowing that they do not know while expecting the consultant to know, asks for consultancy.
  2. The consultant sells senior management a solution that they know how to provide on the basis of the transference that the consultant establishes. (guru)
  3. The senior management asks the consultant to provide people who know how to apply the solution.
  4. The consultant does so by using ‘bright young things’ who can learn how to apply the solution provided by the consultant on the job. (apprentice)

The action research approach:

  1. The senior management, knowing that they do not know while not assuming that anyone else knows better, asks for a technical assessment of the nature of the problem (expert).
  2. The technical assessment establishes what is known and what currently is not.
  3. The senior management sets up an action research process aimed at making tractable what currently is not known (reflexive process).
  4. The action research process creates a way of solving the problem that can be used by senior management.

What is the difference?

  • In the consultant’s approach there is a continuing asymmetry between the knowledge of the client and of the supplier, such that other suppliers are excluded. This approach may provide a quicker initial answer for the client, but leaves the client no better off in understanding the nature of the problem.
  • In contrast, the action research approach focuses all the time on removing asymmetries of knowledge between purchaser and provider such that the learning is joint. This is done by jointly identifying and working through the dilemmas emergent in the behaviours of the purchasing organisation in relation to its client-customers. This approach may generate better learning for the purchaser, but may not provide answers as quickly as senior management would like.

Behind this difference is the question of whether the problem presented by the senior management is itself the problem to be solved, or a symptom of some other underlying ‘real problem’. If the former, then it is reasonable to assume that a supplier can know the answer even if senior management does not. But if the latter, then the problem is going to have ‘wicked’ characteristics[1] and some form of action research process will be necessary, using some form of forensic process.

Notes
[1] ‘Wicked’ problems are problems with a circular definition – implementing a solution changes the nature of the problem affects what forms of solution can be effective etc. This concept of ‘wickedness’ was originally articulated by Rittel, H. and M. Webber (1973). “Dilemmas in the General Theory of Planning.” Policy Sciences. A more recent study in the context of Managed Networks in Health Care is Ferlie, E., L. FitzGerald, et al. (2013). Making Wicked Problems Governable? The Case of Managed Networks in Health Care, Oxford University Press.

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