I picked up a conversation on twitter last week where someone was attacking the role of academics and suggesting they shouldn’t criticise practitioners as writing and thinking aren’t as important as doing. I disagree – the act of reflecting and studying action is in my view essential if we are to learn from our actions and it is extremely difficult to be both an actor in a situation at the same time as objectively evaluating it. Observing, reflecting and acting are all essential if we are going to get better at what we do and I wouldn’t weight one above another – you need to have respect for all three. As someone who is a practitioner and hopefully an academic I am acutely aware for the need to balance action with objective reflection – its not easy but it is useful.

Action research is a form of academic enquiry that is carried out by practitioners. Its based around a cycle of “Observe → Reflect → Act → Evaluate → Modify →” that means you are both active in the workplace but also bring academic rigour to your self-reflection and learning about your work. Anyone who is working and researching at the same time needs to use these kinds of techniques to try and ensure that your research has integrity and is not just a way of supporting your work as a practitioner. I’ve been meaning to blog about how I manage this tension personally and as I am working on my research methods chapter – and was prodded into thought by the twitter debate last week – this seemed like a good time.

I’ve been blogging since October 2008 and I started with the express purpose of blogging my research – the aim has always been to create an action research diary. Since I started writing up my thesis in Autumn 2010 I have had a goal to write 3000 words per week of content that can go into the thesis and I usually manage something close to this.

The decision to create the blog is, without exaggeration, the only reason that I have at least a fighting chance of completing my PHD alongside some fairly large competing responsibilities. And what is more – I love doing it. I’m not very good at action without purpose – its one of the reasons why I am dreadful at small talk and have a tendency to interrogate rather than chat to new people (making me an excellent person to introduce that new partner to I can tell you). Despite my long time fascination with the social web I had for a long time been more of a lurker than a participant mainly as my need for stuff to have a point meant that I was unwilling to add to the vast piles of largely meaningless content you find online (yes – that’s a personal opinion). Beyond the direct benefits of action research thinking I also think the blog has helped me wrestle with a number of other issues which I will try and describe here namely; Publicity, Reflection, Life leak as well as helping me work out how to eat an elephant and manage ethical dilemmas….

I am really delighted when other people find it useful and I get enormous benefits from the comments and ideas that people share with me as a result but I wouldn’t be writing if the process didn’t have the huge value that it does for me personally.

Action Research

Action research is something I am using and doing rather than studying and so this section is fairly methodologically light – I may add to it when I look at the research methods chapter as a whole.

When I was designing and researching the methodology for my PHD it was clear that the fact that I am an active participant in most of the sites where I am conducting research meant that I was not going to be able to act as a passive observer as well. I considered a ‘participant observer’ role for a while as I looked at ethnographic research methods (Danah Boyd being the best known online ethnographer) but the degree of control I have over the technological landscape of the sites that I am studying means that any passive research role was not going to be a truthful description of the part I play in the creation of the civic spaces that I am studying – even if my rather action driven nature would have allowed it.

So, while the bulk of my data collection is a straightforward social science experiment consisting of a ‘measure, effect, measure for change’ structure I would need to be disciplined around my own interventions and also track my learning and development of my thinking as I worked. This is especially true because the software development that underpins the civic spaces of the virtual town hall is an intertwining of my research and commercial thinking.

One element of action research that is important to emphasis is the fact that in absorbing the idea that you are both acting and learning the intent of the practitioner becomes part of the research. You have an opinion and you are trying to effect an outcome. This is at odds with the positivism of scientific enquiry that holds objectivity as the highest standard but instead accepts that as actors we have a view on outcomes. Action research can be said to be both morally committed and value laden (McNiff & Whitehead 2006) – essential in a field of endeavour which is examining how you make things better within your own environment and practice. As a result there is a need for the researcher to understand their values and their own intent and to measure activity against these.

What’s more the action researcher has a malleable and developing idea of what knowledge is – and far less of a belief in the existence of ‘an answer’ and greater belief in the need to experience, collaborate and create knowledge – knowledge is not sitting there waiting to be found out its got to be created (McNiff and Whitehead 2006).

True action research is centred around the individual with the practitioner and their relationship and impacts on the world around them being the main topic of enquiry. Where action research differs from the best practice standard of self-reflection is that it also seeks to create an evidence base which can open your work to public scrutiny. Where I fail as an action researcher is where I am not systematic enough about that knowledge cycle from observe along through modify. I do it but don’t always document it well though I do document my thinking and how it evolves. This is perhaps a reflection on the fairly broad nature of what I do or it could just be I am lazy.

Publicity

This need for public scrutiny is an essential element to academic work – your work needs to be out there and needs to stand up to examination. This is a fairly daunting at the start of any course of study or research – and even worse about 6 months later when you realise the full extent of your ignorance (for any other researchers reading – my experience is that acute ignorance anxiety does diminish but doesn’t abate – right now am writing in fear of a bunch of action research specialists reading this and then fainting in horror – you learn to live with it and do your best to be thorough).

The blog is an excellent introduction to this publicity and the fact that you join a community of people who are thinking and writing online is reassuring and supportive. I’ve been very lucky in that I have only occasional negative comments here and as they have been from anonymous contributors I have felt justified about not posting them – though I do of course fret about them for days. Most researchers don’t get to experience this publicity until much later in their work as you would need to wait until you get an article or conference preceding published. These more formally peer reviewed publications are more challenging than the far less systematic scrutiny that you get from blogging but in many ways lack the sense of publicity that the blog provides with its far greater reach and accessibility.

To get the full benefits from this you need to read and well as write within this community and one of my backburner projects is to spend some time curating content from other academic bloggers as its something I see more and more people doing and I think we could learn from each other.

Reflection and evidence

If you have any curiosity at all about what I have been up to for the last 3 years (research-wise!) then look no further – its all here. The blog is hugely useful in terms of showing thinking and progress over time and is a useful way of organising the literature review and other big bits of work. One of the many things I have learned later than would have been most useful is the need to theme and tag my work so that I can more easily access threads of thought for later use – but in my defence one of the problems with doing this is the fact that the themes have emerged from the research and were not self-evident at the start. I do however wish I had at least thought through my tags and categories a bit more to start with and then reviewed them regularly – but its too late for that now I think.

More thorough action research would require slightly more structure on the evidence of reflection than I have included here – though this is of course only one element of my research. Where the research is focused on the practitioners behaviour you should be noting the context, the ‘problem’ and your planned approach so that you can evidence how your actions have effected the situation. I have not been doing this as my research is not so much about my actions – I have taken an action research stance in order to manage the fact that I have two relationships with my research sites – one as a researcher and one as a supplier of products and services.

The one area that I have not been publishing has been my research data – but this is more from indecision than secrecy – I have been slow off the mark with the data collection (as you’ll see in my last post) but I will be publishing this here as well once its in a shape where I think I can communicate it.

Life leak

I have written about life leak before – the way in which the social web makes it both difficult and important that you manage the intersections between different bits of your life. I am not someone who wants their personal life to be particularly public and I don’t tend to use the social web to keep in touch with friends. I’m actually fairly militant about it and tend not to respond to news that I get via facebook – if you want me to know something then get in touch specifically rather than including me in a general broadcast.

My personal identity is exactly that – personal. This blog, and my twitter account, is about a public identity for me as a researcher and practitioner. Its separate to my work identity at Public-i and it allows me to think in public without impinging on my responsibilities as a CEO (though I am ever mindful of these) or imposing on my personal privacy. I am making conscious active use of self-publication to be able to create an online identity which reflects who I am with respect to a specific aspect of my life which I don’t think I could do in any other way. CuriousCatherine is an online identity that is intrinsically me – but is consciously just one aspect of me. Given that I started the blog as part of a process of transformation from practitioner to researcher / academic it has been a big part of making sure I was actively changing the way in which I think and integrating my learning with my day to day work.

How to eat the elephant

To state the obvious a PHD is a very large thing….not just the 80,000 words that you expect the final thesis to be made up of but the process of structuring and forming those words into a coherent argument. Many people struggle with the actual writing up of their research – even the full time students – and you need to be disciplined and focused to get it done. Given the fact that I have maximum of one writing day a week I did what any self-respecting systems analyst would do and I modularised the writing process into topics that I though would need around 3000 words. At Christmas I assembled these sections into a first half draft (the second half will be data analysis) and was able to put together a document that is around 33,000 words and will be over 40,000 words after I add in the gap analysis sections that I have been working on since Christmas. This approach won’t work for everyone but for me it has been the only possible way I could have gone about creating something of that size given my time constraints.

There are downsides to this. The rest of this bank holiday and the next will be spent in a substantial rewrite which will have to address the fact that my themes have emerged over the course of writing to some extent. I also need to get rid of some duplication and I have a huge task to do in terms of adding in references etc as the informal style of the blog has not forced me to write these in as a I go along. I also need to remove the occasional aside and what passes for humour as I am fairly sure that this is not what the examiners will be looking for. On the upside the discipline of the regular writing means that I write far more quickly than I did at the start and that I have now got the knack of forming the post in my head during the week and then getting it written down fairly swiftly. As a by product my posts seem to be getting longer and longer but I do promise to try and return to more usual blog length once the thesis is under control.

The ethical dilemma

As I have said before one of my motivations for taking the action research approach is because it is a practical and value driven research mindset that can help to manage the tension between being a practitioner and being a researcher. Action research requires that your pilot sites understand that you are using them for study and that you have their consent. I handle this by being very clear with clients (I think) where the work is of direct relevance to my research and where I am doing data collection I have a disclosure sentence on the questionnaire.

Where I think things get murky is where I am commenting on sites and content creators who I am not involved with – something I know people do all the time but does I think need addressing. For these sites, where I use them in the final thesis, I plan to content the site owners and let them know that I am commenting and including their work. Where the content is public I do not see the need to ask permission per se (as long as they have not got a restrictive copyright on the content of course) but I do think that the courtesy of telling them is important.

Where I am acting as a consultant with a client then the research stance is actually something that I think people value and as with any consultancy you need to be clear on where the work crosses over with other interests and what you will be taking out of the engagement.

All of these are fairly standard ethical dilemmas but where this becomes more difficult is actually with respect to software development decisions within the business – academic thinking not traditionally being the most commercial approach to take to things. Luckily I am not the only person in the business taking a view on what we should develop – there are far more technical folks looking at this and we also work actively with our user group. Nevertheless it would be disingenuous if I didn’t make it clear that I have a lot of influence here.

We are not working in an established market – there is no clarity as to what the right solution is for helping citizens and government have better conversations and as a result make better decisions by using more social technologies and so we are all to some extent making it up as we go along. This brings an extra dimension to the dilemma in that what I believe might work for a client is not always what will sell.

An example of this would be around moderation tools. I am firmly of the view that government should not be moderating civic spaces – even if government could afford the administrative overhead you can’t co-produce a solution when one party effectively has the ability to censor another. Power must be shared and I propose that you trust people, get some rules of behaviour agreed and then take shared responsibility for the content. Anyone who is active online tends to be happy with this degree of risk, anyone who is new to the social web tends to run a mile in the opposite direction. We manage this with conversations with the client and by with the compromise of integrating with third party tools that do allow moderation.  This kind of compromise is not a bad thing – and I need to take the academic mindset at the point where I don’t convince a client to do it my way and make sure that I learn from their choices – I need to be open to the idea that however firmly held my convictions are I may very well be wrong.

At my annual research committee meeting (something that is coming up fairly soon and so is on my mind) I have repeatedly been asked if I see a conflict between being a supplier and being a researcher and the committee are also rather intrigued as to what I am going to do if the research shows that the software approach is flawed. I am usually a little testy when I answer this question because why on earth would we want to be delivering software that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny? Either its useful or if its not – and if its not useful I think I and more importantly our clients would rather know. Personally I think the fact that we bring a research based mindset to our development work means that we are actively learning and creating as we go along and this is good for the client.

Anyone who is working commercially has these dilemmas and ‘pure’ researchers also run the risk of becoming too attached to a theory that they then can’t let go when the evidence goes against them. This is true for me as its easier to talk about the good stuff than to talk about the setbacks – for example my data collection hesitancy – but if this is an action research blog then I need to make sure that I am documenting it all.

Going back to the values that action research needs to be based on – my personal values – which manifest themselves in my research – are that I need to be open and honest in my dealings as a researcher and that the work I am doing needs to have a value to the people I am working with. This last point is where the academic and commercial world cross over in my view as its bad business and bad thinking to be convincing people to do things that you don’t believe will help them.

A Room of One’s Own

I know I will continue to blog after the PHD is (hopefully) finished because the value that I get from the process is beyond the 3000 word per week discipline which is so essential. I have become tediously evangelical about the process and would encourage any researcher to try it. The focus that it brings and the sense of tangible progress in the face of an enormously large objective is invaluable.

There is a risk that I have distracted myself and that my writing has not developed the academic ‘smell’ that my supervisor is after and we shall see how big a problem is as a finish assembling content for submission – but as I write I can only think that these risk is a small one compared to the daunting task of writing a thesis without the discipline, structure and publicity that the blog has created.

There is something else I think. I have always been drawn to Virginia Woolf’s observation that in order to write a woman needs a room of her own and £500 pounds a year to provide the requisite freedom. I usually write in my study at home with the dog snoring on the sofa and though I only have a day a week to write I have carved out that time to do so. I am lucky. The blog is in many ways that room of my own online. It is the place where I have the space and freedom to express myself according to my values and ambitions at the same time as being tied to the other aspects of what I do and who I am.

(3591 words and counting)

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