Participative Design and Action Research

Action research (AR) is a methodology that allows employees in an organisation to enquire into problems that they perceive in their workplace in order to resolve these problems ‘from bottom up’. Action research is not new. The basic methodolo­gies were proposed by Kurt Lewin (1890-1947), who is generally regarded as ‘the founder of modern social psychology’. On Lewin’s death, later scholars developed his conceptual theories into what became know as the ‘classical’ model of action research. The Tavistock Institute in London is especially credited with developing Lewin’s theories in work conducted there in the late 1940s and in the 1950s.

A key concept in AR is the belief that people accumulate knowledge from their everyday experiences. A second key concept is that people develop mental processes for organising their accumulated knowledge and are able to use the knowledge to resolve problems that they encounter in their daily lives (see discussions in Green­wood and Levin, 1998; Dickens and Watkins, 1999; McNiff and Whitehead, 2000). Employees who use AR in their workplace examine their own work practices and investigate how they might apply these practices to improving their work tasks. An example would be operators who monitor their own work processes and use the findings to improve the existing way in which they do their own work tasks. An added benefit would be if the operator shares these improvements with his or her colleagues. Another key concept for conducting AR is that employees work in an environment that allows participatory engagement with their work processes. By definition, AR requires a workplace environment of employee empowerment cou­pled with high levels of tolerance for error. (A relevant discussion can be found in Dickens and Watkins, 1999; see also Hunt and Ivergard, 2007.)

Current-day understanding of organisation design implies participation by the operators of key processes in improving these processes. Operator participation is an important feature of control room operations. This process whereby someone identi­fies problems (as in AR) and is also empowered to resolve these problems is often called ‘double looping’ (Schon, 1982). It would be expected that operators take an active part in monitoring the control system and engage in creative development of the system and its work outputs. This is discussed in more detail in Chapter 11.

In Chapter 1 we discussed some general principles of the process for planning and building new industries. The main message is that the design process has no defined start and end points. The modern understanding of planning and design is that they are a continuous ongoing process. This is also the case for the design and development of control systems and related control rooms. Nowadays, control room operators are highly qualified and experienced personnel. Their skill and knowledge should obviously be used in an ongoing process of change and development of their own process industry.