Researching inter-organisational collaboration using RO-AR

Vangen, Siv (2019). Researching inter-organisational collaboration using RO-AR. In: Voets, Joris; Keast, Robyn and Koliba, Christopher eds. Networks and Collaboration in the Public Sector: Essential research approaches, methodologies and analytic tools. London: Routledge, pp. 125–141.



This chapter focuses on the application of Research Oriented Action Research (RO-AR) to research inter-organizational collaboration within and across the public and non-profit sectors. RO-AR is a phenomenological action research methodology developed by Colin Eden and Chris Huxham (1996, 2006) which they and others have used to research aspects of management and organizations generally and inter-organizational collaboration specifically; the latter being the focus here. To that end, this chapter draws on a program of empirical research into governing, leading and managing collaborations that has been ongoing since 1989, and which has relied primarily on RO-AR. As a program of research, it is concerned with the development of conceptual knowledge that can inform practice and which has accumulated into the still evolving theory of collaborative advantage (TCA) (Huxham and Vangen 2005; Vangen and Huxham 2014). The aim in this chapter is to provide a brief introduction to RO-AR and to explore its applicability to research on collaboration.

Action Research, of which RO-AR is a particular type, was pioneered in the United States in the 1940s, most notably by Kurt Lewin (1946). Lewin argued that research for social practice needs to be concerned with ‘the study of general laws … and the diagnosis of specific situations’ (36). He pointed, among other things, to the need to design methods for recording ill-structured data and to focus on the relationship between perception and action through taking an interpretist approach to research. In a similar vein, action research aimed at understanding organizations and organizational change began at the Tavistock Institute in the United Kingdom (UK) in 1947. With the aim of conducting research and developing knowledge, the Tavistock Institute developed new participative approaches to organization change and development. In the years that have followed, a number of related approaches have emerged including action science (Argyris, Putnam, and Smith 1985), action inquiry (Torbert 1976), action learning (Mwaluko and Ryan 2000; Revans 1982), appreciative inquiry (Cooperrider and Srivastva 1987; Cooperrider, Whitney, and Stavros 2008) and participatory action research (Argyris and Schon 1991; Whyte 1991). Given the growth in popularity of these kinds of research methods, the literature is unsurprisingly both large and somewhat confusing. Nevertheless, and notwithstanding inherent differences, these methods all involve learning from interventions in organizations with the purpose of bringing about change and advancing knowledge. A distinguishing feature between them is the relative emphasis on change (or practical transformation) and the development of more general knowledge (i.e. theory). The primary purpose of the systematic engagement with action in praxis may be the immediate development of an individual, an organization or a community (e.g. via appreciative inquiry or action learning) or it may be to inform the development of theory on the aspect of management or organizations that is being researched, as is the case with RO-AR. The validity of RO-AR, however, rests fundamentally on the intervention being useful in practice. This close relationship with practice enhances the potential of a theory ultimately developed to inform other contexts. Eden and Huxham distinguish RO-AR from other action research approaches in the following ways (2006: 388):

• from organizational intervention projects that do not satisfy characteristics of rigorous research
• from research within an organization that does not satisfy characteristics of action orientation
• from forms of action research that do not have research output as their primary rasion d’etre.

The aim of this chapter is to highlight key features of RO-AR and to show how it may be used to produce good research on collaboration. In what follows, we look at the relevance of RO-AR to research on collaboration, provide and account of the application of the method in developing the theory of collaborative advantage, along with an overview of issues pertaining to data capture and analysis. The chapter also offers a brief evaluation of the method and some thoughts on rigor and relevance for researchers who may wish to apply the methods in future research on collaboration.

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