I was introducing the philosophy and practice of action research to a group of physicians recently. It was in the context of their leadership development program in which an action learning project is central. Whenever I first introduce AR I feel a philosophical tug - after all it is really only by understanding Western Philosophy of Science that we can understand the madness of the past century - whereby all knowledge generation has become the work of a professional elite in service to questions that this elite poses. Unsurprisingly this approach has not served humanity. But one doesn’t need to be philosophical to create the case for a transformative knowledge creation. Let’s be pragmatic: today we enjoy the rather startling statistic that 80% of organizational change efforts fail. They don't fail because they are not needed – notot overstate things but really…our healthcare systems no longer keep us healthy, our justice system is unjust, our financial system - even before it melted down - simply gave rise to a plutocracy... nope it's not that no change is needed. It is OVER AND AGAIN that change efforts are not participative or learning oriented. People, feeling steamrollered, make sure that change doesn't happen. Of course too many of us are change resistant to begin with. I would much prefer if when looking in a mirror I saw the body I had say 20 years ago, no change would be great! But I wouldn't be willing to give up the 20 years of experiences (and all those donuts, always organic!) that also transpired. We are at best ambivalent about change, so fearful perhaps of our inevitable end. So we multiply our normal human ambivalence by everyone else in the organization - not least the one's whose careers are to be threatened. And we realize - what a miracle that 20% of change efforts succeed! Perhaps it really does take a revolution, though I’d vote for action research as a transformative model of knowledge creation in lieu of the heroically slain on the streets of Tripoli today. Needless to say I am thrilled as well as fearful about the potential of the youth uprisings around the Middle East. If these mostly horribly misogynistic cultures can become even a tad more participative/inclusive, it will bode well indeed for all men women and children. No accident that Tunisia with its European levels of gender equality has led the way. But Saudi?! Saudi, where a woman can't even go outside without a male relative escorting her. Change is difficult and change is deeply political. Back to my classroom - I noticed among the physicians how tacit is my own reading of how to make political change. I can say one thing explicitly – if you want to see change, enjoin the change "champions." They are the ones who have that magical combination of being able and willing. It's tacit because I don't really want to stand there and explicitly describe how the men, and some women, in charge may be able but not willing, or willing but not able, or sometimes neither, when it comes to changing things toward a more positive direction (healthcare needs some positive momentum before we are all bankrupted!). Such things, i.e., specific names, are better left unsaid...YET maybe they have to be said. Interesting that the king of Saudi threw 35 billion of his personal money at ‘his’ problem of a potential uprising of all his deeply unhappy subjects. Lucky for him so many are illiterate and yes, the woman all stay home! Yet those in the know say the problems are structural, no amount of money will fix them. What they really mean is that the relatives of the king stand in the way of change. His relatives, more bluntly his sons and their off spring are in charge of everything. And one has a quite few sons when all your many, many wives can't go out alone and the general birth rate in Saudi is 9 children per woman (presumably per each out-of-her-mind-with-boredom--and-without-access to-family-planning-woman). To draw this to a close, politics, philosophy and pointed name calling is all entwined. The question is how to make the insights explicit while truly being participative and inclusive – not yielding to scapegoating. Not yielding to patriarchy!
Hilary Bradbury Huang