Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Action science

Groups and people often seem to have trouble communicating productively when conflict arises, and I've observed we often behave as if we didn't know effective ways to approach such situations. Chris Argyris and Donald Schön have developed an approach that I've found to be quite helpful for those interested in expending the effort to try it. The technical term is action science. Done well, the approach can provide revolutionary improvements in the way an organization functions. You don't have to wait for your entire group to start, either; you can begin by yourself.

One problem is that it's hard to find material about action science that's approachable while not trivial. I have a few links for those who are interested.

Someone in a Web discussion I subscribe to pointed to a an article on infed that is a pretty good short introduction to the theory. Roger Schwarz' The Skilled Facilitator provides a good albeit longer introduction to its practice. Perhaps one of the more interesting introductions comes in a book by colleague Bob Dick and his colleague Tim Dalmau: see Values in action: applying the ideas of Argyris and Schon. A version of its first chapter is available online.

Of course, you can always read any of the books Chris Argyris has written, such as Overcoming Organizational Defenses : Facilitating Organizational Learning. Reading his books is the way I got started, but it wasn't easy; I found that it takes quite a bit of study, trial (and error), and self-reflection to internalize what he says directly. It does seem easier if you have someone who can observe what's going on and interject comments and inquiries to help you (a facilitator, as it were).

However you choose to address it, I encourage you to pay serious attention to this issue. I've seen too many organizations suffer because of challenges they faced in working with each other internally, and I don't want you to suffer that fate when there are good approaches you can learn.

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