Developing an Activity

  1. Selecting the Approach
  2. Action Research
  3. Methods Engineering
  4. How to Create Theory for an Activity
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Selecting the Approach

Industrial products are associated with many human activities which relate either to the creation of products, or to their use and maintenance. Any of these activities may occasionally meet problems which need improvement with the help of research and development.

"Developing" means that the project includes not only a description of the present activity, but also normative assessment of it and proposals for improving it. Assessment is, per definition, possible only from somebody's point of view. It therefore becomes necessary define quite early in the project whose interests are decisive when selecting the direction of ameliorations, and which outside parties shall be heard when planning changes. These parties can include, beside the management of the company, those other departments that co-operate in the activity. If the activity is production, important outsiders would be, among others, the purveyors of raw material, the customers, and other active groups such as in the diagram below which depicts two principal processes of business.


The degree of autonomy. When selecting an approach for developing an activity, it is usually advisable to conform to the same degree of autonomy that is prevalent among the permanent groups in the organization, in other words, it is best to comply with the normal distribution of the power of decision. In this way, it will be easier for the people participating in the project to find suitable roles and standpoints for them in the process of development. Organizations have, of course, large variation in the degree of autonomy of their groups, but two distinctly different states of affairs can here be taken as examples:

Although the above mentioned two lines of attack are no opposites and there can be intermediate approaches, their methods differ. The decision between them should be done quite early in the project, because it affects already the first phase of the project, defining its targets. This decision is made by the manager of the group in the first-mentioned approach, while in the second alternative the group itself makes the decision.

Process of the development project. Almost every project of development, no matter what is the method, is planned to follow the typical process:

  1. evaluative description of the initial state (perhaps including its earlier development) and defining the need for improvements
  2. analysis of relationships and possibilities to change things
  3. synthesis: proposal for improvement
  4. evaluation of the proposal.

When many people participate in the project, it often happens that a linear one-off process like the above cannot at once generate proposals that could be acceptable to all the participants. People often need time for taking their viewpoint and expressing their wishes on the matter. They often want to continue the discussion later, and perhaps need adjustments to some details.

Complications like these can compel redoing a part of the work and returning to an earlier stage of the process. If there are many such backward returns the process begins to resemble more a circle than a linear succession of decisions. Indeed, development projects where many people participate, often in reality follow something like a spiral such as can be seen on the right, regardless of how the project was initially planned. Anyway, by repeating the sequence, and by gradually improving the proposal, an acceptable result is usually found. The prosess is, in other words, iterative.

Are you developing a case, or creating a general theory? If the project has started from the problems in the activities of a group of people, its goal will normally be to remove these problems. For such a project of case study, sometimes called idiographic study, suitable methods are Action Research and Methods Engineering, explained below.

An alternative goal for an investigation could be to gather universally valid knowledge of the activities that were studied, in other words to create or enlarge theory of activity which theory can then perhaps later be used for the benefit of other, similarly problematic cases. This type of study is discussed later on, under the title Theory of an Activity.

Action Research

Action research, and a couple of other less known approaches, belong to the group of self-directed methodologies of improving an existing activity. In these methods the active group itself, perhaps with the help of an advisory researcher, initiates and carries out the investigation and creates the proposals for necessary improvements. Depending on the structure of the organization that this group belongs to, these proposals then perhaps are submitted for acceptance (or modification) by the management or other concerned parties.

Self-directed (sometimes also called participating) methods of development often require some time and money, but as reward they have several advantages:

Self-directed methods are now more trendy than in the time of Henry Ford and "scientific management", but in fact they are no modern invention. Groups of people have probably always been able to improve their activities, and also industry has long-established systems for gathering and carrying out proposals made by the employees. One of these is quality circle, a Japanese method in which the normally established work groups at a plant discuss the possibilities of improving the quality of the products and of minimizing the errors and losses in production.

Suggestion Scheme is another co-operation method for developing an activity. It, too, has already been used during many years. The objective is to encourage, develop, and carry out the initiatives and suggestions from the workers or employees of the organization. The system usually consists of the following parts:

Action research is, however, probably the most effective known method for handling complicated problems in the arrangement of work. It is a method in which the researcher temporarily joins the target community, and, with his theoretical tools, helps the community to solve the problems it is facing. The changes that are needed for correcting the problems are defined and accepted in a series of seminars where all the members of the group take part, including its leader. Kurt Lewin (1890-1947) is often mentioned as the father of the method.

Action research has been applied to several types of groups in work contexts, and it is particularly useful in public administration and in other matured organizations whose traditional methods fail to meet the requirements of the changed environment. With the help of action research, it is possible to turn a bureaucratic "routine organization" into a flexible "learning organization" which can change with new problems.

Process of Action Research

Action research Action research is not only a tool for developing activity but also a collective learning process. It consists of the following, repetitive cycle:

  1. The action of the group as it is regularly executed, is the starting point. Action research is not possible on theoretical assumptions only.
  2. Evaluation of the results. What is the original purpose of the action? Is it now being fulfilled? Are there any drawbacks or disturbing side effects?
  3. Reflection. Taking distance to the daily work and trying to find its general, conceptual structure. Are there general patterns that the work of the group is a special case of? The goal is to understand why the process now is as it is, and if there are other possible methods of work.
  4. Abstraction. The goal is to construct a theoretical model of the original activity, including its essential functions, strengths, and weaknesses.
  5. Planning changes to the original mode of action, trying to retain the essential functions while changing the weak points. The theoretical model should provide foundations for new action in practice. The modified style of action can then either be adopted for permanent use, or it can be taken as the starting point of a new, similar cycle of the project, until a proposal, acceptable for all, has been found.

Engeström (2002, 128) defines the phases differently and presents the typical result of each phase:

Present mode of action: Ethnography of problems.
Result: Description of the initial state and its problems; delimitation of the study.
Analysis of the historical evolution of the activity and its problems.
Result: Working hypothesis 1 about present controversies; its testing against information about present activity, its disturbances and innovations.
Working hypothesis 2 about the zone of near development.
Assisting the planning of a new mode of action and analyzing it.
Result: Working hypothesis 3 about solving the controversies, i.e. the new pattern of action. Analyzing the process of its creation.
Assisting the startup of a new mode of action and analyzing it.
Result: Analysis of the initiation of the new mode of activity, of disturbances, innovations and expansion.
Evaluation of the new mode of activity
Result: Analysis of the consequences of the new mode of activity and of the entire process [and then either a renewed cycle or conclusion?]

Kuula (1999, 94) presents the typical process of action research as a series of "working conferences" each of which has a topic to be discussed:

  1. What kind of organisation would be ideal.
  2. Which obstacles hinder achieving the ideal.
  3. How to avoid the obstacles.
  4. A realistic program for improvement.

It seems likely that even this process sometimes has to be repeated, because the participants cannot always foresee all the arising obstacles, and it is also possible that people after a second thought want to revise their original ideals.

The process models above are not meant to be followed precisely. Instead, the main target is to commence a discussion on development. When participants include the best experts on the activity in question, i.e. people that themselves carry out the activity, you can often expect that during the deliberations a suitable logic and progression "manifests itself" even with no rigid instructions from the researcher. This is the opinion of an experienced researcher, Gustafsen (1992, 5). Remember that a consultant or a researcher well versed in the methods of action research is all the time present and can offer counsel on how a dead end can be avoided. At the beginning of the discussions, it is usually the researcher who has the initiative, but the purpose is to achieve self-government as soon as possible, in problem solving as well as in focusing research in general.

Tools for Action Research

Action research It is the researcher's task to provide the group with advice and tools which help it to proceed in the cyclical process of action research. Difficult moments in the process where assistance is needed are transitions from everyday tacit knowledge to theoretical models; and, on the other hand, from the model to everyday life, see figure on the right. The researcher can facilitate this transition by introducing a wall chart which gradually gets composed during the discussions of the group and where either typical or problematic procedures of action are depicted with modifiable and movable paper elements. Problems concretely shown and structured on the walls could then provoke discussions and promote critical and theoretical interpretations of the problems. It is the researcher's duty to show how such a chart is started.

How to encourage the discussion. Another difficulty when starting to discuss improvements to the work routines of a permanent organisation can be that the procedures of work have until now been decided mostly by the supervisors. The subordinates have seldom been asked their opinions and are therefore not accustomed to express their ideas, which nevertheless often can include valuable alternatives for arranging the activity, for avoiding problems in the work and for improving its result. The researcher should try to help these silent people to make their contribution to the discussion. This help could mean giving motivation and encouragement, arranging an inviting atmosphere for the discussion and presenting suitable formats for making proposals.

One way to start the discussion could be for everyone to write comments on the problems anonymously on pieces of paper. The researcher then reads aloud these suggestions, suitably sorted, as an introduction to a general discussion.

Another tool often offered by researchers is a reflection questionnaire handed out to the participants by the researcher a day or two before the meeting. There the researcher has written open ended questions which will make the respondents specify and conceptualize the situation and the problems. The questionnaire may include questions on facts and attitudes with which the researcher examines the present state of the group for his own research report.

Beside providing tools which assist the participants in pinpointing problems and introducing topics into the discussion, the researcher should try to maintain an innovative discussion during the meetings. In a programme where loyal collaboration between the participants is vital, communication gaps cannot be allowed. To guarantee the even flow of ideas not only from supervisor to subordinate, but as well in all directions, the participants should agree on a certain policy of discussions. An example of such "rules of a democratic dialogue" are cited by Gustavsen (1992):

There were 13 recommendations altogether, developed in the framework of a large development programme that was started in Sweden in 1985 and called Leadership, Organization and Co-determination. The purpose was to initiate and support development of new forms of work and enterprise organization. This was to take place by the combined effort of labour, management, and research. For 5 years, about 60 researchers came to work within the programme that finally encompassed 150 enterprises and public institutions. According to the authors, "the democratic system has the benefit of drawing upon a broad range of opinions and ideas which may guide practical action, while also enabling decision-making supported by all participants".

Jungk and Müllert think that in addition to the rational-analytical level, the intuitive-emotional level should also be included in the discussions. That would help in focusing on the causes of controversy and reveal a new type of creative insights.

One more possibility to stimulate innovation in a group discussion is to make use of "brainstorming" and other techniques enumerated in Innovative team work, though usually the normal methods of action research already suffice for producing enough ideas for making a successful final proposal.

What is the role of the researcher in the action research process? Normally a researcher has not enough previous knowledge about the operations and problems of an unknown group that he would be able to estimate them or explain them immediately, let alone form a theoretical model of it all. Instead, the researcher can make his own general theoretical knowledge and skills available to the group. The researcher offers methods for analysis, gets the necessary information from the outside and asks questions that the members of the group would never have thought of themselves.

The researcher should remember that the reason why he has been asked to assist in the project usually is that the problems of the group have seemed impossible to solve. The researcher's principal task is thus to invite the group to look at their problems in a wider context than before, in other words, from so wide a vista that earlier unknown potential solutions become visible.

Theoretical models. It often happens that a problem in daily activity first seems insoluble, however the solution becomes visible if you look at the problem from another perspective and in a wide context. In action research, this wider perspective is normally created by proceeding from practical problems to theoretical and thus more general models (and, later on, back to practice again). However, this will not always be easy for the people in the group, who are only acquainted with practical operations. It will be easier to move to theory if you start with small practical things and proceed to bigger ones:

  1. the work of the individuals and its problems are considered first
  2. secondly, the collaboration of the whole work unit, its efficiency and problems
  3. finally, the purpose of the work of the unit is questioned and possibly redefined.

Another way is to look at the action from different viewing angles alternately. This can help to gain deeper understanding of the action, cf. the hermeneutic method. Fertile perspectives can be for example:

A usual reason for conflict is that among the factors we mentioned above, one has changed while the two others have remained the same. A historical approach can now be used to unravel this development. The time perspective of the oldest members of the group will usually be long enough.

As soon as there is a general understanding of the purpose and the conflicts of the work, and everything has been put into the model accepted for describing the action, the researcher and participants will discuss the means by which the goals will be best obtained and the conflicts removed. The alternatives for change will be found by looking at the theoretical model.

It is often difficult right away to translate the activity of the group into a theoretical model. It can be helpful to start by looking at the models that have earlier been constructed in the fields of those sciences that have studied human activities, i.e. the sciences of sociology and psychology, business management etc. It is the task of the assisting researcher to select one or more models that could be used as a basis of group discussion. Some theories related to industrial activities are enumerated on the page Theories of Production.

Layers of theoryThe models that can be borrowed from various fields of science are necessarily general in nature, in other words they are made on a general theoretical level which consists of broad concepts, such as efficiency, motivation etc. If potential solutions to the problems then are found on this level of general models (see diagram on the right) the discussion can continue back on the case study level of topical facts (like tasks, products and organisation of the group itself).

The alternative remedies for the problems will be found in the zone of potentiality (or in the "zone of near development"): in a range of possibilities which has not been thought of before or which has not been obtainable by one individual alone but which can be reached now with collective agreement.

The researcher is there to introduce examples of other groups he has taken part and of their methods and results. Moreover, he can introduce general theoretical models of management and co-operation.

Evaluating Action Research

When you are developing an activity, the results should not be measured with the criteria of descriptive research. Instead, you should compare the results to the targets of the project. The principal objective is usually to remove or alleviate present problems, perhaps also to train the members of the group so that they can avoid similar problems in the future. Sometimes there is also the goal to gather and develop theory of activity. Each one of these intentions should be judged with its own criteria.

Evaluating the Improvements to the Activity. At the outset of a project of action research, the purpose of the project is usually more or less clearly defined as the elimination of a certain problem. On this basis we can, at the end of the project, evaluate whether this goal has been achieved; though often in the collective meetings, the objectives of a project have changed many times from what they were in the beginning. In any case, we can evaluate if the project has been useful enough.

An agreement on the usefulness of a collective project cannot always be reached. It may be logically impossible to find a common solution which would be the absolutely best one for everyone ("Arrow's clause of impossibility"). Instead, we often can use the definition by Pareto of an optimal state being reached when it is impossible to increase the well-being of any member of the group without an equal reduction in the well-being of somebody else. Pareto's idea was thus that the well-being of a group is the sum of the well-being of all its members.

In the case of disagreement in the evaluation, the group could resort to voting and other conventional methods of group activity, see Mediating Opinions in Contrast. This will, however, seldom be necessary; usually a prolonged discussion is enough to reach a reasonable fair agreement on the success and results of a collective project. The reason is that during the project the participants have learned to understand each other's points of view and therefore they seldom too stubbornly stick to their original views. On the contrary, at the latest stages of the seminars, the atmosphere tends to be quite enthusiastic, and the evaluation of the results, too, may become too positive on the spur of the moment. To test the solidity of the estimate, the researcher could consider getting a second estimate from the participants through a later questionnaire or interview. Although not quite appropriate for action research, it is also possible for the researcher to move on to an "objective" point of view at the end of the project, and evaluate the project by measuring the "goodness" of the situation in the group at the beginning and the end of the project.

On the other hand, an outsider evaluation of the final proposal could be well grounded in the case that the project is going to affect the lives of people outside of the group. Typical such interest groups in a development project have been enumerated on the page Normative Point of View. General principles and methods of normative evaluation are discussed on the page Evaluating Normative Proposals.

Evaluating Learning of the Participants. Participating in an action research project can be interesting and rewarding because of the new ways of thinking and working that the participants learn and develop. It seems to correspond to the expectations of people today of what life should be like in society. Assessments of such questions may be collected at the final meetings of the project, if pertinent.

During the project, the researcher has gradually learned to know the members of the group well, so that he will be able to assess the development of their knowledge, skills and attitudes during the survey in his report.

Evaluating Theoretical Findings. Most projects of action research aim primarily at improving the practical activity of the group in question, and it does not interest the participants nor financers of the project whether its results can later be applied elsewhere. However, it often happens that the researcher that assists in the project comes from an university which is interested in gathering and developing the theories of activities and the methods of developing these. In this case it becomes meaningful to evaluate the theoretical value of the project, in other words the value of the increase in theoretical knowledge that can be applied elsewhere. Pertinent questions in such evaluation are discussed on the page Assessing the Findings, paragraph Assessing Theoretical Output.

Reporting Action Research

The researcher's special task in action research is usually to write a report on the project. Its contents will be a report on the phases of the project and a summary of the gathered data and the results obtained. The report will be easier to write, if the researcher has kept a diary on the events and discussions. Recordings can be helpful as well, especially if there have been several discussions at the same time in several working groups.

When choosing the content and style of reporting, you have to consider the purpose of the report. If the main objective is to assist in developing the activity that has been studied, you can often find a suitable format for it on the page Normative Reporting. Often there is no great need for a written report for an action research project, notably in the case that all pertinent people have been present at the meetings and they thus already have all the information that they need.

The case is different when the target is to develop the theory of activity, or when the researcher intends to use his report as a thesis in an university. In this case you normally will want to conform to the regular format of scientific reports, explained on the page Descriptive Reporting and in the instructions of the university in question.

Methods Engineering

Methods engineering is a special type of systematic observation that aims at improving a selected characteristic of a single worker's activity, while preserving good safety and a tolerable level of mental and physiological strain for the worker. Originally its objective was to improve the productivity of work, but in fact the method can be used for studying and improving almost anything that concerns work - the way the job is being done, working conditions, occupational safety, tools, materials, ecology, and even the design and quality of the product, in other words most of the topics listed on the page Theory of Production. Besides, many of these methods can be used by anybody who wishes to improve his or her personal process of work.

Methods engineering was developed in the beginning of 20C on the basis of the "scientific management" philosophy. The combination of methods was initially called Motion and Time Studies or Methods Time Measurement (MTM). Typical content of a methods engineering project is:

Originally method engineering was intended to be carried out by a specialized researcher who was not supposed to discuss things with the silent object of the study, the worker. The point of departure is the current state of the work which has been experienced as not satisfactory. The researcher starts by observing the usual work of the workers without interfering it, and registers its proceeding, often with the help of a stopwatch and a camera, and presents the results as process charts, ground plans and schedules.

During the observation, the researcher tries to find the answers to five principal questions, and to the additional "Why?" questions:

  1. What is done? What is the purpose of the operation? Why should it be carried out? What would happen if this was not done? Is every part of the activity or detail necessary?
  2. Who does the work? Why does this person do it? Who could do it better? Could a person with less skill and training do the work (if the work was suitably arranged)?
  3. Where is the work done? Why is it done there? Could it be done somewhere else more economically?
  4. When is the work done? Why should it be done then? Would it be better to do it at some other time?
  5. How is the work done? Why is it done this way?

Note that these questions are not predestined only to methods engineering but can be used anytime - and even by a single person - for simplifying a work process while maintaining its efficiency and other desirable aspects.

Although the approach of "scientific management" and methods engineering originally took little notice of the opinions of the workers, nowadays we understand that no profound and lasting changes can be achieved if they are not planned together. It is not only a question of the right of the workers, but also of using their expertise. In many countries the labour market organizations have now agreed that methods engineering projects must be at least discussed in the co-operative committees of the workplaces. Even individual workers often are invited to participate in development projects.

A simple method of cooperation of researcher and worker is that the researcher, besides observing the work, also interviews the workers. Such combined methods are discussed on the page Collecting Normative Data, especially in the paragraphs Combined Interrogation of Facts and Evaluations and Normative Observation. Suitable questions to be asked are:

Remember that often the worker has quite good reasons in doing the work in the way he does, but his knowledge and skill is usually "tacit". The researcher's task is to help it become explicit so that the researcher and the worker can discuss the method of work and perhaps find a better one.

When interpreting answers given by workers, the researcher should rely on his own judgement because the workers' answers are often tinted with the following things:

However, the work of a methods engineer does not end at describing the work and its problems as they are - he must also define how the present state can be improved. Today a methods engineer can base his proposal, beside observation, interviews and earlier experience obtained elsewhere, also on a large base of standards of work methods and productivity, not to speak of detailed theory of production for many fields of industry.

Once a tentative proposal exists, the final touches can then be added by using the methods of Evaluating Normative Proposals, especially in the paragraph Theoretical Evaluation.

The report of a work study is usually brief, it will only be needed so long that the proposal can be accepted by the management and perhaps also by the workshop committee. Once the optimal methods of work have been found, they are often defined as activity charts, i.e. accurate instructions of movement for various repetitive types of work. Other usual results of a methods engineering project are productivity standards which define the normal pace of work, in other words, how many units are normally produced per hour.

When selecting the structure and style of the report you may want to look at the page Normative Reporting.

How to Create Theory for an Activity

Most projects of action research or of methods engineering are case studies, in other words they aim at removing a known problem in the activity of a single group of people. As an alternative, it is possible to develop an activity so that the results can be applied wherever a similar problem exists. In this case the findings of the project must be in written in a general format and they can be called theory of an activity - for example, theory of production.

A product-related activity that could be beneficient to study and to develop, is the use of a product. In practice, you will often find it documented in the instructions for use, a booklet that accompanies the product. Alas, these instructions are today often quite badly written and would merit being tested by a researcher.

It is possible to say that the theory of using a product is included in the product itself in implicit form. For example, the hardware of a computer often aims at a specific use, such as creating music, computer-aided design, or playing. Studying and developing the use of a future product can be useful for outclassing the competing products in the marketplace by going deeper in the product development process: by improving not only the product but simultaneously its use as well, or perhaps even creating in this way a design driver for a completely novel product.

There is a separate page about the methods of Research and Development of Usability of products.

Manufacture is another class of activities related to products that often needs research and development. Theory of production need not necessarily include detailed descriptions of complete processes of production. Such a model would be useful only in the uncommon event that you had to design a completely new production line on the basis of theory only. Even in such a case you could probably find an already existing production plant that you could base the new design on, just changing the necessary details. And of course, for the task of correcting only a restricted problem in already existing production, you would not need any comprehensive model of production.

In other words, the normal method of developing a process of production is incremental where you take as a basis a process already in operation and then only modify one detail at a time. After each modification you have to evaluate how successful it is, before proceeding to other improvements. This method is safe and reliable, and it does not require much theoretical basis. Often all that is needed are descriptions and standards of various particulars in the process of production and formulas for their planning and dimensioning.

What was said above does not mean that there were no excellent theoretical treatises on the manufacture of some types of products. These will not be enumerated here, one reason for it being that such an exposition would soon lose its actuality because of the swift development of manufacturing technology.

Instead, the following short description of the current theoretical paradigms of production will be outlined according to the goal or the point of view that the theory is trying to uphold. There are only a few important types of goals of manufacture that have attracted the interest of researchers, which means that by studying them it will be easier to get a good total view on the present theory of production than by perusing hundreds of handbooks of different products. These often studied points of view in the current theory of production include:

Methods of developing an activity. When the objective is to gather generally applicable theory, the material has to be collected from a great number of cases, which means that action research is not quite suitable for this work. Instead, methods engineering is a potential method, as well as the normal interrogating methods and observation.

Suitable methods for analyzing the collected material could be the normal procedures of Descriptive Study or Normative Study. It can often become a problem how to arbitrate between contrasting points of view, such as economy, quality and the other paradigms of theory that were enumerated above. Some approaches for this task are explained in Mediating Opinions in Contrast.

En Español  In Finnish   Contents

August 3, 2007.
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