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Treading the line between researcher and consultant

TSElosophers meeting 21.3.2017
Jonathan Van Mumford, Otto Rosendahl, Henning Christner

Conducting and publishing design science research: Inaugural essay of the design science department of the Journal of Operations Management, Joan van Aken, Aravind Chandrasekaran, Joop Halman 2016

Quick summary:

This essay, written by members of the Design Science department of the Journal of Operations Management, is an explanation of, and call for, academic submissions using design science research (DSR) as a research strategy. The aim of DSR is to conduct field research aimed at finding solutions for real world problems (or to achieve real world opportunities), and, from this research, generating ‘generic designs’ which form mid-range theories that can be then contextualised to problems in other contexts. These generic designs are repeatedly tested and redesigned to establish ‘pragmatic validity’. The authors suggest that through DSR a stronger partnership between research and practice can be achieved in the social sciences as already is exists in fields such as medicine and engineering – thereby counteracting the “ivory tower” syndrome that often separates academia from practitioners. In effect, the essay advocates for researchers to tread the line between researcher and consultant in developing research driven designs of best practice.

Longer outline of discussion:

The authors describe DSR as being a separate paradigm from that of regular academic research (which they label “explanatory research”) inspired by engineering. Explanatory research aims to uncover explanations for universal truths, usually about average relations between cause and effect. On the other hand, DSR aims to improve the present and, as such, shares some similarity with consultancy. Unlike consultancy, however, DSR does not aim merely to improve local contexts through case-specific designs, but follows the academic aim of producing generic knowledge applicable across various contexts within a particular domain.

The concept and rationale of DSR as a research strategy is straight forward:

  • The researcher goes into the field and works towards solving an existing problem in a particular context (in the case of the essay, this will be an operations management context);
  • From the proposed solution to the problem, the researcher can then draw up a generic design for the solution and field test it to establish it has “pragmatic validity” (does it work?);
  • The innovative generic design is based upon a design proposition which is an explanatory account, identifying the contexts in which the design is useful, the mechanisms involved, and the connection between actions and outcomes;
  • The generic design, formed from the “high ground of theory” can then be applied in the “swamp of practice” through contextualisation to other particular contexts to create new case-specific designs.

Unlike engineering and medicine, which derive from the natural sciences and involve physical systems, DSR in the social sciences involves creating designs for social systems. Therefore, the main potential issue with DSR in the social sciences comes from the effects of human agency.

While this essay is targeted at specific field of operations management (OM) which the authors note, “is widely regarded as a problem-solving discipline, seeking to create knowledge by interacting with the real world”, our discussion was more general. We contemplated questions such as can, and if so should, such a DSR research strategy be utilised in our various disciplines? This led to broader questions of whether or not there is too large a separation between theory and practice, and what is our goal as researchers of social science? One primary issue we had with this mixing of research and practice is that the two sides of the coin ask very different questions. As was mentioned in the article, research aims to explain certain universalities about, or patterns within, the social world (why and how does something happens), while practice is more aimed at finding solutions for problems or planning courses of action (what and how should we do something). If we are to confound the two approaches in a single research activity, do we run the risk of chasing two rabbits and catching neither?

As for the question on whether or not we, as researchers, should intervene more directly in matters of practice and management, we do agree that inciting social change is often an important goal of the social scientist. However, the goals of practitioners and researchers are often divergent. Most businesses are motivated by their bottom line, but helping firms achieve profitability and efficiency does not always equate to what is best for society and is not always the goal of the researcher. While researchers can, and do, take part in consulting, and while such cases sometimes do generate the data for research (i.e. through ethnography, action research, participant observation, etc.), the development of theory is still clearly separate from the development of managerial practice. Does this mean that we raise high above the swamps of practice, looking down from our ivory towers, contributing nothing more to society other than the occasional theoretical proclamation? We think not. Research feeds into practice through teaching, policy papers, opinion pieces, public seminars among many other channels. Could this be done better? Always. Is design science research the answer? Mostly not, although we recognize that it is sometimes useful to collect empirical data with interventions.

1 Comment

  1. Kari Lukka

    Many thanks for the informative and carefully prepared blog post! Here are some further comments, unfortunately having missed the opportunity to attend this session. What is missing from van Aken et al. (2016) is positioning DSR as only one potential option of interventionist research (see Jönsson & Lukka, 2006). What I would also contest is the view that in social sciences explanatory research (or otherwise) would tend to seek universalities – to me that is a to a large extent an outdated claim. True, there may still be those who believe that is our task, but there is an increasing amount of social scienctists who subscribe to a notably more modest level of theoretical ambition (see e.g. Lukka & Suomala, 2014). Finally, even though interventionist research can surely offer a great avenue for getting access to exciting empirical materials, I suggest it also has potential for a bigger role in research, particularly referring to the opportunities of conducting research in the mode of “engaged scholarship” (see van de Ven and Johnson, 2006; Lukka & Suomala, 2014).

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