The theoretical and practical connection between action research and project management is a largely neglected field of study. In this article, Professor David Devins and Dr Fiona Robertson propose a new framework to guide and support the development of Integrated Thinking and Reporting and reflect on its use in five universities across Europe.
Integrated Thinking and Reporting (ITR) is an integral part of the Erasmus+ funded ISSUE project which seeks to promote innovative solutions to sustainability in higher education. However, achieving ITR is not a straightforward journey for many organisations that may struggle to overcome a variety of social, cultural and financial barriers that stop or inhibit ITR. The challenge set by the ISSUE project was to provide a framework for the development of a prototype integrated report in five universities in less than nine months. The framework had to be flexible enough to embrace a range of starting points, processes, tasks and tools apparent in each institutional setting whilst at the same time as capturing evidence to inform the development of a manual of good practice drawing on the experiences of participants.
As longstanding advocates and proponents of action research (AR) the team at Leeds Beckett drew on an AR approach used in combination with project planning to guide the delivery of the project. The main similarity between action research and project management (PM) lies with their attempts to initiate and develop organisational change. Both, AR and PM use variations of a cycle as a basis for planning, implementing and evaluating projects which largely reflect the ‘Plan, Do, Study, Act’ cycle evident within a continuous quality improvement model of organizational change. One strength of AR lies in its ability to positively influence practice and gather data to disseminate to a wider audience whilst project management influences practice by putting in place actions and activities to address organisational situations. Project planning is an essential element of project management which, in this instance focuses on planning the activities and processes that need to be carried out in order to allow the technical work underpinning the development of an integrated report to proceed effectively. Combining the two approaches is in tune with key drivers of each, namely a need to move from a controlling and prescriptive style of management to a facilitating and empowering role embodied by an approach that strives to strike a balance between research rigor and relevance that provides a foundation for learning and evidence-based change.
In preparation for the delivery of the project, each partner was given an extensive briefing on the nature of <IR> and the International Integrated Reporting Framework. At the same time partners were provided with an introduction to AR (although partners were mostly familiar with the process) and a clear outline of the <IR> production process. Supporting templates (to aid data collection and analysis) for making the business case, stakeholder analysis, action planning and assessment of risk were provided by the Leeds Beckett Team. The templates were completed by all university partners and supported the identification of key stakeholders and the value that they seek; how the university creates value for them and the <IR> capitals transformed in the value creation process. The templates were reviewed and feedback was provided so that partners could learn from each other and revisit the business case, stakeholder mapping and initial action plans they had formulated. A structure for the Integrated Report, reflecting the IIRC framework was developed and agreed by all project participants. The first cycle of action research took place between January and May 2020 with e-mentoring support available and regular sharing of information via web-meetings and other digital media. The framework provided an effective mechanism to support the implementation of <IR> as, with considerable skill, perseverance and dedication, the teams in each university were able to mobilise support and develop a pilot integrated report within the time frame. All the partners intend to continue the journey and through further iteration, produce an <IR> for publication.