Friday, July 01, 2011

Reading :: Action Research for Management

Action Research for Management
By William Foote Whyte and Edith Lentz Hamilton

I've provided a link to UT's library because this book is apparently no longer in print and isn't listed on Amazon (except in a couple of miscellaneous used book listings). In fact, the library copy I read has a blank stamp sheet - it hasn't been checked out since they moved from the card system to the stamp system. (We're now on the barcode system.)

I stumbled onto the book while looking for Whyte's classic Street Corner Society: The Social Structure of an Italian Slum, which was checked out. But I greatly enjoyed this book anyway, even though it's certainly not a classic. The book, published in 1965, describes a participatory action research study that Whyte supervised and Lentz and Meredith Wiley conducted in 1945; Lentz wrote the core of the book as a monograph, then Whyte added chapters to the front and back to connect the project to PAR developments. They delayed publication 20 years because the hotel they studied and the participants they quoted, though pseudonymous, were still identifiable to those in the hotel community. (I suspect they waited until some of the principals died, actually.)

The study was of a hotel (the "Tremont") with high turnover and poor labor relations. After hearing Whyte talk about his previous study of the restaurant industry, the Tremont's VP and General Manager asked Whyte to conduct a study of the troubled hotel and recommend changes. Soon, Wiley took over the Personnel Manager position and Lentz was attached to his office, and both conducted PAR. As we read their account, we get to move through different parts of the hotel, examining different sorts of dysfunctions (including some sexual harassment that would result in firing or worse today), and seeing how these dysfunctions resulted from systemic issues rather than simply individual behavior. As you can imagine, I very much enjoyed this account.

On the other hand, reading the book felt like reading a Hardy Boys mystery. It's not just the style, which made me think that we were soon to meet the boys' portly chum Chet, or the dialogue, which is full of interjections like "Why" and "My." It's also that the researchers are portrayed as protagonists who, sometimes through making suggestions and sometimes through confrontations, unravel the mysteries of the hotel and set things right. In this PAR study, the researchers always know best and learn how to nudge management and workers to repeat the researchers' solutions - and believe that those solutions originated with themselves instead of the researchers!

I'm not sure that I gained many methodological insights from the book, but I enjoyed it immensely. If you like PAR or the Hardy Boys, definitely pick it up.

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