Source: Educational Action Research, Vol. 24, No. 1, 97–114, 2016
(Reviewed by the Portal Team)
This article discusses the research regarding the formation and role of networks, and factors to consider when assessing the impact and outcomes of a network. Networks serve a variety of functions including information diffusion and knowledge exchange, network learning, and innovation. Networks are also seen as mechanisms for improving the spread of new ideas and practices and can occur at differing levels (e.g. individual, team, organisational, community).
Furthermore, there are a number of purported benefits of well-functioning networks, including: a way to address complex social problems; access to increased capacity and resources; opportunity for learning and teaching; provision and acquisition of knowledge; shared risk; advocacy; positive deviance; innovation; flexibility; nimbleness; responsiveness; achievement of a mission or mandate; and a sense of agency among members.
This article also looks at the connections between networks and action research (AR), and moves to a focus on the Evaluative Study of Action Research (ESAR), currently in its first stages, and outlines four levels of networks associated with the study.
The ESAR is a mixed-methodology study which seeks to address the underexploration of AR outputs, outcomes, and impact via an evaluative study of multiple AR projects in several countries and varied contexts. This study is a systematic inquiry and analysis about intended and unintended outcomes, as well as an examination of precursor and process elements that have contributed to impacts. Networks are of particular importance in AR and in the ESAR. Networks enable communication among all participants in, and users of, the research.
Finally, this article provides an early formative analysis with regard to the impact and outcomes of the ESAR team as a network to date. As part of the ESAR, an ongoing analysis of the role, impact, outcomes, and functioning of each of the four networks identified will be undertaken. Results are hoped to advance knowledge and improve AR process and impact: advancement that should be of high relevance to academics, researchers, and practitioners across multiple disciplines that encourage and employ AR.
The authors elaborate factors for well-functioning networks, based on the funding applications, notes from the meetings of the ESAR team, ethics application, protocol documents, and responses of members to questions regarding the team network.
Democracy, including democratic management, is evident throughout the notes and minutes of the ESAR team network, and in the responses to the questions posed. Each meeting begins with a personal check-in as to how they are feeling about the study, and to what may be happening in their wider world.
Democratic management is also evident in the leadership of the study. The result is a high-performing network that has moved from a formation/initiation phase to a maturity/implementation phase in a short amount of time.
Diversity, including distinct social, economic, political and cultural contexts, is evident within the network in the members themselves. There is a mix of senior academics, ‘young’ academics, and an academic ‘trainee’ (doctoral student). Each brings different strengths and experiences to the network and these strengths and experiences were identified in the first meeting.
Although each member is connected to academia, and has a background in AR, the fact that it is an international network means that there is a need to ensure there are common language and a respect for diversity of thought.
Dynamism, including the ability to balance and manage multiple contributions of members, is evident both through the way the network functions and in the tasks that have been completed to date. Throughout each of the ESAR meetings, the notes and minutes reflect specific aspects of dynamism, including agreement by all, appreciation for commitment and willingness, and goal-setting.
There is a sense of caring among the network as well, with more experienced members wanting to see less experienced members grow. Leadership has been, and continues to be, critical to the success of the ESAR team as a network. In large part, leadership which demonstrates authenticity, in turn, sets a level for the team network to strive towards.
The authors conclude that the ESAR network provides evidence of each factor of well-functioning networks. The ESAR is a five-year study and therefore the network itself has a considerable journey. It is possible that membership may change as the study moves ahead, and leadership will continue to play a critical factor. Formative evaluations will continue for how the team network functions, as well as how each of the networks that develop functions as the research is undertaken.