The Phenomenon of Insider Action Research

Subject: Case Studies
Pages: 6
Words: 1677
Reading time:
7 min
Study level: PhD


Insider action research (IAR) is different from other forms of action research (AR) mostly due to the fact that the line between the researcher and the researched is particularly slight in this case. This specific condition grants IAR a number of benefits and also promises certain disadvantages. This review is devoted to the phenomenon of IAR and its specific features; the benefits and risks of the type of research are going to be paid particular attention.


In the book by Coghlan and Brannick (2014) that is devoted to AR, the eighth and the ninths chapters cover the topics of insider research. The ninth chapter defines the insider research as that conducted by a “complete member” of an organization (Coghlan & Brannick, 2014, p. 121). Such a member retains the role that he or she had played in the organization during the research and after it. The main advantage of such a research type is the possibility of gaining the practical knowledge, that is, the “understanding in use” (Coghlan & Brannick, 2014, p. 121). Coghlan and Brannick (2014) also point out the importance of the commitment (both from the researcher and the system) that determine the type of the research and, consequently, the possible procedures of the research.

In the ninth chapter, Coghlan and Brannick (2014) discuss IAR-related terms: preunderstanding and role duality. Preunderstanding, as opposed to knowledge, exists before the research in the form of ideas and experiences as well as the preexisting knowledge. To have the “right” to be called “preunderstanding” this knowledge has to be is explicit, not tacit. To create a positive environment for the generation of this knowledge, collaboration and inquiry spirit should be promoted. Preunderstanding is a significant asset that, unlike outsiders, an inside researcher has. Still, this knowledge may also result in carelessness and overestimation of one’s preunderstanding capabilities that is to be avoided. Similarly, the threat of internal barriers and communication problems exists between the employees of different levels.

According to Coghlan and Brannick (2014), role duality is mostly a problem for a researcher: it consists in the fact that an insider researcher is supposed to be carrying out two roles at once. The perceptions of employees are particularly important in this context. As can be seen from the above, the two mentioned issues affect the access to research-relevant assets. For an insider, primary access is always present, but for research, a more extensive access could be demanded.

Role duality and the specific ethical issues of IAR are also described in the article by Holian and Coghlan (2012). The authors dwell on the specifics of a research that targets humans as its objects, pointing out the specifics of such an objects: their free will, emotions, relationships and attachment (the latter is of particular importance for IAR). The authors demonstrate that IAR can and should be directed by ethics committees and codes, but its specifics, primarily, the duality of roles as well as the endeavor on collaboration, must be taken into account.

Moore (2007) takes an unusual approach towards AR study by comparing it to the Biblical original sin of knowledge. This is a self-research work, and Moore (2007) describes his own experience as an insider researcher and seeks to describe the psychology of his decisions and actions. For example, he admits that the primary reason for the research must have been the desire to get the forbidden fruit of knowledge, recognition and independence (Moore, 2007, p. 30).

For that, the author carried out the research aimed at the assessment of the nature of the company’s governance. As a result, Moore claims, he had learned as much about himself and his perception as he did about the organization. This approach is consistent with what Coghlan and Brannick (2014) have been dwelling upon: the commitment of the researcher to inquire into the organization and oneself, one’s principles and methods has brought its forbidden fruits. Apart from the internal barriers, Moore (2007) encountered the role duality problem and the difficulty of accepting “home truths” (p. 32-34). As a result, the main outcomes of the research were concerned not with the optimization of the company’s governance, but with the researcher himself, which, in the end, corresponded to the underlying stimulus.

The article of Björkman and Sundgren (2005) is concerned with political entrepreneurship or, to be more precise, “the exploitation of opportunities in order to allocate scarce resources to outcomes and preferences” (403). According to the authors, this phenomenon is important for IAR but stays underrepresented in relevant literature. The authors conclude that the process of research framing can benefit from the ability to find “red-hot issues” (Björkman & Sundgren, 2005, p. 406).

The rest of the political behavior features that can be exploited by AR are based on the relational opportunities of political entrepreneurship. As such, the strong interactions within the organization are particularly important for collaboration and are enabled by the specifics of insider research; the particularly productive usage and diffusing of results stems from the relationship advantages, and so does the ability of creating a strong “relational platform” (Björkman & Sundgren, 2005, p. 409). The latter consists of creating warrants that are aimed at engaging all the participants into the research. The authors also mention that political entrepreneurship ensures better controls ver the processes of AR.

Roth, Shani and Leary (2007) discuss the issue of IAR by presenting a new model of know-how development, which is build on variables like context and capabilities available, and utilizing it in the context of three projects. The authors also point out the significance of IAR for a company, claiming that “the successful use of IAR projects is itself an organizational capability” or know-how (Roth et al., 2007. p. 42).

Referring to Coghlan and Brannick (2014) as well as Björkman and Sundgren (2005), Roth et al. (2007) also dwell on the issues of multiple roles and pre-understanding and point out the political character of the IAR arena that requires a particular kind of political correctness in respect to one’s colleagues. The authors also point out the learning capacity of IAR and finish with a number of guidelines derived from the practical implementation of the model.

Gummesson (2003) dwells on the interpretive nature of research as such, even though the question is perfectly applicable to IAR, and also describes relevant researcher skills. The interpretativeness itself is described as the efforts of understanding the results gained in the process of research, which, according to the author, is always necessary. By combining the experience of a researcher and a business-to-business marketing practitioner, the author proceeds to describe the interpretation strategies of hermeneutics and compares an ideal research to Indiana Jones, who hunts for the treasure of the hidden results and meanings.


IAR appears to have attracted the interest of numerous researchers who seek to describe the phenomenon and implement IAR-consistent models in practice. The features of IAR that most of the authors kept describing include preunderstanding, role duality and the political character of the research. Apart from that, the fact that IAR is capable of providing the researchers with the information concerning themselves as well as their objects has been emphasized. Like any research, IAR requires interpretation and commitment; in case the two are provided researchers have the chances of achieving with deep insights and understanding.

Workplace Case


My company is currently trying to reduce the damage and risks caused by the fluctuations in the oil prices. Despite being a significant player in the oil and gas market, it has had to begin the reduction of its workforce: an action that signified the change period. An AR is going to be carried out with the aim of inquiring into and facilitating this process.

Researcher: Status; Access Possibilities and Strategies

The researcher can be considered a “complete member” (Coghlan & Brannick, 2014, p. 121). In other words, the researcher intends to stay a part of the organization after the research is concluded and is deeply committed to the company and enthusiastic about the possibilities of the AR. The status of a long-term worker with of a managerial level ensures a certain level of access necessary for the research. Still, one of the specific features of the research is its wide scope; consequently, despite having worked with the company for a significant period of time, the researcher cannot claim to have the access to all the necessary areas.

Similarly, a part of the research would require working with the employees who have different levels of trust and understanding in relation to the researcher. Therefore, it can be concluded that the barriers to the access for the researcher are both status-related and, so to speak, personnel-related. The status-related difficulties require negotiations, and their success depends on the political entrepreneur skills of the researcher. It will be necessary to create a consistent presentation of the planned research to demonstrate its benefits and convince the key access figures of its importance.

The behavior of political entrepreneur may also be used for the creation and improvement of the relationships with the personnel (Björkman & Sundgren, 2005; Roth et al., 2007). Trust is a necessary component of IAR that will need to be established within the team in case it will be found lacking. It should also be mentioned that the mentioned facts demonstrate the deficiency of the researcher’s preunderstanding. It will be possible to improve this situation with the help of creating a spirit of collaboration and inquiry within the team by, for example, designing it “as a structural learning mechanism” (Roth et al., 2007. p. 56-57).

Such an organization will be particularly helpful during the following stages of the research, but it is a useful tool in any case. At the same time, given the limited preunderstanding, the researcher will be able to avoid the mistakes caused by excessive confidence, which means that this feature could be described both as a disadvantage and an advantage.

Therefore, while the initial access of the researcher to the data may be constrained, the eventual access of the team will be much more impressive.


Björkman, H., & Sundgren, M. (2005). Political entrepreneurship in action research: learning from two cases. Journal of Organizational Change Management, 18(5), 399-415. Web.

Coghlan, D., & Brannick, T. (2014). Doing action research in your own organization (4th ed.). London: Sage.

Gummesson, E. (2003). All research is interpretive! Journal of Business and Industrial Marketing, 18(6/7), 482-492. Web.

Holian, R., & Coghlan, D. (2012). Ethical Issues and Role Duality in Insider Action Research: Challenges for Action Research Degree Programmes. Systemic Practice and Action Research, 26(5), 399-415. Web.

Moore, B. (2007). Original Sin and Insider Research. Action Research, 5(1), 27-39. Web.

Roth, J., Shani, A., & Leary, M. (2007). Insider Action Research: Facing the Challenges of New Capability Development Within a Biopharma Company. Action Research, 5(1), 41-60. Web.