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Problem-solving and learning with academic accreditation: A flexible postgraduate program for managers and practitioners using action research at the workplace

Professor Alan Davies
Southern Cross University, Lismore, Australia
Adjunct Professor Bob Dick
Graduate College of Management, Southern Cross University, Lismore, Australia
Dr Stewart Hase
School of Social and Workplace Development, Southern Cross University, Lismore, Australia
Dr Shankar Sankaran
Dr Michael Gloster

Graduate College of Management, Southern Cross University, Lismore, Australia
Dr Richard Kwok
Director, Management Learning and Action Research Pte. Ltd., Singapore
This paper will describe some lessons learned by two supervisors from Australia and four doctoral candidates from Singapore. The candidates, who were senior managers in workplace organisations, successfully completed their doctoral programs and solved significant business problems facing their organisations, over a four-year period. Despite various organisational and personal hurdles facing them the four candidates and their supervisors worked together as an e-forum based 'action learning set', and on occasions face to face, to motivate and support each other.

The paper will describe how the program started and the trials and tribulations of the students as they inspired each other to complete and receive their doctorates simultaneously. It will also explain the model for action research based PhD programs they developed together through their research. A principal characteristic of this model is that both management and research outcomes are generated to the benefit of the organisation and the researcher.

Based on their experience of the candidates and their supervisors, an improved doctoral program is now being offered by the supervisors' home Australian University. Two companies have been started - one in Singapore and one in Australia - to promote and execute this innovatively designed PhD to both organisations and individual students from both Singapore and Australia. The approach will be extended to other countries in the future. The structure of the program can be flexibly adjusted to the needs of an organisation and its managers.

A 'pioneer' PhD program

The International Graduate School of Management (IGSM) of The University of South Australia introduced an innovative PhD program for workplace practitioners in Singapore in 1994. It was a 'novel' idea at that time, since most offshore post-graduate programs offered in Singapore were at the Masters level. Doctoral students usually did their research at the two Singapore Universities (the National University of Singapore and The Nanyang Technological University), where opportunities were limited (Yee 1995: 74-77) or they went abroad to do their doctorates. The program introduced by the University of South Australia was different in another sense in that it encouraged the candidates to use 'action research methodology'. At that time, in Singapore, action research had not found its way into management education and research and development. It was being used mainly in 'educational research'. The acceptance of an 'action research methodology' in a post-graduate program in Singapore in 1994 was assisted by the prior establishment of an Action Learning Master of Business Administration (MBA) program. The Singapore Institute of Management (SIM) and the International Centre Organisational Management Ltd. (ICOM) from the United Kingdom had recently developed this program.

Although the University of South Australia encouraged the first batch of candidates to use action research methodology, most candidates struggled with the concept. In the main they were managers whose world view was rooted in the 'positivist' paradigm. They found it difficult to understand how an action research methodology could actually be applied to their practice.

A search conference

Professor Alan Davies of Southern Cross University, acting as a supervisor on behalf of the University of South Australia, conducted one of the programmed advanced management seminars for candidates. During this seminar Professor Davies conducted a Search Conference with the candidates, with 'global management trends' as the context, and 'the challenge of completing a PhD in three years, using real time problem solving in the workplace as an action research opportunity', as the 'focal search question'. The University had specified the three-year time frame as desirable.

One of the outcomes of the search conference was that the students formed 'peer groups' based on common research methodology and/or common themes to determine their research focus and develop their research proposal.

PhD supervision

The University of South Australia negotiated research topics with students and their prospective supervisors, and arrived at a grouping of 3-6 students for each supervisor.

Not all the supervisors for were from the University of South Australia. In fact, most of them were external to the University.

For example Professor Alan Davies, who was from Southern Cross University (SCU), was assigned six PhD students - two of who are co-authors of this paper. He requested Adjunct Professor Bob Dick from SCU to join as a co-supervisor, because of his experience with action research methodology. All six students agreed to use an action research methodology as a starting point. The action research methodology used by the students was initially based on the model of action research proposed by Professor Robin McTaggart who conducted a research seminar on behalf of the University of South Australia in Singapore. This was modified by the methodology used by Adjunct Professor Bob Dick. Papers written by Adjunct Professor Bob Dick about action research can be found in the action research resources available from the Graduate College of Management of the Southern Cross University at

The University of South Australia provided for three face to face workshops per year of candidature. Each of these ran for five days in Singapore. Each was organised along the following lines by the six Singapore candidates and their supervisors from Southern Cross University:

The six PhD students, on their own initiative, met monthly, or as the situation demanded, to question and reflect with each other, and share resources. The students, who were full time working professionals, did not have the luxury of an academic environment or a readily available library, and so had to depend on each other to minimise the time required to acquire the necessary resources to support their research. They used an 'action learning' format for their meetings. This enabled an environment of mutual support and commitment to emerge, and resulted in members of the providing the motivation and encouragement to each other as required. Thus 'action research' and 'action learning' were used in combination to engage in a meaningful manner to reduce the 'uncertainties' that they faced in carrying out their research.

In the end, four of the original six members of the 'group' or 'set' motivated each other to submit their PhD theses at the same time, and were awarded their doctorates at the same convocation ceremony held in Adelaide. This motivation proved critical in overcoming the ebb and flow of enthusiasm and commitment that is part and parcel of any long research endeavour. The 'peer group' pulled each other through the 'low' periods produced by attempting to complete the program on time. The successful candidates are convinced that these factors contributed to the higher than usual success rate of their group (4 out of 6 candidates completing and graduating), which was higher than for any other grouping of students. Two out of the six students had to withdraw from the program due other priorities in their personal lives, which took precedence over their doctoral program.

Issues encountered

Several issues were encountered during this program:
  1. The requirement for an 'ethics approval' halted the work of all the students for nearly six months. The 'ethics approval' procedure was derived from medical research, involving a different set of ethical circumstances than those faced by those deploying an action research methodology to tackle organisational development and research challenges. Candidates did not know how to complete the required forms, and when they attempted to do so they did not meet the requirements of the ethics committee. The two supervisors took on the task of resolving the issue. Although the University granted a six-month extension to the students, valuable time was wasted.

  2. The students continuously grappled with the difference between their sought management (or action) outcomes, and their sought research outcomes. Although an action research methodology is specifically designed to deliver both classes of outcomes, candidates found it difficult to distil their 'research' objectives from their more obvious management or action objectives.

  3. As the entire program was held off shore in Singapore, it was difficult for the candidates to identify with the University in Adelaide. After the initial seminars, meetings with University staff were infrequent. Although the students met their own supervisors for lengthier times, they were not from the University of South Australia. The course co-ordinator did build a close rapport with the students, but he was not part of the regulatory and administrative trials and tribulations that the students experienced. This led to the students building closer relationships with their own supervisors and their home university, Southern Cross University.

  4. The language in which the thesis had to be written posed a problem to some of the students who came through the Chinese education stream in Singapore. Although they were effective managers in their own right and were senior managers of large organisations they had to conform to the academic requirements of a 'Western' system that was actually doing business in the 'East'. Writing the thesis and editing was time consuming for both the students and their supervisors. Perhaps allowing students to write the detailed parts of each chapter in their 'mother tongue' but adding an overview of what they have written in English and using two supervisors one of whom is familiar with the 'mother tongue' of the student could help to speed up the writing process.

Strengths of the program

From the perspective of the candidates, the strengths of the program were:
  1. The involvement of A/Prof. Bob Dick provided candidates with contacts with action researchers around the world, through an electronic discussion list called 'arlist' that is managed by Bob Dick. For candidates based in Singapore, and a long way from the University of South Australia, this exposure to an international audience was valuable.

  2. The Action Research and Evaluation on Line Course (AREOL) on Action research conducted by A/Prof. Bob Dick brought some of the candidates in contact with action researchers from Australia and New Zealand. This further built links with The Action Learning, Action Research and Process Management Association of Australia (ALARPM). A joint conference on action research was organised in Singapore by the candidates in conjunction with ALARPM and the Singapore Institute of Management. This helped legitimise the use of action research in management development in Singapore.

  3. A/Prof. Bob Dick's familiarity with a range of methods that could be used in action research helped with achieving the research flexibility required for conducting research at the workplace.

  4. The fact that the candidates came from different organisational cultures enabled them to draw out relevant knowledge from each other's field.

  5. The graduation ceremony at The University of South Australia was a momentous one for the students. The University proudly and publicly acknowledged its 'international doctors' making the students feel very important. Unfortunately, this face to face contact came too late in the program.

A new PhD program

The four successful candidates and their supervisors felt that they had managed to put together a very successful process enabling the candidates to complete a PhD program very close to their target time for completion, given the loss of time spent in obtaining ethics approval. But they felt that the program could be further improved.

The successful candidates felt that since the University of South Australia had already established a close relationship with a local provider in Singapore, it would very difficult to modify the program based only on their own experience. At the time, the University of South Australia and the local provider were looking at a 'mass' market enrolling close to 25 students at each intake. The four PhD recipients felt that it would be better to take in small groups of students and work with them effectively to achieve a good completion rate in a short time. They felt that students in this market would not hesitate to pay the additional price that would be required with smaller intakes, so long as the success rate was high.

This led them to approach Southern Cross University, the home University of their Supervisors, with a proposal that a refined version of University of South Australia's program be offered through the Southern Cross University. The Vice Chancellor of the University, Professor Barry Conyngham, was interested in pursuing the proposal, but there was some difficulty in finding an academic home amongst the various schools and faculties. The Director of the Graduate School of Management, Professor Peter Graham, agreed to accept the challenge of promoting a 'newly designed' program.

New features added to the program

Some of the processes that the students and their supervisors had adopted and that had worked well in the original program were kept, and others were added, based on the experience of both the students and their supervisors.

Items that were kept were:

Items that were added were:
  1. A 'residential seminar' at the beginning of the program, held at Southern Cross University using a 'search conference' format to focus on completing the doctoral program in three years. This seminar was designed to:
    This was designed to cut down on the time (nearly a year) that the candidates in the original program had taken to do this.

  2. Using the four students who were involved in the original program as co-supervisors of the next group or 'pod' of students in Singapore. These co-supervisors now facilitate the monthly meetings of next the 'pod', and are available at other times when candidates need help.

  3. Recently, an on-line collaborative platform for the candidates has been established using the CourseInfo platform available at Southern Cross University for on-line delivery of programs. The effectiveness of this facility to enhance the program is now being tested.

Problems faced at Southern Cross University

The use of an action research methodology in management research was new to many at Southern Cross University. Hence there were initial acceptance issues of this form of doctoral program from the University's research committee. Most managers who entered this program had Master of Business Administration or Master of Engineering qualifications rather than honours degrees. This caused delays in interpreting the research experience of the students, and hence in offering them admission.

The proponents of the new program received initial support from the Graduate School of Management, but this school had had a very limited and unsatisfactory experience in using action research in the past. Offsetting this, action research had been used satisfactorily in an educational context at SCU.

New program begins

Eventually, the new program, with four students based in Singapore, was launched in 1999. To date it has run smoothly. Two more students have been joined in 2000. The proof of success will come in two year's time when the first 'pods' of students are expected to complete their programs successfully. So far their supervisors and co supervisors have judged their progress as satisfactory. The anticipated reduction in time in firming up their research proposals has been achieved.

Southern Cross University is now exploring the possibility of adding some of the features of the Singapore program to enhance their Australian PhD programs. One of the issues in Australia is that full fee paying PhD students are not the norm, and there is market resistance to full fee payment. This is an issue that is being addressed now. Australian employers have to be convinced that it is a sound business proposition to fund their employees to use an action research methodology at their workplace in order to produce both management and research outcomes.

Relationship with flexible and problem-solving-and learning

Flexible learning is being increasingly used to support learning by solving problems at the workplace (Hudson, Maslin-Prothero and Oates 1997:49) (Pearson and Ford 1997:76-105)

The processes used by the doctoral programs described in this paper meet the requirements of the definition of the term Flexible Learning. (Taylor, Lopez and Quadrelli 1996: 6-7). They have also exhibited flexibility in producing practical and valuable research outcomes that can be applied directly to practice. Although the PhD programs described in this paper exhibit many characteristics of a problem-based learning approach (Woods 1994:2-1 to 2-2), they are differ in that they are designed to produce rigorously examined research outcomes.


This paper has reported on the establishment of an action research based doctoral program by four recently graduating doctoral candidates and their supervisors.

It has shown that action research and action learning processes can be used at the workplace to help managers and practitioners research their own practice for both their personal development and organisational development, while at the same time producing research outcomes that can lead to academic research based accreditation. The paper has also examined how doctoral supervision can break geographical barriers and can be made more personal using email to enhance collaboration. It has also examined how a collaborative approach, based on a 'peer group' of students and supervisors, can assist in achieving a successful completion rate.


Hudson, R., Maslin-Prothero, S. and Oates, L. (1997). Flexible learning in action: Case studies in higher education. London: Kogan Page.

Pearson, M. and Ford, L. (1997). Open and flexible PhD study and research. Canberra: AGPS.

Taylor, P. G., Lopez, L. and Quadrelli, C. (1996). Flexibility, Technology and Academics' Practices: Tantalising Tales and Muddy Maps. Evaluations and Investigations Program, DEETYA.

Woods, D.R. (1994). Problem-based learning: How to gain the most from PBL. Waterdown: D.R. Woods.

Yee, A.H. (Eds) (1995). East Asian higher education: Traditions and transformations. Oxford: Pergamon.

Action Research Resources. [verified 26 Sep 2001]

Contact details: Dr Shankar Sankaran, Director, Southern Cross Institute of Action Research (in formation), Graduate College of Management, Southern Cross University, Military Road, PO Box 157, Lismore NSW 2480, Australia
Phone (02) 6620 3447 Fax (02) 6621 3407 Email

Please cite as: Davies, A., Dick, B., Hase, S., Sankaran, S. and Kwok, R. (2001). Problem-solving and learning with academic accreditation: A flexible postgraduate program for managers and practitioners using action research at the workplace. In L. Richardson and J. Lidstone (Eds), Flexible Learning for a Flexible Society, 165-171. Proceedings of ASET-HERDSA 2000 Conference, Toowoomba, Qld, 2-5 July 2000. ASET and HERDSA.

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Created 26 Sep 2001. Last revised: 29 Mar 2003. HTML: Roger Atkinson
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