“A shot of adrenalin”. That is how Hilary Bradbury, PhD and professor of organization studies, describes the feeling of being appointed one of four jubilee professors at Chalmers 2018. The Department of Technology Management and Economics (TME) is her host during the year, which she is determined to make the most of.
– I am honoured and grateful for this opportunity. I feel very at home at Chalmers and the department. I would like to bring together the action researchers within Chalmers, across disciplines, and help connect them with other action research communities around the world in issues of ICT, healthcare and generally the transformation of education and research. I already find it very useful for me too, to be able to talk to my global colleagues about the focus on research utilization at Chalmers, she says.
We meet at her temporary home at Chalmersska huset in Göteborg, a sparsely furnished apartment with creaking wooden floors and a beautiful view of the canal. Hilary is making tea, asking questions about the city and trying to find the cups, while explaining her enthusiasm for the utilization-oriented research at Chalmers.
Hilary has been successful in conventional academic terms. Her PhD won an Academy of Management award, her first publication was in the highly esteemed journal, Organization Science, her edited books have been best sellers, she became Full Professor in 2012 at OHSU. But today she asks how to liberate the rewards and conventions of academia. How to open the doors and windows of the Ivory Tower, so our academic work is more useful to our communities. She has a vision of academic supporting a more beautiful world, as measured by the sustainable development goals. She is therefore interested in what kinds of knowledge creation processes can make that possible. And how to engage fellow faculty and university administrator in this new way of creating knowledge.
Hilary talks vividly and warmly of her latest visit at Chalmers TME: friendliness of colleagues, meeting with the doctoral students and the inspiring research and projects at the department – especially at Centre for Healthcare Improvement.
– Centre for Healthcare Improvement has conducted some of the best action research in the world, she says, and mentions the mobile healthcare teams and the new patient models within “Skaraborgsmodellen” and “Kraftens Hus” – a support center for people affected by cancer – as examples.
Research which affects people and creates positive change – that is the core of Hilary Bradbury’s passion for her work, and the reason she has chosen action research as her field. In action research, the researcher is directly involved in the problems or processes to be studied - and creates the knowledge in cooperation with the people concerned.
– Being an action researcher is wanting to make a difference. All faculty want to make a positive difference. That requires more than understanding. We can use our work to help produce a change in collaboration. But we need to combine conventional research with the desire to help, she says.
“Our knowledge needs to be actionable – and liberating. Otherwise, we are either just stuck in the Ivory Tower or we become project managers.”
The key, Hilary points out, is creating good relationships for learning together. This is necessary for building trust, sharing ideas and making experiments. She emphasizes the importance of both action and reflection when conducting research, and describes much of the conventional research as “too much inquiry and too little action”.
– Our knowledge needs to be actionable – and liberating. Otherwise, we are either just stuck in the Ivory Tower or we become project managers, she says. We need a middle path that brings inquiry and action together with stakeholders. They may be patients in healthcare or employees in business. Executives who are transforming sustainability standards in their industry.
In her reasoning, Hilary Bradbury often returns to two words: empathy and curiosity. When there is a lack of these components a lot of things can go wrong, she argues. She points to many examples of this in the healthcare system, and even in the university system itself.
– Healthcare is designed for clinics, not for patients. Universities are not designed for their students or the communities who support them. What if we put the experience of the end user in the center of learning how to redesign it. Isn’t it a bit crazy and undemocratic that we don´t organize our systems around the users!
“Objectivity is not possible, at best it’s partial. So if we pretend we are objective our research is not so strong.”
As researchers, we are trained to think and act objectively. This may sound obvious, but if it’s the only thing we care about, it poses a danger today, according to Hilary.
– Objectivity is not possible, at best it’s partial. So if we pretend we are objective our research is not so strong. I bring subjectivity into action research, in the sense that I believe we need to be aware of our biases and how they can reflect on our research - otherwise, we are not meeting our co-subjects! To be a good researcher, you need to understand yourself - that’s reflexivity - as well as the other, she says. We do this in dialogue. With curiosity, we understand more. We can test our perceptions. We can have more interesting and more robust insights.
For decades, Hilary Bradbury has brought voice to action research, writing books, editing research work and organizing the global community of action research. Over the years, she has encountered a fair amount of scepticism towards the inclusion of subjectivity in the research area but believes that this is beginning to change.
– The action research paradigm can appear scary. People want control and certainty, but as an action researcher, I say: uncertainty, curiosity and change are good things! We need to respond to a world of change.
Do you believe action research should be used more?
– Yes. Way more! Action research is an evolution in knowledge creation, and I believe it is transforming academia and those who do it. With action research we see results. We also get to bring attention to important things in the world today, and communities like that and in turn see academia as more relevant. But I don´t think everybody can be an action researcher. Still, we certainly need more of it in the research ecosystem. In an ideal world, all students should be trained in more empathy and deep curiosity - about ourselves and others. Let’s have action research be part of all students repertoires.
Text & Photo: Ulrika Ernström
Hilary Bradbury on…
“We are seeing all this raw experience and anger. Now we need to do something in response. We can move from rage to curiosity and learn during the process. In this process - which is really learning together - we can have new ways of relating between women and men. That's new in history!”
The Swedish “fika -tradition”
“I love the Swedish fika! You meet and you talk – It’s simple, effective and creates a special platform that we don’t have in the US. The other day I started talking about a new research project with some colleagues at Chalmers, just because we had a fika together. I often think that Action Research takes normal Swedish culture of dialogue and makes it central to inquiry processes.”
Her Irish background and how it has affected her choices
“I grew up in Ireland in a Catholic home and learned that you are not supposed to ask about a lot of things. Important things, like women and men and how they relate. It drove me crazy. So, I liberated myself. Maybe that is why I have a drive to help others ask what they need to be full selves too. I have always been action-oriented, I initiate a lot of experiments that I then learn from. I like to do that with others and together we make things better”.