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Based on the Evidence
Where's the Evidence? First Steps into the Literature

By Dr. Annette Fillery-Travis

Part 2 of 2

So what makes you think you can do research?

In my last column, we considered how we could sort the wheat from the chaff when we were looking at research. The idea of perspective, yours and your clients', came into sharp focus. But here's the rub, it may be that you can't find research studies that address the questions that are important to you in your practice. We are an emerging profession and our literature is only just developing. So it is quite possible that the area of practice that is your passion, and gives you most pause for thought, has not come under a researcher's scrutiny. The sense of frustration this produces can drive you to consider doing research yourself!

This need not be out of the question even for the busy practitioner. Other professions such as nursing and education have a strong tradition of practitioner research and we can learn a lot from them in terms of how best to frame that research and report it. But what makes practitioner research different and how does it relate to conventional research?

I think we can all agree that the main purpose of research is to create new knowledge and understanding i.e., to help us know something we did not know previously. Conventional research has an emphasis on that "finding out," and there is little, if any, consideration of "using it." In practitioner research the "finding out" is there, but there is also another and very necessary purposeto try and put that new knowledge into practice. In effect, the separation between research and practice disappears in practitioner research. McLeod, in his book Doing Counseling Research, defines practitioner research as1;

"Research carried out by practitioners for the purpose of advancing their own practice."

There are certain general characteristics of practitioner research (adapted from Shaw2):

  • The research questions, aims and outcomes are determined by the practitioners themselves i.e.; they control it.
  • The research is usually designed to have a benefit or an impact that is immediate and direct.
  • It focuses on the professional's own practice and/or that of his/her immediate peers.
  • It is small scale and short term.
  • Usually it will be self-contained and not part of a larger research program.
  • Data collection and management is typically carried out as a lone activity.
  • The focus is not restricted. While it will commonly be evaluative, it may be descriptive, developmental or analytical.

When you are considering your own research, it is clear that the overall size and content of the research has to be appropriate to you as the practitioner, i.e., something that can be undertaken and managed whilst working in practice. Indeed, it is one of the main challenges for practitioner researchers to keep the scale of their inquiries appropriate to their time and resources.

It is worth the investment, however, as there are also benefits for you as a practitioner. There is a whole body of literature considering practitioner research as a form of professional development. As soon as we start really inquiring into our work, our professional practice changes as we notice and reflect upon it in more depth. It is when you research that you are effectively putting your theoretical basis forward and deciding to review it. This makes it, in effect; a deeply personal experience and your own constructs become an important consideration for the would-be researcher.

So how do you start? There is a plethora of books you can turn to on research methodologies, but remember that you will also be playing to your strengths. As coaches you will be bringing to your research the wealth of attributes you bring to your practice. These include an abiding sense of curiosity and interest–the mainstay of any exploration with a client. We also need to be curious and baffled about unanswered questions, keen to experiment and explore, critically engaged in our work and take satisfaction in the ethical and rigorous application of our knowledge. Thus professional coaches already have the key qualities of a researcher–even if they haven't quite gotten around to doing it yet!

Within business coaching, our literature is relatively young with only a small number of academic researchers in the field. Practitioner researchers can therefore make a real contribution to defining the research agenda for the profession by helping to identify what the real questions are for practice. This call has obviously been taken up. When we review conferences and journals we can see a range of practitioner researchers publishing their work.

But there is a trap we can fall into that will make any potential contribution defunct–trying to fool ourselves into thinking that as it is "just" practitioner research we can throw out the issues of robust, transparent design and reporting. "Just" practitioner research should be held in as high regard as conventional research, through the unique perspective it provides for us as a profession. It should be taken seriously enough to be judged by the same standards of rigor and quality.

As practitioners "professional opinions," "observations over time" or "practice cases" make interesting reads that may spark reflections and analysis, but these are not research unless they are undertaken with the critical analysis and appraisal of true inquiry. However, it can be erroneously described and considered research.

In a recent example, a colleague was disappointed when attending a research symposium to discover it was an exchange of views between three professionals on a particular issue. This is, of course, interesting in itself and the dialogue could have formed part of a research inquiry, but it was not research as presented! This suspension of judgment is not restricted to practitioner research, but can be part of our response to eminent members of our field. Let's guard against it and consider everyone's contributions by the same yardstick so we achieve "evidence-based practice" and not "eminence-based practice!"

Worth Reading

No specific journals or articles this time as I would like to recommend a search of the range of websites out there for the would-be researcher. One worth bookmarking is:

Intute: a free online service providing you with access to the very best web resources for education and research. Run by a group of UK universities, it provides a good starting portal with a virtual training suite for research methods and much, much more. Not specific for coaching yet, but there is enough in social sciences to keep everyone happy. Have a look and play in http://www.intute.ac.uk/.

1 McLeod, J. 1994. Doing Counseling Research. London: Sage.

2 Shaw, I. 2003. "Qualitative research and outcomes in health, social work and education." Qualitative Research 3 (1): 57-77.

Dr. Annette Fillery-Travis is a senior researcher and education coach with the Professional Development Foundation. The author of more than 60 research articles and studies, her recent book The Case for Coaching, presenting a literature review with research case studies and interviews from over 20 organizations on coaching efficacy, was published in 2006 by CIPD, UK. Annette can be reached by email at Annette.fillery-travis@pdf.net.



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