Where’s the Evidence? First Steps into the Literature (Part 2 of 2) By Dr. Annette Fillery-Travis

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.


This article first appeared in Business Coaching Worldwide (October 2008, Volume 4, Issue 3). Copyright © 2011 WABC Coaches Inc. All rights reserved

If you wish to reproduce this article in any material form, you must first contact WABC for permission.

Where’s the Evidence? First Steps into the Literature (and Research) By Dr. Annette Fillery-Travis

In my writing so far, I hope I have whetted your appetite for coaching research and put a convincing argument that it cannot be left as an "academic" pastime, but should be part of every practitioner's arsenal.

Most of us do not have the time to carry out research per se, but given that our profession is in its infancy, there is much to discover in the literature about the true potential of what we can offer as coaches and how this can impact upon our clients and their organizations! We can contribute to the growing body of knowledge ourselves by delving into journals and articles, discussing "hot topics" within our networks and generally making our literature our own. As practitioners we contribute a valuable perspective when we talk with our peers and to academic researchers.

Over the last year I have been contributing to a working group on research as part of the Global Coaching Convention. This convention was established to create a collaborative framework of stakeholders in coaching with the aim of professionalizing the industry. Quite a job and at times I think the size and complexity of the aim has daunted even the hardiest souls. As in any undertaking of this size, there has been a debate about the value of such an initiative. Detractors say that the coaching community has grown organically so far and it should be left to continue doing so. Others say that the convention is taking on too big a job, and with so many diverse agendas on the table, there is little hope of getting collaboration or consensus so people are wasting their time. I will not go further into the debates other than to mention that if any of our clients came out with such a view, we might well consider challenging it! But enough of my soap box, as a good researcher I shall admit my bias and point everyone in the direction of the GCC's website for the latest news and events.

Sunny Stout Rostron and Carol Kauffman chaired and facilitated the research working group and they did a grand job in challenging our process and thinking as well as generally bringing the project home. The core piece of work was a review of where we are, as a community, in terms of our research. Sunny and Carol will be publishing the full piece in the near future, but I would like to share with you some of the thinking it sparked with me.

First and foremost, we agreed that if we are thinking of moving to becoming a profession then we have to define what our body of knowledge is—what is it that makes our offer different to that of occupational psychologists, management consultants or other related fields? Research is the route to defining our knowledge. Even if we are simply looking at, and comparing, each other's practice we are engaging in research.

The second point that struck a real note with me was our discussion around whether we should define what is "good" and what is "bad" research. This question and its real depth gets in the way of many of us entering the world of research. It throws up all kinds of questions about what is the "correct" way of doing it, reporting it or even defining it.

Let us first consider our purpose in doing research. For me and many others it is to find something out or to learn, and the best evidence of learning is to change behaviors. So we are effectively saying to our colleagues:

"Trust me—I have looked at this issue and found XYZ. You can now take my findings and apply them directly to your practice."

That is quite a thing to say. We are suggesting people change their practice and behaviors because of what we have found out. To do this (and still sleep at night) we need to know that we are right (or valid) and not leading people down the garden path on a scenic route to nowhere. Some researchers have taken the easy route out of this dilemma and stuck to one way of doing research, irrespective of the question they are asking. Usually the method of choice is a controlled experimental study where one group gets coaching and one group doesn't, and at the end there is some measure of impact on behaviors (with everyone hoping there is a positive effect on those who have been coached)!

Everyone breathes a sigh of relief as they are doing a scientific study and don't have to justify themselves any further. Oh if only life was that easy! As we have discussed before, what you research and how you do it is determined by the question you are asking NOT the other way around. A controlled experiment would be terribly complicated and confusing if we wanted to explore how and what elements of the coaching engagement are of most value to a diverse range of clients. Trying to control for all the factors that would be different between groups would make it untenable (and unusable).

Identifying the research method used as the main differentiator between good and bad research is therefore not a sensible path and will only lead to restricting the type of research question we will be able to ask (and answer). Our criteria for whether an inquiry is "good" research must be: Is there coherence between the question, the method used to research it and the analysis undertaken, and has everything been done to the standards of good practice? Let us leave the question of what is good practice to one side for another day and take that as read; we can then be happy to consider good research to include any method or even mix of methods that makes sense for the question we are asking.

The same thinking should be brought to bear on the question: What is the best research to do? Everyone wants to do research that will set the world alight, but choosing a topic isn't easy. Governments have been engaged in foresight exercises for many years trying to second guess the research investment they should make to enable them to meet the challenges for the future. They have invested a significant amount of money, but it has resulted in quite a lot of what has been described as crystal gazing.

Experience has shown that such exercises are useful for mapping current drivers for research, but usually fail to foresee the big issues for the future, e.g., the exponential rise in the use of the mobile phone and the personal computer. If we cannot see what will be the main issue for the future then the best research to do is the research that speaks to you and your practice, i.e., the research that follows your passion. Chances are that your passion will be shared by others—go ahead and ask them—and if that is the case then you can be confident that there will be an audience for your work.

Worth Reading:

As an introduction to how people are thinking about research for the future, have a look at these two papers. If you do not have access to these journals through a library or database, then just go to the website of the journal and order the download direct to your computer.

Linley, Alex P. 2006. "Coaching Research: Who? What? Where? When? Why?" International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring Vol. 4, No. 2 (Autumn): 1

Bennett, J.L. 2006. "An Agenda for Coaching-Related Research: A Challenge for Researchers." Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research Vol. 58, Part 4: 240-249

Find out more about the Global Coaching Convention.

This article first appeared in Business Coaching Worldwide (October 2008, Volume 4, Issue 3). Copyright © 2011 WABC Coaches Inc. All rights reserved.

If you wish to reproduce this article in any material form, you must first contact WABC for permission.