Issue date: 13 November 2002

An internationally recognised team specialising in an innovative form of 'action research' is to be based at the University of the West of England. SOLAR which stands for Social and Organisational Learning as Action Research is to be based at the Glenside Campus of UWE and will work across all Faculties of the University. The team are pioneers in the field of action research and co-inquiry in organisations and complex social systems.

Their approach differs from traditional research in several key ways:

- they take a bottom up approach to problem solving working with the 'mess' of the problem as people experience it rather than with a specialist definition of the problem
- the research they do is participative and is undertaken 'with people' rather than 'on' them or 'for' them
- Action is seen to be an essential part of the research process. People learn from action, and their learning informs new actions.

Projects often follow a pattern which involves: mapping the issues, considering the implications, action planning and taking the actions identified ¡V this is then brought back to the group for evaluation and the cycle begins over again.

One project currently being managed by Danny Burns involves all of the new Children's Initiatives in Bristol. (Sure Start and the Children's Fund). This three-year co-inquiry involves local initiatives in Hartcliffe, Highridge and Withywood; Knowle West, Easton, and Kings Weston and aims to integrate the evaluation, policy development and implementation aspects into an action research process. It is hoped that this will enable change to take place in an effective way across institutional boundaries and throughout the whole neighbourhood. In Hartcliffe the inquiry groups are looking into smoking cessation, involving parents, domestic violence and library use. Other issues are emerging in the other areas.

Danny, who is Professor of Social and Organisational Learning stresses the benefits of the work for communities and organisations where other forms of research are ineffective, "Most research involves producing reports a year or two after the event by which time it its often too late to change anything. Action inquiry approaches enable people to develop an understanding of the actions they are taking as they are being taken. They enable people to explore the unintended consequences of what they do, and to challenge the assumptions that they bring to understanding issues. In doing so they offer insights which can create change where it has previously seemed impossible."

Susan Weil, Founding Director of SOLAR and Professor of Social Pedagogy and systemic action research, co-directs the Centre with Danny, "Our interests lie especially in working with diverse organisations and communities to help them learn from and inquire into contradictions between values and objectives they hold dear as a 'whole system', and how these are being lived out (and not) in everyday practice within complex systems. The unintended effects of everyday choices are often invisible to the system as a whole. Most approaches to learning and change remain very mechanistic, with performance indicators and regulations that ensure that organisations seldom see, much less learn from, the 'big picture'. SOLAR is devising creative ways of bringing research, action for change, and learning from everyday practice into new forms of relationship, in ways that benefit individuals, groups and 'whole systems'. We also work with others who are trying to do this, through our learning events, and our PhD programme.

The SOLAR team will have its home base at UWE although members of the team are dispersed with offices in London and the Midlands. The previous base for SOLAR was at University College Northampton.


Editor's notes

The core team comprises:
Professor Susan Weil (co-director) - based in London
Professor Danny Burns (co-director) - based in Bristol
Barry Percy-Smith, Senior Research Fellow and Diane Walsh, Research (both based in the East Midlands)

The website for more information about SOLAR is currently: www.uwe.ac.uk/solar

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