Christian A. Estay-Niculcar's research blog

Espacio de reflexión personal dedicado a la investigación e innovación aplicada cuando se vincula la ciencia proyectual, y se aplican al desarrollo de las personas, la gestión empresarial y la sociedad.


Published at PMI Research Conference (2004)



This paper explains the reliance on A Guide to the Project Management Book of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide)—2000 Edition as a base to prepare IS qualitative researchers focused in action-research. Action-research was selected because it is presently the preferred research method among information systems (IS) researchers. But action-research has several weaknesses when applied, such as a lack of control to provide and improve its rigor and quality. To address this situation, several proposals have appeared that give relevance to using IS action-research through a vision of project management (PM). In this paper, we explain our work to define and to prepare IS action-researchers through a capability maturity model for action-research by using the PMBOK® Guide (2000). This paper reports the results of this study. The study considers the PMBOK® Guide (2000) as the basis to identify a dimension of management and a dimension of construction, both linked and deployed through practices and five maturity levels (novice, basic, organized, managed, and adaptive).

1. Presentation

Action-research is a qualitative research method that juxtaposes action and research, or practice and theory, through the execution of four phases (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Action-research characteristic cycle

Figure 1: Action-research characteristic cycle

The weaknesses of action-research, particularly in information systems action-research (ISAR),were reclassified as problem areas and causes of IS-AR problems (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Problems and causes of the IS-AR problems - (c) Christian A. Estay-Niculcar

Figure 2: Problems and causes of the IS-AR problems - (c) Christian A. Estay-Niculcar

The problems areas are:

  • Epistemological change (P1): This considers the problems that appear when a researcher becomes an action-researcher and adopts or assimilates, partially or completely, the beliefs and the attitudes specific to action-research.
  • Ethics and values (P2): This includes problems of potential biases linked to the interventionist research natural to action-research.
  • Reporting (P3): This contains the problems related to the generation and registration of research data, information, and knowledge.
  • Methodological (P4): This involves the diverse problems related to the absence of elements that facilitate the monitoring, control, evaluation, or setting of the research.

The causes are:

  • Lack of clarity that IS researchers and practitioners apply to action-research.
  • The consultancy context proper to projects (consultancy commonly is considered opposed to AR principles).
  • Lack of guidelines to help IS researchers accept action-research as valid.
  • Lack of quality and rigor because well-established IS-AR quality, rigor, and research criteria are lacking.
  • Lack of a framework to use, apply, and investigate IS-AR.

To address these problems and causes, several proposals have appeared in the field that give relevance to use IS-AR through a vision of PM without excluding rigor and quality in the research process. With regard to the PM approach, the authors propose a methodology for obtaining IS-AR PM good practices and levels by introducing and working collaboratively towards competency in PM and proficiency in Action-Research. In this effort, the PMBOK® Guide (2000) was useful in structuring a capability maturity model for actionresearch and in selecting the generic practices for action-research. The model is composed of five levels (novice, basic, organized, managed, and adaptive) along with roadmaps and key practices.

In this work, we follow an interpretative paradigm in order to analyze the vast amount of information and documentation from several topics. Our research focused on theoretical and  retrospective case studies (which included interviews and bibliographical reviews) and actual case studies (which included interviews and participant observation). Our analysis was grounded in theory because the model and the theory both emerge from qualitative data. This style of work followed the Myers classification (Myers, 1997).

This paper examines how the PMBOK® Guide (2000) was used for action-research, with a particular emphasis on IS-AR. Thus, the PMBOK® Guide (2000) was useful to define an action-research project and to provide a way to apply action-research though incremental maturity levels with the aim of improving the rigor and quality in IS-AR projects. Our paper also examines two other factors: selecting an ERP (Enterprise Resource Enterprise) and defining other capability models for knowledge management. In this case, each project is treated bi-dimensionally: as a research project and as a practical project. So, in each one, we solve a practical problem and enrich the research on a specific topic.

This experience enriches the scope of the PMBOK® Guide (2000) and the result proves useful to the information systems field, because it presents a way for practitioners and theorists to meet collaboratively.

Section two of this paper examines the foundation of IS-AR. Section three presents the roadmaps, key practices, and levels mentioned above. Section 4 explains the use of this model in ERP selection and in the generation of a knowledge model.

2. Foundation For Action-Researching With the PMBOK® Guide

This paper addresses three areas of action-research: the IS discipline, the action-research field, and the PM field. In this process, we have considered the emergent literature about action-research, as applied to IS problems, texts about action-research in sociology, education and organizational behavior, and the theory and practice of PM. From this analysis and from the papers of Estay and Pastor (2000a, 2000b, 2000c, 2001a, 2001b, 2001c, 2002a, 2002b, 2002c, 2002d, 2003), we have identified several theoretical connections that provide the foundation for this work.

2.1. Action-Research and PM Practices

Several authors relate the project approach with action-research. Thus, PM could be used as a way to obtain a set of practices for IS-AR, from which the action-researcher may choose and use accordingly for conducting research and anticipating potential problems. In relation to these practices, we matched PM phases with action-research phases (Figure 3 -Pl: planning; Ac: Action; Observation: Ob; Reflection: Re;  IP: Initiation phase; PP: Planning phase; EP: Execution phase; CoP: Control Phase; ClP: Closing Phase-) in order to provide a basis for IS-AR practices:

Figure 3: Relationships between management process groups and action-research phases - (c) Christian A. Estay-Niculcar

Figure 3: Relationships between management process groups and action-research phases - (c) Christian A. Estay-Niculcar

  • Planning phase identifies the plan to follow, which emerges from understanding the problems and imagining solutions
  • Action phase executes the plan, where action is the informed, careful, deliberate, reflective, and controlled variation of the practice
  • Observation phase measures, records, and documents the action executed and its consequences
  • Reflection phase analyses the action executed, by studying, evaluating, and questioning the observed results against the current practice and the expected results. This phase also includes evaluating and specifying learning sub-phases.

2.2. IS-AR and PM

Several projects have proposed to apply IS-AR: Mathiassen (1998) advocates the use of a projects perspective and PM to help conduct the research; McKay and Marshall (1999a, 1999b, 1999c, 2000a, 2000b, 2001) present IS-AR quality and rigor criteria and propose a general IS-AR project structure; and Avison, Baskerville, and Myers (2001) discuss the three aspects of control of an IS-AR project—the procedures for initiating an AR project, those for determining authority within the project, and the degree of formalization. We detected similarities between IS-AR problems with PM phases:

  • A formal commitment between the action-researcher and the organization is often absent, which implies a poor initiation phase.
  • Time and cost planning, human resources selection, and research planning are weak or absent, which implies a weak planning phase.
  • A formal and rigorous process in the production of theory, which implies an incomplete execution phase.
  • The monitoring of the results and of the schedule is absent, which implies a lack of the control phase.

2.3. IS-AR and Systemic Project Framework

Action-research is an approach and a method related to qualitative research, systems thinking, and several philosophical perspectives. By their nature, these aspects could be unified into a systemic method: to include the flexible, dynamic, and adaptive nature of the research process in which the action-researcher is involved; and to promote the co-participative construction of the realities implicit in the action-research process. In this sense, actionresearch could be focused from a systemic approach into one that provides a dynamic environment promoting operations and evolution. Working in a project perspective, we used Blasco’s project systemic theory (Blasco, 2000, 2001; Estay & Blasco, 2000; Blasco, Estay, Gracia, & Tamayo, 2002), which says a project is a system composed of two subsystems: the management system and the construction system. Our proposal is characterized as a definition of an IS-AR project that focuses on the PM dimension. In this sense, and following the systemic view disposed in a project as suggested by Blasco (2000, 2001), Estay and Blasco (2000), and Blasco et al. (2002), an IS-AR project can be characterised by four systemic components, raised from the systemic theory but applied to the projects field (Figure 4):

Figure 4: The PM system in the systemic project framework - (c) Christian A. Estay-Niculcar

Figure 4: The PM system in the systemic project framework - (c) Christian A. Estay-Niculcar

  • Context for the PM system, which is defined principally by the project system structure
  • Structure of process or the network of sub-systems that define the PM system
  • Composition of the processes or subsystems of the PM system
  • Implementation of a PM system that reflects the continuous evolution within amedium.

2.4. IS-AR Gardening

Action-research is considered qualitative research, and is not restricted to doctrines and/or formalized visions. In qualitative research, structured and constrained approaches are not used more frequently because the researcher and research process are not considered to be limited to theories, hypothesis and/or methods. However, PM may appear rigid for action-research. The PMBOK® Guide (2000) suggests that PM practices should be customized according to the specific technical domain of the project and used without rigidity in order to give freedom to the project manager within the evolution of the project.

From the PMBOK® Guide to Action-Researching

Using the PMBOK® Guide (2000), Estay and Pastor (2000a, 2000b, 2000c, 2001a, 2001b, 2001c, 2002a, 2002b, 2002c, 2002d, 2003) derived a capability maturity model for IS-AR PM following a complex process depicted in Figure 5.

Figure 5: Process followed to obtain the model - (C) Christian A. Estay-Niculcar

Figure 5: Process followed to obtain the model - (C) Christian A. Estay-Niculcar

3.1. Action-Researching From the PMBOK® Guide: Maturity Model

3.1.1. Architecture of the Model

The architecture of our IS-AR PM maturity model is the relational structure that allows going from a maturity level to its relevant good management practices. In this process, we have followed the spirit of the Trillium model (Trillium, 2000). Thus, by following the Trillium model, the architecture consists of the following elements: roadmaps, areas of key interest, and practices.

Roadmaps. We have derived our roadmaps from the quality and rigor criteria for IS-AR, as proposed by McKay and Marshall (1999a, 1999b, 1999c, 2000a, 2000b, 2001) (see Table 1).

Table 1: Extract of McKay and Marshall criteria (McKay and Marshall, 1999b)

Table 1: Extract of McKay and Marshall criteria (McKay and Marshall, 1999b)

Areas of key interest. The areas of interest are the priority areas show researchers where to execute actions or practices of quality and rigor while managing the IS-AR project. In this sense, knowing that the roadmaps are linked to the PMBOK® Guide’s PM processes, the areas of interest are the nine areas of PM knowledge, as presented in the PMBOK® Guide (and which define the KPAs for acquiring the criteria): integration, scope, cost, time, quality, human resources, communication, risk, and procurement.

Practices. The practices are the basic actions to satisfy the criteria. These practices have been derived directly from the relationships between criteria and PM processes in each roadmap. Moreover, to make the practices coherent with PMBOK® Guide (2000), the practices for ISAR PM are tagged with similar names to those in the PMBOK® Guide (2000). The selection of the practices takes into consideration the PM competence and the action-research proficiency levels. This selection leads to identifying generic and specific practices, to those related to PM and those related to specific IS-AR features.

3.1.2. Maturity Levels

From the specialized literature, we have found that competence levels outline the capabilities that management needs to get through PM maturity levels and that proficiency levels show the basic abilities that an action-researcher should possess. Thus, the proficiency levels for action-research (as given by Greenwood and Morten, 1993) are linked with the suggested competence levels for PM exposed in several PM maturity models. We propose five maturity levels: novice, basic, organized, managed, and adaptive.

3.1.3. Maturity Levels and Formative Process

Maturity models may not only help with the achievement of capabilities and the awareness of the importance of improvement but at same time, these help promote PM practices that provide quality and rigor to IS-AR projects. This internalization may be considered a learning process that can be studied and applied with the help of Bloom’s taxonomy.

Benjamin S. Bloom (1956) proposes a taxonomy of educational objectives. It proposes a foundation for classifying goals in an educational system. The taxonomy, or classification, proposed by Bloom (1956) embraces three areas or domains: cognitive area, affective area, and psychometric area, each one decomposed in formative goals. Although the taxonomy is an important reference in education research and practice, its application has proven difficult, as shown by the fact that only the cognitive area is the most broadly treated.

To facilitate the attainment of these domain goals, these areas are linked to educational objectives. In this way, for example, Gardiner (2000) offers a series of educational objectives for each one of the goals. These educational objectives are simply cognitive verbs, actions, or operations, named educational verbs.

However, a more complete application of Bloom’s taxonomy is proposed in Ramírez, Recabarren, and Palma (1988). This model integrates Bloom’s taxonomy, educational verbs, and educational tools/techniques. In this sense, Ramírez et al. (1988) propose that the educational verbs can be grouped into four types of educational objectives or formative levels (Table 2):

  • Reproductive. Students must be able to retain and assimilate scientific or technical knowledge, a favourable disposition toward a certain value, or a familiarization with a psychomotor ability.
  • Transferential. This level constitutes the practical phase of the learning; here the student uses previous knowledge.
  • Critical. On this level, student must compare the theory with the practice, the law with the case, the regulation with the facts, and the ideal with the reality.
  • Creative. In this level, students are challenged to exploit their creative capacity to invent and to design.
Table 2: Examples of verbs in the formative levels

Table 2: Examples of verbs in the formative levels

For our specific IS-AR purposes, the above formative levels imply a formative process from simple to more complicated actions. Seen in this way, the maturity levels can be related with the formative levels, just as shown in Figure 6. The relationship pursues that the formative levels are applied with different intensity in each of the maturity levels: initially by giving higher intensity in getting reproductive objectives so that the action-researcher learns on ISAR; and, at the end, by giving higher intensity to creative objectives to promote the creative use by the action-researcher of the practices learned.

Figure 6: Intensity of relationship between formative objetives and maturity levels - (c) Christian A. Estay-Niculcar

Figure 6: Intensity of relationship between formative objetives and maturity levels - (c) Christian A. Estay-Niculcar

3.1.4. Learning by Levels

By according to the previous details, the practices are deployed in steps of complexity in one or several levels as shown the Table 3.

Table 3: Illustration about the deploying of the practices along the maturity levels or multilevel practices - (c) Christian A. Estay-Niculcar

Table 3: Illustration about the deploying of the practices along the maturity levels or multilevel practices - (c) Christian A. Estay-Niculcar

3.1.5. Maturity Levels

  • Level 1. Novice. This level is characterised by a general knowledge, principally literary, of action-research, as reflected in the reproduction of actions. The success depends mainly on the innate ability of novice researchers to understand IS-AR, of the facilities contributed by the practitioners, and of luck.
  • Level 2. Basic. The success of the process is obtained by following the basic criteria that allows justifying the use of action-research. Elements of planning are introduced, with emphasis on scheduling. Moreover, the concept of product is introduced and the diffusion of results provides feedback. On this level, in one or another way, the goal is to provide a level of understanding about the project concept, such that allows the execution of basic or initial good practices.
  • Level 3. Organized. PM practices are fully introduced through the institutionalizing of aspects as the documentation of the process, the selection of the work team, and the diffusion of results. The central idea is that the researcher is competent in the integrated application of advanced PM practices. Here it is important to acquire and use abilities of documentation that reflect all the aspects of research, improvement, and learning.
  • Level 4. Managed. Risk and quality PM processes are added with profusion; monitoring is started. The purpose is that the researcher acquires an integral vision of the undertaken management. It is pursued to reach a critical sense of the use of IS-AR in order to offer appropriate intervention proposals for the practical cycles. The researcher is proficient in the application and selection of practices in a precise and experienced way so as to create a coherent and appropriate set of PM practices.
  • Level 5. Adaptive. This level institutionalizes PM across the IS-AR project and along time. Expert, continuous, sometimes automated, creative, and sustainable use of the results and experience are accumulated. Thus, the action-researcher evolves, learns, and adapts her/his experience through learning and conversations with other researchers and practitioners.

3.2. PMBOK® Guide For Action-Researching: Steps to Use it 

3.2.1. Practices and Maturity Levels

a. Action-Research Criteria and PM Processes

Each one of the criteria is related to several PM processes taken and adapted from the PMBOK® Guide (2000). For example, the criteria “Practitioners should verify the work” related with the “Credibility of the research” can be focused with PM processes from the PMBOK® Guide as follows: Project Plan Execution (Section 4.2), Overall Change Control (Section 4.3), Scope Planning (Section 5.2), Scope Verification (Section 5.4), Scope Change Control (Section 5.5), Performance Reporting (Section 10.3) and Administrative Closure (Section 10.4). Thus, the verification can be reached and guaranteed with inspections in each one of these processes with the presence of practitioners. With this, each roadmap relates to one or more maturity levels (Table 4). From this work, specific and generic practices emerge.

Table 4: Short view of the PMBOK® Guide process related with quality and rigor criteria of IS-AR - (c) Christian A. Estay-Niculcar

Table 4: Short view of the PMBOK® Guide process related with quality and rigor criteria of IS-AR - (c) Christian A. Estay-Niculcar

b. Specific and Generic Practices and PM Processes for IS-AR

Thus, we derive generic and specific practices as shown in Table 5. (Table 6 and Table 7 are from the original model in Spanish.) In particular, knowledge about IS-AR was included in the practices from bibliographic revision.

Table 5: Example of practices - (c) Christian A. Estay-Niculcar

Table 5: Example of practices - (c) Christian A. Estay-Niculcar

Table 6: Short view of generic practices deployed in PM processes - (c) Christian A. Estay-Niculcar

Table 6: Short view of generic practices deployed in PM processes - (c) Christian A. Estay-Niculcar

Table 7: Short view of specific practices of IS-AR deployed in PM processes - (c) Christian A. Estay-Niculcar

Table 7: Short view of specific practices of IS-AR deployed in PM processes - (c) Christian A. Estay-Niculcar

3.2.2. Roadmaps and Maturity Levels

Each roadmap is associated with formative levels and verbal analysis. For example, with regard to the criteria “Practitioners should verify the work” (McKay and Marshall, 1999b) related to the “Credibility of the research,” (McKay and Marshall, 1999b) this is a multilevel roadmap associated with the organized and managed maturity levels, because the verb verify is: part of the critical formative level and a transferential objective because it implies domain and communicational abilities to verify the work (Ramírez et al., 1988). Thus, each criterion contains PM processes that can be integrated into current practices and which relates to one or more maturity levels to leverage practices. Table 8 shows this relationship in Spanish/English because the verbal analysis only is applicable in Spanish verbs and the translation is not applicable, only to view the operation of analysis.

Table 8: Short view (Spanish/English) of the relationships between criteria and formative verbs - (c) Christian A. Estay-Niculcar

Table 8: Short view (Spanish/English) of the relationships between criteria and formative verbs - (c) Christian A. Estay-Niculcar

3.2.3. Deploying Practices in Levels

From the last tables, the practices are deployed along the levels as shown the Table 9 and the Table 10.

Table 9: Short view of generic practices deployed in maturity levels (based in Table 6) - (c) Christian A. Estay-Niculcar

Table 9: Short view of generic practices deployed in maturity levels (based in Table 6) - (c) Christian A. Estay-Niculcar

Table 10: Short view of specific practices of IS-AR deployed in maturity levels (based in Table 7) - (c) Christian A. Estay-Niculcar

Table 10: Short view of specific practices of IS-AR deployed in maturity levels (based in Table 7) - (c) Christian A. Estay-Niculcar

3.2.4. Practices by Level

When the roadmap is multilevel, or the practices or related tasks more complex, these are executed in advanced levels. In this way, the practices have been leveraged along the maturity models. The selected roadmaps and practices are shown in the Table 11, while the results of this process are shown in Table 12, which illustrates all the practices by level within each roadmap. The first and second columns in Table 11 are taken from the McKay and Marshall (1999a, 1999b, 1999c, 2000a, 2000b, 2001) criteria, while the third one indicates the practices by level in the roadmap. The last columns show the detail of practices by level in a roadmap. Table 12 depicts the total number of practices by category of quality and rigor criteria.

Table 11 (1/2): Total of practices - (c) Christian A. Estay-Niculcar

Table 11 (1/2): Total of practices - (c) Christian A. Estay-Niculcar

Table 11 (2/2): Total of practices - (c) Christian A. Estay-Niculcar

Table 11 (2/2): Total of practices - (c) Christian A. Estay-Niculcar

Table 12: Total of IS-AR PM practices - (c) Christian A. Estay-Niculcar

Table 12: Total of IS-AR PM practices - (c) Christian A. Estay-Niculcar

3.3. To Produce Knowledge and Real Solution: Selecting an ERP

To observe our work, we apply the obtained practices in a specific work related with the selection of an ERP. The practices were very useful, because they organised the work of action-research in a more easily way. So, this experience was characterised by:

  • One IS-AR PM structure composed by one problem solving-problem construction cycle (CPSC) executed by an private enterprise (Catalonian company) and one research management cycle (CRM) executed by university researchers.
  • Two particular projects where CPSC was considered a professional project, while CRM was considered a research project. The private enterprise need a process of ERP selection; the university needs to test the IS-AR PM proposal and a methodology in order to select an ERP (Systematic Help for an ERP Acquisition or SHERPA methodology, Guerrero 2001; Pastor, Franch, & Sistach 2001). Table 13 discusses the objectives.
  • Four individuals: Mateo (IS-AR researcher), Joan (IS-AR researcher and ERP selection researcher), Jorge: engineer responsible for selecting the ERP), and Ricardo (expert in selecting software).
  • Five roles in the cycles: Five roles were defined (Figure 7). In CRM, Mateo was a technical action-researcher (to provide support in action-research), Joan was an action-researching practitioner (to learn about and research IS-AR), and Jorge was a research practitioner (to apply action-research). In CPSC, Joan was a facilitator action-researcher (to guide the work of Jorge), Jorge was a technical action-researcher (to guide in the action-researching of SHERPA), and Ricardo was a practitioner (working in ERP selection).
Figure 7: Individuals and roles - (c) Christian A. Estay-Niculcar

Figure 7: Individuals and roles - (c) Christian A. Estay-Niculcar

Table 13: Objectives from the cycles - (c) Christian A. Estay-Niculcar

Table 13: Objectives from the cycles - (c) Christian A. Estay-Niculcar

3.4. To Produce Another Model: Knowledge Management Model

The steps to obtain the maturity model for IS-AR were applied in an engineering thesis of the career in Informatic of Business from the Santa María University (Campus Guayaquil). In this experience, the practices of an IS-AR project were used in the conduction of the thesis (see the Figure 14 as an example). This thesis, the research dimension, lead to a model and a methodology to help to mature an organization to increase their practices in knowledge management, and, in the practical dimension, such model and methodology were applied in the Ecuadorian Navy in a specific software process unit, evaluating the step from level 1 to level 2 (Salem & Saman, 2003).

Table 14: Example of practices deployed - (c) Christian A. Estay-Niculcar

Table 14: Example of practices deployed - (c) Christian A. Estay-Niculcar

With this work, we defined key areas with respective practices. Such experience was developed for the Ecuadorian Navy, in particular for its Engineering Department, as a result of providing a maturity model to improve their capabilities to produce software.

4. Comments and Future Work

In synthesis, we obtain a systemic vision about IS-AR PM with:

  • A set of PM processes for IS-AR with its respective practices that define the structure of the IS-AR PM (IS-AR PM process structure).
  • A maturity model that is a way to improve the use of IS-AR by increasing proficiency with action-research and competence in PM processes in order to improve the implementation of IS-AR by an action-researcher.

With this work, the PMBOK® Guide (2000) has been a useful tool for helping define specific projects for researchers, the IS-AR PM. It was a methodological work, but the several experiences empowered the model and the proposal.

This experience enriched the scope of the PMBOK® Guide (2000) in the complex field of its research. The experiences realized were useful in the information systems field in a way where practitioners and theorists meet in collaborative spaces, by selecting software or by generating new models of maturity. From another point of view, the obtained results had been useful to prepare IS professionals for complex projects where an IS imply strong commitment between consultants and practitioners, aspect more relevant in the IS curricula.


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