"The Oxford Praxis Forum is dedicated to all those researchers who have wished that practitioners and policy makers would take more notice of their work, and all those practitioners and policy makers who have wondered when researchers would produce something that was worth taking notice of."
This dedication is adapted from one by Professor Viviane Watson in New Zealand in a preface to a book she published over 20 years ago .
It deliberately strikes a humorous note, but it captures a deep seated and widespread frustration surrounding the fact that, whilst much research has some relevance to practice, its impact, especially in terms of helping resolve real world problems, is much less than either researchers or practitioners would like. The push by current research funding bodies to support research with greater 'impact' is a clear indication that this frustration has not abated over the last 20 years.
The Oxford Praxis Forum seeks to better understand the root causes of this frustration, with the clear objective of identifying practical steps that can be taken to help ameliorate it.
The Forum has taken the approach that this challenge is best addressed using a collaborative effort involving senior practitioners and researchers. It brings together a senior, diverse and international group of these people who are committed to pursuing a rolling programme of innovative approaches for tackling this challenge.
An emphasis on practitioners and policy makers
The Oxford Praxis Forum has a particular interest in understanding this frustration from the perspective of practitioners, and the practical steps they might take to reduce them. It has made a point of ensuring its activities are practitioner led and has established an advisory circle of senior practitioners, drawn mainly from Oxford alumni, who are interested in exploring this topic.
It is very clear that practitioners feel that the persistence of these frustrations strongly suggests that yet more of the dominant thinking about problem solving that has led people into this impasse is unlikely to lead them out again.
Praxis needs to find a new, innovative approach, in particular one that can address more effectively the true [nebulous, uncertain, hard to define, rapidly changing] complexity found in most real-world problems.
Walking before we run
Adopting a focus on innovation, and the uncertainty this introduces, effectively precluded Praxis attempting any sort of tightly-structured, programmatic approach at the outset.
However, in consultation with its practitioners Praxis identified a set of basic of working assumptions that the Praxis Forum could use to help frame its initial programme of activities, and combined them into a simple template. Although the assumptions and the template have been progressively refined, they have served to guide the selection of the diverse, loosely linked but coherent set of activities that have made up Praxis's emerging portfolio of projects.
This rolling programme recognises that Praxis needs to proceed with caution. For Praxis has no basis for setting programmatic objectives, has limited direct resources to draw on and relies heavily on members contributing discretionary time freed up from their primary professional roles at no cost. It has therefore deliberately adopted an exploratory, prototyping approach, building on the initiatives members have volunteered to undertake.
To help anchor this portfolio of activities, Praxis has also adopted a simple organisation that asks the advisory circle of senior practitioners to review each spring the activities pursued throughout the year, and make recommendations for the coming year. To support both the organisation and the rolling programme Praxis has established a very small administrative Praxis Hub based in Oxford. This Hub also ensures members have access to bulletins, reports and working papers that keep them informed on the progress of the rolling programme.
An evolving portfolio generating an evolving perspective
Entrenched, tacit norms are an important contributor to the frustrations
In its first few years, Praxis has undertaken over 30 separate activities as it has pursued different lines of enquiry emerging from its approach. These have ranged from lectures, to retreats, to open workshops, to custom workshops, to working papers, to visits and to pilots of various kinds.
This first phase of Praxis pointed to the fact that the current social and institutional structures of research and practice engender significant de facto resistance to effective collaboration in their respective populations.
'A cultural logic of networking'
A second phase of enquiry is now looking at how this resistance might be reduced. It has taken as a start point those features of the Praxis platform that had attracted the attention and support of both researchers and practitioners.
These features echo the archetypical features of classic network structures (free association, diversity offering opportunities for learning and dialogue, grounding in inter-personal trust, preservation of individual autonomy). Despite their attractions, classic emergent networks incorporate a basic logic that effectively precludes direct action. This does not square with the basic Praxis agenda that calls for practical action steps to address its challenges.
In fact, after some digging, Praxis managed to identify some earlier examples where practitioners had developed a 'cultural logic of networking' approach. This looked to preserve the advantages of networks by staying as close to a network structure and ethos as possible, and only introducing the minimum of additional organising elements needed to support the action steps involved.
Latest rolling programme
The latest rolling programme within Praxis is looking to use the thinking behind this 'cultural logic' approach to build on the network strengths of its existing platform whilst taking practical steps to address the actions called for in its basic agenda.
1.Problem-based methodology: research for the improvement of practice 1st Edition; Robinson, Viviane; Oxford: Pergamon Press, 1993
Contact The Oxford Praxis Forum
For more information, please contact:
Dr Marshall Young, Director