Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education, Community Development and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)


Edgar Schein revisits Process Consultation with a sequel

This year, Edgar Schein revisits his influential book 'Process Consultation: Its Role in Organization Development', written in 1969, with a sequel entitled 'Process Consultation Volume II: Lessons for Managers and Consultants'. If the general philosophy on which Schein's entire work is built upon could be summarized in one premise, it would probably be the old Chinese proverb that goes "give a man a fish, and he will eat for a day; teach a man to fish, and he will eat for a lifetime." Author, researcher, professor and organizational consultant, Schein advocates a theory of consultation that is both collaborative and client-centered. The ultimate goal of the PC approach is an organization skilled in the diagnosis and solving of its own problems, without the aid of outside interventions.

In the 1969 book (Process Consultation: Its Role in Organization Development) Schein provides the reader with a definition and explanation of Process Consultation, an overview of group processes, and a description of the PC approach in action. Process Consultation is understood as "a set of activities on the part of the consultant that help the client to perceive, understand, and act upon the process events that occur in the client's environment in order to improve the situation as defined by the client. (Schein, p.11) This approach is contrasted with that of the "expert" or "doctor" roles; the consultant is not expected to arrive on the scene with answers to every problem, nor a prescription to fix whatever ailment the organization has identified. In fact, the PC approach assumes that "problem-identification" is part of the process, and that the client may not initially know wherein the problem lies. Through the use of questions and observations, consultants can clarify issues, provide focus, and highlight areas of group processes that may be causing distress or hindering progress towards the group's stated goals.

The 1969 book also provides an overview of basic communication theory, including styles and levels of communication, body language and the use of filtering processes. Schein details group formation processes, including individual needs, norms and culture issues, and various functions and processes e.g. initiating, clarifying, harmonizing, gate-keeping, decision-making and problem-solving. In the last part of the book, Schein discusses the workings of the consulting process itself, and addresses a series of questions such as: How does one establish a contact and define the relationship? What settings and methods of work are most appropriate for the PC model? What is an intervention, and which are most effective? How does one disengage from the consulting relationship, and how are results evaluated? What new values and skills should be apparent in an organization that has successfully learned the PC model?

Almost twenty years later, in 1987, Schein penned a second book about PC entitled 'Process Consultation Volume II: Lessons for Managers and Consultants'. He suggests that while the first book is a good introductory volume, this book is written for the experienced consultant and is also written for those in positions of management. He posits that anyone in a leadership role can benefit from utilizing the same principles used by consultants, to better influence the human systems and dynamics in their organizations. Schein describes some of the roles common to both consultants and managers, for example, the provision and analysis of data, problem-diagnosis and training functions. He reviews the 'helping' models discussed in Volume I; (the expert, doctor-patient and PC approaches), and asserts that the significant difference among the three approaches lies in the way in which the consultant initially structures the relationship - it must be a joint process, with the client retaining ownership of the problem and its solution(s).

Schein's philosophy posits that 'organizational problems' are actually 'human problems' - issues in the communication and interpersonal processes of relationships. What are the ways in which a group functions? How are decisions made? Is confrontation allowed? Are there disruptive side conversations? How does the group gather information and solve problems? How do they actually perform the task for which they have come together as a group?

Having re-established and expanded upon some of these basic tenets of PC philosophy, Schein then uses Volume II to explore other issues as yet undiscussed. For example, he raises the issue of the intrapsychic processes of the consultant/manager. Awareness of one's own feelings, biases and assumptions is critical, since they affect the accuracy of one's observations. These observations are then used to diagnose and intervene in a situation. One must therefore learn to suspend judgement, be aware of one's defenses and feelings, and always maintain a spirit of inquiry.

Schein also addresses the issue of equitability. In North American culture, the very act of requesting help may suggest weakness. It is important that the consultant be aware of and compensate for this perceived inequity by listening carefully, taking the problem seriously, and perhaps providing examples of similar situations faced by other organizations (normalizing). Process consultation addresses this issue in one of its basic assumptions - that the client owns the problem and is indeed capable of solving it, albeit perhaps with some guidance. Also, since change management within an organization is often a difficult process, in Volume II Schein offers some insight into the three main stages of change one may encounter:

1."unfreezing" (changing perceptions, attitudes and behaviours),
2."cognitive re-structuring" (discovery of new information and possibilities), and
3."refreezing" (embedding the new point of view), as well as a series of interventions for both one-to-one and group settings.

Schein concludes Volume II with a brief yet personally candid discussion of some of the ethical issues that consultants sometimes face, and some overall conclusions about the helping process in organizations.

In 'Process Consultation Volume II: Lessons for Managers and Consultants', Schein draws upon many sources to provide a theoretical framework to his theory, including some of his own writings. For instance, his model of change described above is also found in a previous book entitled, Professional Education (Schein, 1972), and even then is borrowed from sources dating back to the 1950's. One can also read further about Schein's ideas on groups in his book published in 1965, Organizational Psychology (Schein, 1965). Other authors and colleagues writing in this field are also found throughout Schein's work, and may be helpful background reading. For example, Schein draws on Beckhard (1969) work about teams and intergroup relations in Organization Development: Strategies and Models, and his analysis of intrapsychic processes is inspired by 'Human Inference: Strategies and Shortcomings of Social Judgement' (Nibett & Ross, 1980). At times, Schein appears to assume the reader is familiar with previous works. Just to give an example, Schein refers to the Abilene paradox, but does not explain what is such paradox about (by the way, for those interested, information about the Abilene paradox can be found in W. Dyer's book entitled Team Building: Issues and Alternatives, published in 1977).

Process Consultation Volume II: Lessons for Managers and Consultants is written for the organizational manager and consultant, and reads not as an academic dissertation, but as if the writer was actually speaking. This approach makes the book quite readable, but at times grammatically weak. Schein's use of diagrams, charts, lists and summaries provide further clarification of the concepts and provide visual learners with a clear picture of the main points. As well, Schein conveys many real-life examples of his experiences in consulting with organizations, which allow the reader a clearer understanding of the integration of his theory and practice.

Regarding Schein's theoretical approach, three main comments can be made:

1. As a theory, the Process Consultation approach expects and incites a high degree of respect for the client organization, and for the people therein. It assumes that people have the desire to work hard and be productive, and are intelligent, capable, and able to make significant contributions to organizations. Process Consultation holds the intention of building the self-esteem and self-confidence of individuals and of the groups of which they are a part.

2. In this fast-paced world of work, new changes require new methods and ways of thinking; no solution lasts forever. This raises an ethical issue with regard to consultation; a dependency could be created, with the client believing that the organization's successful handling of change can only be ensured by the presence and intervention of the consultant. Instead, Process Consultation focuses on enabling the client to be increasingly self-sufficient, by learning to diagnose and solve problems internally ("teach a man to fish..."). Schein briefly discusses this and other ethical issues near the end of Volume II, leaving much open for discussion in the area of consultation ethics.

3.The work setting is changing dramatically, demanding increasingly sophisticated interpersonal and team skills. Yet, it seems simultaneously, we are becoming an increasingly individualized society, shopping, banking and even learning 'on-line'. Thus, 'people skills', while in demand more than ever, may be less developed than ever! This would seem to suggest that Schein may have been slightly ahead of his time, in advocating a team-based and people-centred approach to effective management, and in his desire to help prepare skilled consultants and managers to assist in the development of human processes.

In sum, Process Consultation Volume II; Lessons for Managers and Consultants is an interesting development of the ideas expressed in volume I as well as an introduction of new issues for a broader audience of consultants, managers and all those involved in human processes.


Beckhard, R. (1969). Organization development: strategies and models. London: Addison-Wesley.

Beckhard, R. & Harris, R. T. (1977). Organizational transitions: managing complex change. London: Addison-Wesley.

Dyer, W. G. (1977). Team building: issues and alternatives. London: Addison-Wesley.

Nisbett, R. & Ross, L. (1980). Human inference: strategies and shortcomings of social judgement. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.

Schein, E. H. (1969). Process consultation volume I: its role in organization development. New York: Addison-Wesley.

Schein, E. H. (1987). Process consultation volume II: lessons for managers and consultants. California: Addison-Wesley.

Schein, E. H. (1990). Organizational culture and leadership. Oxford: Jossey-Bass.

Schein, E. H. (1965, 1972). Organizational psychology. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.

Schein, E. H. (1972). Professional education. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Prepared by Debbie Ellis (OISE/UT)

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