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)


Process Consultation: Its Role in Organization Development is published by Edgar Schein

There is an 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 the rest of his life." This proverb succinctly captures the underlying philosophy of Edgar Schein's theory of organizational consultation as presented in his book Process Consultation: Its Role in Organizational Development (1988).

Schein's book was originally published in the late 1960's. He wanted to offer the model he used when consulting with organizations on developmental issues as his contribution to the theory of organizational development. His academic colleagues frequently asked him what he did when organizations engaged his services. His book provides the answer and describes what Schein believes to be the salient events that occur in organizations.

To appreciate the significance of this literary work, it is necessary to understand the context in which Schein's book was published. At the time of Schein's writing, organizational development was a relatively new field. It had been around for about 10 years. There was a widely accepted view of the consultant as an expert and the main focus was a structure and task orientation (business processes and time and motion). The human side of the equation at work got very little attention. Human Resource was just beginning to emerge as a discipline. Progressive organizations had a personnel department but it was common to find human resource issues limited to pay, benefits and record keeping, the responsibility for which most often resided in the Payroll department. Little had been written about human process at work or consulting as a profession. And finally, the concept of helping and intervention theory had just begun to be explored.

Process consultation is organized in three parts. In part one, Schein shares both his definition of process consultation and its underlying assumptions. Part two provides a brief overview of its historical roots and examines the seven relevant major human processes that are, in Schein's opinion, at the heart of process consultation. A review of the steps and stages that characterize the consulting relationship wraps up Schein's work in part three of this short but succinct piece of work on process consultation.

Schein sees process consultation as an emergent and continuous process that takes a balanced approach between concern for human issues, process and long-range effectiveness, on the one hand, and tasks, content and short-run efficiency or expediency on the other hand. He defines process consultation 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"(1988, 11). His belief that the role of the consultant is to pass on skills and values to the client as opposed to passing on knowledge is an essential differentiation between Schein's model and other consulting models prevalent at the time of his initial writing. The nature of the help the consultant offers is clearly focused on teaching managers to help themselves to solve their problems as opposed to fixing problems for the managers. He assumes that the client is a capable and vital partner in the process.

There are several key underlying assumptions, one of which is that managers have a constructive intent to improve things but they often do not know what is wrong and need special help in diagnosing their problems. This help can be provided by outside consultants. However, and this is another key underlying assumption of Schein's model, managers typically do not know the kind of help a consultant can offer to them. Therefore, it is the consultant's role to educate the managers on both the options available as well as how to diagnose and fix the organization's problems as mentioned above. According to Schein, helping managers become less reliant or dependent on the consultant has many key benefits. These boil down to increased likelihood that the implementation will be successful and solutions will be permanent. Schein believes that all organizational problems are fundamentally problems involving human interactions and processes, and every organization has some processes that can be improved. Therefore, most organizations can be more effective than they are if they learn to diagnose and manage their own processes. Process improvement is a continuous exercise.

The first three of seven major human processes Schein sees as relevant to process consultation include communication processes, building and maintaining a group and group problem solving and decision-making. In his review of the communication process he takes a look at both formal and informal power and relationships, as well as overt and indirect forms of communication. He gives his reader a concise overview of the research that has been conducted on various aspects of group dynamics in his chapter devoted to building and maintaining a group. In dealing with the matter of group problem solving and decision-making, Schein reviews the various ways groups make decisions giving us both the pros and cons of each method. He divides group problem solving neatly into two discrete cycles. The first cycle involves problem formulation and proposing and testing solutions. It is the most difficult and most often requires outside help. A critical success factor in the second cycle, action planning and implementation, is the involvement of the people responsible for implementing the agreed upon solution.

Group norms and culture, leading and influencing, appraising performance and giving feedback, and intergroup processes are the four remaining processes Schein examines. However, the examination of these areas are not as extensive as the three above mentioned human process areas possibly due to the relatively limited research that had been conducted in these areas at the time Schein wrote his original book. In part three, The Consulting Process in Action, Schein tells us that as a consultant, he considers the entire organization to be his client not simply the contact person or the highest-ranking person. Schein recommends this be made clear during the initial stage of establishing contact and defining a relationship. One of the tasks during this stage is defining the psychological contract, i.e., setting expectations on the part of both the client and the consultant.

According to Schein, once a consultant's services have been engaged by an organization, the activities in which he is engaged can be categorized as two types of interventions – diagnostic and confrontive. Schein asserts that "…all traditional consultation models, as well as the models of how to do research on organizations make the glib assumption that one gathers data prior to intervening, that one observes, interviews and surveys, then makes a diagnosis, and then suggests interventions or remedial steps."(1988, 142) In Schein's opinion " Every act on the part of the process consultant – even the initial act of deciding to work with the organization – constitutes an intervention"(1988, 142). Schein categorizes acts such as deciding to work with an organization and the methods for gathering data as diagnostic interventions. In the late 1960's when Schein's book was published, this was a relatively new way of looking at the concept of interventions. Schein defines confrontive interventions as interventions that are designed to deliberately influence process.

When Schein wrote Process Consultation, the most prevalent model of consultation was the purchase of expert information or an expert service. Schein refers to this as the Doctor-Patient Model. The buyer, usually a person internal to the organization, defines a need and decides for whatever reason to purchase the solution from an external source (provider). This common consulting focus came from the scientific management school of thought with its attention to structure. According to Schein, the static, structural approach examines the existing structure and recommends alternative forms that are presumed to be more effective for achieving organizational goals, while it ignores the human processes (1988, 16). Schein insists that process consultation is focused on both structure and process as some processes are entrenched to the point that they become part of the structure (1988, 17). The widespread move away from a myopic structural focus toward a more integrated structural and process view is, at least in part, due to Schein's work in this area. Schein's book was a pioneer in moving many of these issues forward and played an important role in bringing the focus to the human side of the equation at work. The fact that this book was released in a second edition almost 20 years after its original publication and that it can be found in stock and on the shelves of most bookstores today, nearly 32 years after its first release is a testament to its relevance and timelessness. It is difficult to pick up a recent book written on the subject of consulting and not find Schein's Process Consultation in the list of references.

I have two criticisms of this book. Its focus is relatively theoretical. Although the intended audience, his academic colleagues and consultants, would probably be able to put his theory to practical use, it would be difficult for others to do so. Schein has published a second volume to Process Consultation in which he sets out how his theory works in practice, perhaps in response to similar criticism. My second criticism is the use of the masculine form. Although in the second edition publication, Schein explains that he uses the masculine form to simplify his writing rather than as a sexist term, it is nonetheless somewhat irritating. I can't help but think that the feminine form would have accomplished his goal of simplification equally effectively and could easily have been incorporated in the "updated" version.

Currently, Schein is a Professor of Management at MIT Sloan School of Management. He continues to contribute to the field of organizational development primarily through his research and publications in the area of organizational culture and leadership.


Schein, E.H. (1988). Process consultation: Volume I: Its role in organization development. (2nd Ed.) Reading, MA: Addison/Wellesley Publishing Company.

Prepared by Susan Woodruff (OISE/UT)

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