The first time I remember hearing of Ed Schein was while I was working on my master's degree. I was enrolled in a hard core Industrial & Organizational Psychology program that was much more focused on the industrial side of the field (e.g., job analysis, employee selection, statistical analysis) than it was on the organizational development (OD) side. In fact, we didn't touch on the OD side until our second year. When we did, Schein was casually mentioned as someone who had a great definition of culture, which we briefly reviewed and then moved on. Once I started working on my Ph.D. at Benedictine, however, I got a much greater exposure to Schein's work and gained a deeper appreciation for why he is such an important thought leader in the field of OD.
Our first deep dive was a review of his Process Consultation text (Schein, 1988). This seminal manuscript is one of the cores of the current thinking in the field of OD. It clearly develops what process consultation is, how to apply it, and why it is such an important part of the OD tool kit. I had a really hard time getting it the first time I read it. My difficulty was not driven by anything wrong with how the text was written, but more because of my own preconceived notions and not leaving those at the door at the start of the journey.
The process consultation model discussed by Schein is about "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, p. 11). In other words, we are looking at how the people in the client organization process their interactions with each other and their environment in the most effective way. This can include everything from group dynamics analysis, to diversity training, to team building, to any activity that is focused on improving the human interaction process within the client environment. This broad definition was hard for me to grasp because I had just spent eight years working as a management consultant doing things like business process reengineering (BPR) where we would draw wiring diagrams to define and redesign the steps for making this widget or that. While BPR work could be included into Schein's process consultation domain, I was limiting myself in my understanding due to my own preconceived notions. Interestingly, this self limitation based on preconceived notions is one of the themes in another of Schein's important works DEC Is Dead, Long Live DEC (2003).
DEC Is Dead, Long Live DEC is the fascinating tale of the rise and fall of Digital Equipment Corporation. For those who do not remember, DEC was a Boston based computer manufacturer that pre-dated Microsoft and Apple and pretty much ruled the computer market place until the late 1980's and the rise of the PC. Interestingly, DEC did not fall due to an inability to make PC's, but because of the organization's preconceived notions about what computers were all about. Their culture of only doing things the DEC way prevented it from seeing the way the market was moving and evolving itself to meet those needs. The company's CEO rather famously questioned why anyone would want a computer in their home (Schein, 2003).
Schein's description of the DEC story is interesting not just because of the rise and fall of a great organization, but because of the cultural legacy it left. DEC's formal existence ended when it was purchased by Compaq. Compaq was later purchased by Hewlett-Packard (HP). A significant part of HP's computer hardware manufacturing divisions, are populated by legacy DEC employees and they maintain many of the organizational culture characteristics carried over from DEC. As a result, a lot of the cultural heritage of DEC lives on today even though the organization has not existed as its own entity since 1998.
So are these two texts the only things one needs to read to understand Ed Schein's contribution to the field of OD? Absolutely not. The guy has written more journal articles than most people have read. And while some academics seem to be rehashing the same material to get hits on their Vita's, Schein continues to produce new and novel insights that are advancing the field. Sure those insights are not coming out as often as they used to, but the guy is now 87 years old so one would expect him to be a bit less active. Even so, he is leaving a lasting legacy that is important for anyone with an interest in OD to absorb and understand.
Schein, E.H. (1988). Process consultation, Volume 1: Its role in organization development, 2nd eds. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company.
Schein, E.H. (2003). DEC is dead, long live DEC: The lasting legacy of digital equipment corporation. San Francisco, CA: Barrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.
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About the Author
Jimmy Brown, Ph.D. is a senior level management consultant with eighteen years of experience leading efforts to develop and implement practical strategies for business performance improvement. Dr. Brown has held senior level consulting positions at leading firms such as Booz-Allen & Hamilton, Accenture and Hewlett-Packard.