School 1 - Process Consultation

A History of Social Labs: Process Consultation

The practice that perhaps most formally represented our approach on first-generation social labs is an approach called “process consultation.” The approach grew out of the field of organizational development (OD) in the late 1960s. The phrase was the title of a book written by in 1969 by Edgar Schein at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management. Schein describes process consultation as “a philosophy of ‘helping’, and a technology or methodology of how to be helpful.” His 1999 book Process Consultation Revisited: Building the Helping Relationship, was the first book recommended to me when I started working in the field. 

The basic idea behind process builds on the work of people like Kurt Lewin, sometimes called the father of action-learning and Carl Rogers, who developed a psychotherapeutic approach known as client-centred therapy. The essential idea in the work of all these people is that “one can only help people to help themselves.” Schein’s theory, rooted in forty years of practice, outlines how one can make “facilitative process interventions” and design group processes with the aim of being helpful.

Process consultation as an approach was different to the Art of Hosting (AoH) philosophy that I was more familiar with. Schein argued that “the decisive factor as to whether or not help can occur in human situations involving personality, group dynamics, and culture is the relationship between the helper and the person, group, or organization that needs help.”

While the Art of Hosting was a deeply relationship-orientated process, the focus was the group as a whole and relationships within the context of the group. What needed help in the AoH worldview was not a “client” but rather the whole system. The purpose of AoH processes was for the group to together arrive at responses to the wider social situation we found ourselves in. More recently AoH practitioners, including Toke and others, have used the AoH approach in client consulting contexts. Even so, there is no suggestion in the AoH worldview of a client in need of help but rather of a shared problem or challenge and of an “operating system” or paradigm to together address those problems. The primary framing is the role of conversations that are “hosted” by the “host” (as opposed to the “helper” and the “helped”), that is, someone who can skilfully invite people into a group process that’s helpful to addressing the situation as a whole.

Process consultation and the AoH both share in common a focus on the “how” things get done in groups. As Schein says, “we often design or participate in processes that actually undermine what we want to accomplish.” This process-orientation to consulting is also markedly different from what Schein calls “selling and telling” consulting, a much more dominant mode of consulting, where a client purchases information or expert advice. Process consultation and AoH share an aversion towards expert advice. This stance is a key component of an alternative response to traditional expert-orientated approaches to dealing with social challenges. An unintended consequence of this, however, is that it makes both approaches somewhat agnostic to outcomes because neither the helper nor the host are there to provide answers.

This unintended consequence has grown into a popular belief that “process” and “content” are two distinct and separate things. In process-consultation circles, with both hosts and facilitators, it is not uncommon to hear of people speaking about how they “don’t do content.” This belief makes the crucial assumption, generally unexamined, that “content” does not arise through some process. The processes associated with the creation of “content”, that is, sector specific knowledge and domain expertise is accepted unexamined and somewhat uncritically. Throughout my experience with first-gen social labs, I was told and strongly advised not to offer clients any content-related advice, because I did not have “content expertise.” The other problematic aspect of this position, as we shall later see, was the status of the “content” that was produced through the process consultation work that we undertook.

For these reasons, both AoH and process consulting, come across as being politically neutral, although AoH less so. While in the AoH context a set of shared political values are in evidence. There is an explicit preference for flat hierarchies, for environmental values (through the notion that we need to shift our understanding of systems from being mechanical to complex – like natural systems) and more loosely for non-market based solutions (evident from the usually noncommercial nature of AoH work). All this means that AoH’s Left leaning, somewhat liberal values sit close to the surface. This puts AoH at somewhat of a commercial disadvantage, as typically clients need to be aligned with these political values.

In contrast with process consultation, the underlying political values are much harder to discern. Somewhat predictably process-consultation, coming as it does from the broader field of OD and the Sloan School of Management, results in a consultant-orientated commercial mindset that’s largely accepting of market-dynamics and its consequences. This acceptance, coupled with an aversion to “content” expertise makes process-consultation particularly well suited to serving commercial interests.

Process consultation, unlike AoH, on the other hand, does address the micro-dynamics of power in a relatively sophisticated way. Schein begins his book with a discussion of “the psychodynamics of the helping relationship” where he argues that all helping relationships suffer from a power imbalance. This is because “at the beginning of a helping relationship, the two parties are in a tilted or imbalanced relationship with the helper being “one-up” and the person seeking help being “one-down.”

More so, Schein points out that this situation is likely to “seduce the consultant into accepting the higher status and power position that the client offers” with all the attendant risks, such as offering premature or unwanted advice. (Italics in original) Schein makes a distinction between several types of clients, including primary clients (those who pay the bills) and ultimate clients, “the community, the total organization, an occupational group, or any other group the consultant cares about whose welfare must be considered in any intervention that the consultant makes.” However, invariably, if a conflict arises between a primary client and an ultimate client, it’s usually the primary client who wins. Schein’s insights into power-dynamics are therefore largely concerned with the relationship of the consultant to primary clients.

When I first read all this, I struggled to grasp these insights. In the years since I came to realize that many of my experiences reflected the patterns of behaviour that Schein described. I also realised that the success of process consultation requires an acute sensitivity to many subtle caveats that Schein provides in his book. Sensitivity to power dynamics is just one example and when an awareness of these caveats is lost (or never existed), then all kinds of problems arise.



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