Edgar H. Schein 1928-2023: A Reflective Appreciation by David Coghlan

In Memoriam: Edgar H. Schein 1928-2023.

The Humble Inquirer: A Reflective Appreciation by David Coghlan

Edgar H. Schein’s name may not be known to action researchers outside of the realm of organizational psychology and organization development.  For over fifty years he held the position of Professor of Management at The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management. He was one of the first to formulate the field of organizational psychology in 1965 and led the development organization development (OD) through his editorship of the pioneering Addison-Wesley OD series in 1969.  For almost seventy years he has creatively and systematically shaped theory and practice in areas such as: organization development and change, career dynamics, the cultural dynamics of complex systems and leadership. Other contributions that are found in articles, book chapters, interviews, You Tubes include his reflections on learning and education and notions of organizational therapy, organizational socialization, dialogue and the role of anxiety in organizational change. With such an extensive corpus over such a long period, Schein been termed a “transcendent thought leader” and it is in this spirit that I select one strand of his work for Action Research readers so as to acknowledge his place in our field and to sustain his legacy. Since 1969 Schein has framed and developed a philosophy of being helpful that has become mainstream in both the academic and practitioner literatures. He has termed this philosophy process consultation, clinical inquiry/research and humble inquiry respectively and it is in these terms that I structure this appreciative reflection.

Process Consultation action research

Even though the term was not used or alluded to, I was introduced to action research in the mid1970s when I read Process Consultation (Schein, 1969). In this little book I discovered the value of attending to process and of a collaborative way of inquiring into experience, understanding, decisions and actions. From that book and subsequent further editions, the term, process consultation, entered the practice of consulting, mentoring, coaching, group facilitation and is at the heart of appreciative inquiry, future search and other approaches to participative engagement.

Schein defined process consultation as

the creation of a helping relationship with the client that permits the client to perceive, understand and act on the process events that occur in the client’s internal and external environment in order to improve the situation as defined by the client (Schein, 1999, p. 20).

From this definition he was clearly differentiating himself and his approach from the prescriptive helping approach (which he called the doctor-patient model) and framing a collaborative client-centred model. His typology of interventions: exploratory, diagnostic and confrontive questioning provides a useful skills development training tool.

 Clinical Inquiry

Within the context of the continuing debates about the philosophy and methodologies of organizational research and their relevance to practice, Schein has argued that the knowledge obtained by traditional research methods frequently do not reflect what things are really like in organizations and so are inadequate for studying organizational processes. Accordingly, he framed clinical inquiry/research as synonymous with process consultation. 

Schein’s approach to research was deeply rooted in the work of Kurt Lewin whose work led to the development of action research and the powerful notion that human systems could only be understood and changed if one involved the members of the system in the inquiry process itself. In his substantive account, Schein located clinical inquiry/research in relation to other research approaches in terms of levels of researcher and system initiation of and involvement in the research, and he elaborated the clinical perspective of the researcher as focused on helping the system (Schein, 2008). Indeed, he articulated what he saw as a difference between action research and clinical inquiry/research as where in action research the researcher may initiate the inquiry in clinical inquiry/research the researcher enters the system by invitation in order to helpful (Schein, 1995). In doing so the clinical researcher is helped by the clients to generate the relevant data and build relevant theory that is useful to both practice and scholarship (Coghlan, 2009).

Humble Inquiry

After over sixty years of emphasizing process, Schein moved to emphasizing the disposition of being “humble,” which he defines as “the fine art of drawing someone out, of asking questions to which you do not already know the answer, of building a relationship based on curiosity and interest in the other person” grounded in “the attitude of listening more deeply to others’ responses to our inquiry, responding appropriately and revealing more of ourselves in the relationship building process” (Schein & Schein, 2021 p. 3). His focus on humble inquiry brings together the threads of his previous work on being helpful and on building collaborative relationships.

An Appreciative Reflection

I spent a year at MIT’s Sloan School in the mid1980s.There I met Schein in person, and we became friends. It was he who introduced me to the work of Erving Goffman whose notion of backstage laid the foundations for my later work on insider action research. Over time, as I developed in my OD/action research work, I had the key insight that what runs through Ed’s work is a spirit of inquiry. As he reflected in 2019,

“I think that it has always been my strength: to turn whatever is around me and what is going on around me into something analytically and practically useful (In Hansen & Madsen, p. 45).”

This quote expresses how he saw himself as an artist (Schein, 1993) including presenting a thematized account of his own work through the construct of a Greek drama (Schein, 2006).

On the occasion of his 90th birthday in 2018, I engaged in a metalogue with him on themes of his work that had been formative in shaping my work (Coghlan, 2018). One theme was how in his writings he was consistently explicit about his own intellectual development combining what he is seeing and hearing with what he is thinking and shows how he reflected on his thinking as he listens to clients and figured out how to respond – a practice in action research we call first-person practice. The second theme was clinical inquiry/research as an orientation to inquiry that views the researcher as one who enters the organization at its invitation and helps clients understand their organizational challenges and works with them to help address those challenges and be helped by the clients to generate the relevant data and build relevant theory that is useful to both practice and to scholarship. Process consultation, humble inquiry and its expression as clinical inquiry provide a model of second-person practice.  His extensive publications which he constantly grounds in his direct experience as a consultant illustrate his third-person contribution practice.

Schein himself exemplified his philosophy of being helpful. He was friendly, approachable and always interested in others’ experiences. His colleagues and former students testify to his keen listening and insightful questioning and his encouragement to them to pursue their own questions (Fatzer et al, 2019).

Ed Schein was active up to the day he passed, a few weeks short of his 95th  birthday. His son, Peter, collaborated with him on new editions of his books. At the age of 93 he issued, what he called a “rant”, a call for social scientist to use their skills to create methods of collaboration to “create real dialogue” to address the global crises confronting our planet (Schein, 2022). On the day he passed on 26th January 2023 he had engaged in a fire-side chat zoom conversation with a group of OD practitioners and academics from around the world.

Ed Schein is one of the true giants of applied behavioural science and has made a significant contribution to the field of action research, especially in organizational settings. As we engage in action research in our respective domains, Ed’s legacy continually reminds us to be humble and thereby be genuinely helpful in the systems we may help to change.

by David Coghlan, University of Dublin, Trinity College Dublin. Ireland


Coghlan, D. (2009). Toward a philosophy of clinical inquiry/research. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 45(1), 106–121. https://DOI: 10.1177/0021886308328845

Coghlan, D. (2018).  Edgar Schein at 90: A celebratory and exploratory metalogue. Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 54 (4), 385–398. DOI:10.1177/00218863192685

Fatzer, G. Van Maanen, J. Schmid J.C., & Weber, W.G. (eds) (2019).  Edgar H. Schein: The spirit of inquiry. Innsbruck: Innsbruck University Press.

Hansen, A.V. & Madsen, S. (2019). Theorizing in organization studies: Lessons from key thinkers. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.

Schein, E.H. (1969). Process consultation: Its role in organization development. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Schein, E. H. (1993). The academic as artist: Personal and professional roots. In A.G. Bedeian (ed.) Management laureates (vol. 3. pp. 31-62). Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.

Schein, E.H. (1995). Process consultation, action research and clinical inquiry: Are they the same? Journal of Managerial. Psychology, 10 (6), 14-19. https://doi.org/10.1108/02683949510093830

Schein, E.H. (1999). Process consultation revisited: Building the helping relationship. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Schein, E. H. (2006). From brainwashing to organizational therapy: A conceptual and empirical journey in search of ‘systemic’ health and a general model of change dynamics. A drama in five acts. Organization Studies, 27 (2), 287–301. https://DOI: 10.1177/0170840606061831

Schein, E. H. (2008). Clinical inquiry/research. In P. Reason & H. Bradbury (Eds.). The Sage handbook of action research (2nd ed., pp. 266–279). Sage.

Schein, E. H. & Schein, P.A. (2021). Humble inquiry: The gentle art of asking instead of telling. Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler.(1st ed .2013).

Schein, E.H. (2022). Social scientists need to speak up. In J.M. Bartunek (Ed). Social scientists  confronting global crises. (pp. 130-131). Abingdon: Routledge.