Process consulting: what is it

Someone asked me the other day what process consulting is. Of course, I was instantly stumped because although it's a phrase and a concept that's totally familiar to me I couldn't immediately and concretely define it in a way that made the term real for the questioner.

So I went back to Edgar Schein's piece A General Philosophy of Helping: Process Consultation, Sloan Management Review; Spring 1990. In his usual, clear way he says that the best way of defining process consulting, which he says is basically a 'helping model', is to contrast it with two other forms of helping models "that seem to me substantively quite different": providing expert information, and playing doctor.

Providing expert information: this he suggests is giving information that is directly relevant to a client's problem. So if the client says – "the performance appraisal system doesn't work to raise productivity in my department what is a better system for my group?" the consultant gives the answer. This makes an assumption that the consultant has the right skills, knowledge, and expertise to do this and the client does not. The client believes that the consultant is an expert with the 'right' answers. Take a car analogy. The client takes his car to the garage and says 'the brake pads are worn and need replacement, please fix them'. The mechanic has the expertise to do this but the car owner does not – he only has the skills to see that something is wrong with the brakes. The issue here is that the client may not know that brakes can fail for reasons other than worn brake pads. Similarly the client may not know that his group's productivity levels may have nothing to do with the appraisal system but in this case the consultant is not being hired to find this out but simply to give an expert answer to a specific question.

Playing doctor: when a client asks a consultant to come and assess a situation, find out what is wrong, and suggest a cure, the consultant is in the role of 'playing doctor'. Schein suggests that playing the doctor role is somewhat of an ego trip for consultants and that the efficacy of the role is based on a number of assumptions that may or may not be accurate. Again taking the car situation the client might take the car to the mechanic and say "this car is taking a long time to slow down, please find out what the problem is and suggest a way of fixing it", the mechanic might come back with several suggestions – too little brake fluid, or there is air and water in the brake fluid, or the brake pads are worn. The client expects the mechanic to diagnose which of these it is (or if it is something else) and suggest a remedy.

Process consulting: Schein discusses this in terms of helping people who know something is awry but are not sure what or why. Once they have been helped work out what is wrong then they are usually in a position to fix whatever it is themselves (i.e. they don't need an expert). This means that the consultant has to suspend judgment on what the issue is, and/or how to fix it, and with the client develop an inquiry process where together they find out what is going on and what to do about it. Schein sees this as a robust way of involving the client, ensuring that he/she takes responsibility for the issues, and feels a sense of ownership of the outcome and commitment to it. Again in the car brake scenario the client might start noticing that coming up to a traffic light the car isn't slowing down very quickly. In this case the client and the consultant would determine together how to tackle this issue – they might decide to look at the car's manual, or take a course on car maintenance, or examine the levels of brake fluid to rule out one of the possible causes. In this process consulting mode the consultant is helping the client learn how to address problems himself and develop skills to apply in future situations.

As Schein points out – in practice consultants are usually moving from one of these three helping models to another as the intervention proceeds.