Insights into ‘research’ from Schein

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I have recently come across Schein’s work which links to research.  I have come across him before – as one of the oft quoted theorists on organisational culture.  In fact it is this work that is mentioned in the wikipedia article about him.

Schein’s work draws and comments on that of Lewin – a ‘thinker’ included in the Systems Thinkers book by Ramage and Shipp.  Given that, I feel happy adding Schein into my interpretation of a ‘systems thinker/practitioner’.

So what does Schein offer to my thinking….

Approaches to research

Schein (2001) sets out to explain his distinctions between traditional research; action research; and, clinical inquiry.  He says that these distinctions are very important to the nature of the psychological contract between ‘researcher’ and ‘subjects’ (even these terms will change depending on the stance you take).  They also have consequences for how data is collected/generated and the question of reliability.

Schein uses three dimensions to make his distinctions – firstly, who initiates the piece of work (researcher or client); secondly, the degree to which researcher gets personally involved in the inquiry; and thirdly, the degree to which the client becomes personally involved in the inquiry.  These three dimensions lead to 8 different kinds of inquiry as follows:

If the work is initiated by the researcher:

degree to which subject or participants are involved
low high
degree to which researcher is involved low demography experiments/ surveys
high participant observation and ethnography action research

When the researcher initiates they are concerned with gaining access and eliciting cooperation.  There is a tension between ‘feeding back’ but guaranteeing ‘confidentiality’.  Schein also points out that these models assume research is ‘benign’ – essentially the period of fact finding that proceeds intervention.

In demography, the researcher is seen as ‘objective’, distant from both the participants and the process of data collection.  Participants too may not even be aware of the data gathering.  Here the process is driven by the research question, the formalised methodology and data quality.  This reminds me a lot of epidemiology in public health – such as use of death information and medical records to understand life expectancy, mortality and morbidity.

In experiments and surveys, the method does involve the direct involvement of participants but not researcher involvement.  Often the design intends to minimise so-called researcher bias.

In participant observation and ethnography, the researcher has to get involved a lot more – get into the swamp off the high ground to use Schon’s metaphor.  But, the subject is still very distant from the research.

Then finally into action research.  Here the researcher works hard to involve participants in the research process.  The language shifts from ‘subject’ to participant or co-researchers or research team.  However, the terms are still very researcher led.

But, when the work is initiated by the client:

degree to which client is involved
low high
degree to which researcher/consultant is involved low internship educational interventions and facilitation
high contract research and consulting process consulting and clinical inquiry

The language has changed – away from subject/participant to client and away from researcher to a consultant, facilitator or helper.  These linguistic changes are more than just superficial as they signify a shift in the psychological contract – the ‘helper”s primary concern is with the welfare and interests of their client. Research becomes the secondary agenda.  Schein argues that data gathering based on a helping relationship should be considered legitimate research – it comes about from having a research attitude in a helping relationship.

Clinical inquiry may superficially look like action research – the client and helper are working together to decipher what is going on and improve the situation – this is where Schein cites Lewin “you cannot understand a system until you try to change it”.  Any data is generated as a ‘side-line’ to the helping relationship.  Data quality improves because of the depth of info that the client is happy to reveal – given that they are directly benefiting from disclosure.  The helper/researcher needs self-insight as they are observing dynamic processes which lead to confirming/disconfirming one’s hypothesis on a continual basis.

As someone who is not very far away from doing a research project in my own organisation, Schein’s ideas spark a number of thoughts.

I like the idea of clinical inquiry and the nature of that relationship BUT in order to do a research project for academic accreditation, I will have to initiate the research – my organisation is immediately on the receiving end of my research – so my options end up in the top set of research.  As someone who is drawing on systems ideas in my research, I don’t like the idea of ‘low’ involvement – too high ground, not enough swamp.  So really that leaves me with participant observation/ethnography or action research.  I’d love it to be action research but that depends on the time, interest and motivation of colleagues – a big ask for a research project that will have to meet academic deadlines.

Then there is the nature of the relationship – the psychological contract – I am already part of the organisation so I am already a colleague, a ‘sub-ordinate’, a ‘superior’ and many things beside.  So what happens when I become a researcher too?  When will I be ‘doing my job’ and when will I be ‘observing’ or ‘generating data’ – these are going to be all mixed up – so how does the ethics fit in of suddenly seeing my colleagues and my organisation as ‘subjects’.  Mmm food for thought.

Data gathering as an intervention

Schein (1995) also spends time dispelling myths about the ‘neutrality’ of a data gathering/diagnostic period in traditional consultancy.  There is a tendency for periods of ‘diagnosis’ or ‘data gathering’ to be seen as a neutral front-end to an intervention.  In fact, often consuntancy ends at this stage – leaving the client with a set of recommendations.  This evokes criteria of scientific validity and objectivity BUT this approach prevents participants having a genuine approach as to what to reveal and reinforces notions of hierarchy and power.

In ‘helper’ mode, a consultant/researcher must think through the consequences of getting data in a certain fashion.  Even at this stage, this needs to be jointly owned by the client – otherwise you let the client ‘off the hook’ as a learner.

The way the data is fed back also has consequences – often it is fed back to managers first and then ‘cascaded’ – again reinforcing hierarchy and power.  For genuine empowerment, people need to own the data about them – this also gets problem solving started straight away.

Four types of inquiry

Schein identifies four types of inquiry that can be used in the helping relationship:

1) Pure inquiry – what is going on? tell me more?  This allows the client to get the story out in their own way.

2) Diagnostic inquiry – why did that happen? why did you do that? how did it make you feel?  This ‘interferes’ with clients thought processes, gets them to think about reasons and linkages and guides their thought processes.

3) Action oriented inquiry – what did you do? what will you do?  Again this ‘interferes’ as it forces client to think about actions.

4) Confrontative inquiry – have you considered that this may have happened because of…? could it be that you were…?  This forces the client to think about issues they may have never thought of before.

The skill of helping is to move through these interventions – if you are researching too then this helping relationship will reveal valid data which make for better theories.

I like Schein’s types of inquiry – not just in thinking about the consultant/client relationship but it also sparks ideas in how you can help learning in others – amongst colleagues and peers.   It feels like a coaching or mentoring approach.


Schein, E.H., 1995. Process consultation, action research and clinical inquiry: are they the same? Journal of Managerial Psychology, 10(6), pp.14-19

Schein, E.H., 2001. Clinical Inquiry/Research in Reason, P. & Bradbury-Huang, H., 2005. Handbook of Action Research Concise Ed Edition., Sage Publications. (Also available through Google Books – I found that clicking between two different edited previews of different book editions  (2001, 2005)  meant I could access nearly all of the text in the chapter.  Cheeky I know!)

Ramage, M. and Shipp, K., 2009.  Systems Thinkers, Springer/Open University, London/Milton Keynes.

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