The Role of Process Consultant

In the business sphere, the concept of process consultation has grown in importance in the area of organisational development, bearing no less significance in defining the role of the organisational consulting itself and the kind of help it offers to individuals, groups, organisations, communities, etc. It’s time you find out how a process consultant actually works!


Different consultation models

In one of our previous posts we pointed to different basic models of offering consultation service, bringing the following two to your attention: expert and process consultation. We compared and contrasted the two hoping to deepen your understanding of the process consultation model.

Let’s start with the first mentioned. Sometimes individuals and companies hire a business consultant when they need specific expert advice, say, on improving their operation. Such model is usually called expert consulting.

A business consultant using this model plays a role of an expert in their as well as in your area of expertise.

When it comes to organisational consulting, most people have in mind this kind of consultation and look for universally applicable decided advice from any kind of consultants.

However, expert consultation sometimes makes more and sometimes less sense for an individual or a company. For instance, it makes sense for a smaller start-up which is only just entering the market and does not count an internal marketing manager in its staff, to hire an external marketing consultant. The consultant’s role could gradually internalise, and they could later get a position in the company. An expert consultant in such case will help with their counsels in the marketing area.

Another example: an expert consulting makes sense for an individual wishing to start his or her own business and has no expertise in finance. Haven’t we all who have ever started our own businesses sought an accountant / financial expert to help us in number crunching?

Or think about an organisation which or an individual who, for a change, already have resources, but wants to maximise them and use them in a more authentic way?

That’s when they opt for another top-notch model of assisting organisations and individuals, which does not imply the position of an expert but does require the same level of expertise! It is called process consultation.


What is process consultation?

One of the greatest experts in the area, a renowned social psychologist and organisational consultant, honorary professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, Edgar H. Schein coined the concept of process consultation in 1970s, and redefined it in the ensuing decades. Let’s try to summarise process consultation here.

In his book Process Consultation Revisited: Building the Helping Relationship*, Edgar H. Schein himself starts with defining what process consultation is not. ”It is not a technology or a set of interventions for working with groups, as it was originally stereotyped. It is not just a model for nondirective counseling applied to the organizational setting. It is not an occupation or a full-time job.“ A lot has changed in this respect since the year 1999 when he wrote it – there’s a number of process consultants now, even consulting businesses which work full-time in process consulting (Jelena CONSULTING included)!

For Edgar Schein, „Process consultation is a philosophy about and attitude toward the process of helping individuals, groups, organizations, and communities. It is not merely a set of techniques to be compared to and contrasted with other techniques.“

This concept of helping is naturally followed by mandatory helping technology and methodology.

The central hypothesis that lies behind the process consultation is, therefore, this: a man or a human system can only be helped to help themselves (ergo, the help is never truly helpful if it is imposed and if the counsel is not internalised by an individual/system).



Let’s elaborate on it on a case study of a company working with an external organisational consultant:

Since the consultant is not physically present in different business situations and is not an employee of the client company, an external organisational consultant is never fully conversant with the actual situation in the company or the company culture so that they could take concrete action and offer universal advice to the company staff on how to solve all their issues. What consultant can (and should) do is to use their experience and knowledge of the process to help clients come to the solution themselves. Therefore, in organisational consulting, the client and the consultant jointly diagnose the problem and work towards its resolution. Such work is essentially determined by the whole lot of assisting professions: beside therapy and counselling, system-psychodynamic organisational consulting as well.


Which process is at hand here?

The “process” in the above-mentioned definitions may strike us as indefinite or too general.

Let’s try and define it as simply as possible, building on Schein’s definition from his already mentioned book.

The process in this type of consulting is important because HOW people or groups operate is more important than WHAT they do.

The “how” here (the process) tells the consultant more than the actual content of the communicated. The process is usually vaguer to people and that’s exactly where the consultant can support them with their expertise.

As Schein goes on, people are less trained to observe the process itself, to witness it in action (i.e. its effects), or to design the process so that it produces the desired results. We are even prone to designing or going through processes that abolish what we are actually trying to achieve.

All this implies that understanding the process – HOW we do things – is vital to grasping the functioning of interpersonal or group relationships.


How does process consultation differ from other types of consulting?

As Schein points out, every person needs help at some point in their lives (business life included), and process consultant can help only when an individual (or an organisation or a team) becomes aware that they need help and when they explicitly ask for it. A person aspiring to become a process consultant needs diverse psychological and sociological insights into the mere dynamics of the helping relationship. That is the very reason this type of help also commands expert level of knowledge and experience (although the model differs from, say, expert consulting).


What is process consultation from the client’s point of view? 

One of the principles that Edgar Schein elaborates on in his paper titled “The Concept of Client from a Process Consultation Perspective: A Guide for Change Agents“** is the following:

Client is the one with the problem and the one with a remedy!

It’s a fact that only the client feels the effects of the actual problem and its resolution, therefore it is not on the consultant to solve it. The client, and the client only knows whether some consultant’s diagnostic formulation, some proposed action or step can be of help (to them or the others in the same company). However, consultant’s research can be crucial to coming to the solution. Although the client is the sole carrier of both the problem and its solution, they delve into the search for the next step together with the consultant.




Why is process consultation ever growing in importance?

In the 20th century, in the times of extreme corners cutting in the developed world (in 1980s and 1990s), companies have massively turned to rationalisation or, in the later period, developing technology (that is often perceived as ideally efficient replacement for man and human work). In those times of the society development, process consultation used to surrender to expert consulting.

However, more and more companies today have realised the value of the process consultation and it has slowly been coming into focus again. The growing number of companies and individuals express their needs for highly-qualified professionals who understand psychological and social dynamics between individuals in groups and the whole organisations. Jelena CONSULTING is here to help with its expertise in psychodynamics and socioanalysis.


* Edgar H. Schein, Process Consultation Revisited: Building the Helping Relationship, izdavač Addison Wesley Longman Inc., 1999.

** Edgar H. Schein, The Concept of Client from a Process Consultation Perspective: A Guide for Change Agents, Working Paper #3946 March 1997.


The author of the text:

Jelena Dimitrijević

Systems-Psychodynamic Organizational Consultant & Analytic-Network™ Coach