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Edgar Schein: careers, culture and organisational learning.

Edgar Schein (b. 1928) pioneered the concept of corporate culture with his landmark book Organizational Culture and Leadership (1985), which sparked off much research into organisational culture. Schein also coined the now much-used phrases `Psychological Contract' and `Career Anchor'.

Life and Career

Now the Sloan Fellows' Professor of Management Emeritus and Senior Lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management, Professor Schein has had a long and distinguished academic career. He has made a strong contribution to the `helping' professions, mainly in the areas of organisation development, career development, and organisational culture. He received his Ph.D in Social Psychology from Harvard University, collaborated with Douglas McGregor at MIT, and worked for many years with the National Training Laboratory.

Schein has extensively researched and written about the factors which influence individual and organisational performance. The main themes underlying his work are the identification of culture(s) in the organisation; the relationship between organisational culture and individual behaviour; and the importance of organisational culture for organisational learning.

Douglas McGregor invited Schein to MIT after the latter's post-war work on the repatriation of POWs following the end of the Korean War. This work strongly influenced Schein's whole career, and re-emerged forcefully in an article for The Learning Organization on brainwashing and organisational persuasion techniques in 1999. ('Empowerment, coercive persuasion and organizational learning: do they connect?' Vol 6, no 4, pp.163-172.)

Schein's thinking

Corporate Culture

Early in his career, Schein found traditional approaches to understanding work behaviour and motivation, firstly, too simplistic to explain the range of experiences of individuals in organisations; and secondly, too restrictive, as human and organisational needs vary widely from person to person, place to place and time to time. In Organizational Culture and Leadership, he became the first management theorist to define corporate culture and suggest ways in which culture is the dominant force within an organisation.

In his view, culture is a mix of many different factors, such as:

* observed behavioural regularities when people interact

* norms that evolve in working groups

* dominant values pushed by the organisation

* philosophy guiding the attitudes of senior management to staff and customers

* organisational rules, procedures and processes

* the feeling or climate that is conveyed without a word being spoken.

In Organizational culture and leadership, Schein defines culture as a pattern of basic assumptions, and discusses how these fall into five, often oppositional, categories:

1. Humanity's relationship to nature--some organisations seem want to dominate the external environment, while others accept its domination.

2. The nature of reality and truth--the ways and means by which organisations arrive at the `truth'.

3. The nature of human nature--some people seem to avoid work if they possibly can, while others embrace it as a way of fulfilling their potential, to both their own and the organisation's benefit.

4. The nature of human activity--a focus on the completion of tasks on the one hand, and on self-fulfilment and personal development on the other.

5. The nature of human relationships--some organisations seem to facilitate social interaction, others to regard it as an unnecessary distraction.

Organisational socialisation

Schein's thoughts on organisational socialisation were triggered when, after arriving at MIT, he asked McGregor for guidance in the form of previous outlines and notes for a course he was preparing. McGregor politely refused, saying there was no need to rely on history and that Schein should make up his own mind. This lesson in acclimatising to MIT led Schein to argue that companies should be conversant with their socialisation practices, and recognise the conflicts they can create for new recruits.

In `Organizational socialisation and the profession of management' (Sloan Management Review, Fall 1988, pp.53-65) Schein discusses how, when a new recruit enters the organisation, a process of socialisation,--adaptation or `fit'--takes place. He argues that this process has more to do with recruits' past experience and values than their qualifications or formal training.

Usually, Schein suggested, organisations create a series of events that work to undo the new recruit's old values to some extent, so that he or she is more open to learning new values. This process of `undoing' or `unfreezing' can be unpleasant, and its success may therefore depend upon either a recruit's strong motivation to endure it, or the organisation's perseverance in making recruits endure it. There are three basic responses to this socialisation process: rebellion--outright rejection of the organisation's norms and values; creative individualism--selective adoption of key values and norms; or conformity--acceptance of the organisation's norms and values.

Noting similarities between brainwashing experienced by servicemen captured during the Korean War and the socialisation of executives on programmes at MIT, Schein argues that many forms of organisational development involve restructuring and change, and have serious implications for the way people work and their relationship with management.

Schein likens such OD processes to a form of coercive persuasion, or brainwashing, giving people little choice but to abandon, for example, older norms and values that fit badly with the new learning. If we are in tune with the goals and values of the change this will not be a problem, but if we dislike the values, we are likely to disapprove of the `brainwashing'. Schein concludes that, because the very concept of organisation involves some restriction of individual freedom to achieve a joint purpose, the concept of a continually learning, innovative organisation is something of a paradox, since creativity and learning are related to individual freedom and growth.

Organisational learning

Organisational learning, Schein considers, needs to be fast in order to cope with growing market pressures, yet seems to be obstructed by a fear of, or anxiety about, facing change, particularly on the part of senior executives. This feeling is associated with reluctance to learn what is new, because it appears too difficult or disruptive. Schein argues that only a new anxiety greater than the existing one can overcome this, and his `anxiety 2' is the fear, shame or guilt associated with not learning anything new.

Schein emphasises the need for people need to feel psychologically safe, if change is to happen. Achieving organisational learning and transformation therefore depend upon creating a feeling of safety, and overcoming the negative effects of past incentives and past punishments--especially the latter. To learn, people need to feel motivated and free to try out new things.

Psychological contract and career anchors

In Organizational psychology Schein highlights a `psychological contract', (attributing the original concept to Chris Argyris) which he defines as an unwritten set of expectations operating between employees and employing managers and others in an organisation. He stresses how essential it is that both parties' expectations of a contract should match, if a long-term relationship that will benefit both parties is to develop.

Closely linked to the notion of the psychological contract is the concept of the Career Anchor, which describes a guiding force that influences individuals' career choices and is based on their self perceptions. Schein proposes that, from their varying aspirations and motivations, individuals--perhaps unconsciously--develop one underlying career anchor, which they are unwilling to surrender. On the basis of 44 cases, he distinguishes career anchor groups such as technical/functional competence, managerial competence, creativity, security or stability and autonomy.

The three cultures of management

Rather than a single culture, Schein identifies three cultures (or communities of interest) within an organisation that often conflict rather than work in harmony: the operator culture, which evolves locally within organisations and within operational units; the engineering culture of technicians in search of `people-free' solutions; and the executive culture, which is focused on financial survival. For example, while the executive culture would require systems and reporting relationships for evidence that operations are on track, the engineering culture would attempt to design systems that cut across lines of control and the people manning these.

In his article `Three cultures of management: the key to organizational learning' (Sloan Management Review, Fall 1996, pp.9-20) Schein suggests that, often, either operators assume executives and engineers do not understand their work needs, and covertly do things in their own way; or executives or engineers assume a need for tighter control over operators and force them to follow policies and procedure manuals. In either case, there is no commonly understood plan, and efficiency and effectiveness suffer.

Schein stresses the need to take the concept of culture more seriously and accept how deeply embedded are the assumptions of executives, engineers and employees. He proposes that helping executives and engineers learn how to learn about, analyse and evolve their cultures may be central to organizational learning.

In Perspective

Schein's work now spans over four decades and his great contribution has been in linking culture with individual development and growth, putting the accent on organisations as complex systems and on individuals as whole beings.

Schein was aware that the concept of corporate culture was no cure-all for ailing organisations. The fact, however, that culture is now generally recognised as a central factor for organisational change and development is largely attributable to Schein's work.

Key works


Organizational psychology, 3rd ed Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1980

Organizational culture and leadership, 2nd ed San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 1997

The corporate culture survival guide San Francisco: Calif: Jossey Bass, 1999

Career dynamics: matching individual and organizational needs Reading, Mass: Addison-Wesley, 1978

Journal articles

How can organizations learn faster? The challenge of entering the green room Sloan Management Review, Winter 1993, pp 85-92
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Date:Dec 1, 2000
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