I recently learned that Dr. Edgar Schein, the person who I and many others consider to be the "Father of Organizational Culture," passed away on January 26, 2023 at the age of 94. According to accounts of his death, on that very day, he worked on a project with his son and partner Peter before he passed away suddenly and peacefully after supper.
I refer to Edgar Schein as the "Father of Organizational Culture" because of his ground-breaking work on this concept, in this case, his three-level model of culture. He developed this model in 1980 and is the standard for those of us who study it, understand its importance, and the way it influences the behavior of people who work in any organization. Jennifer Chatman, a professor of management at the University of California, Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, said that his model, "brought a level of discipline and precision to a concept that did not lend itself to focused study." The model is pictured below.
Schein's definition of culture and his model played an important part in our M.S.O.L. Program curriculum. Both resonated with students and faculty as understandable and applicable. We referred to these concepts throughout the program. We used them as one of the interpretive tools in our Research Methods course.
His impact on our program was significant. The over 1,000 M.S.O.L. graduates still remember Schein's three-levels of organizational culture.
We used his book, Organizational Culture and Leadership, for a number of years. Later on, his text, The Corporate Culture Survival Guide. Both books included detailed discussions of his organizational culture model and explained his principles of organizational change.
In addition to his seminal work on culture, Schein gave us a new approach to consulting. He elaborated his ideas in the book, Process Consultation. He was unique in that these ideas came from his research and practice as a consultant. Douglas Hall, Professor Emeritus of Management and Organizations at Boston University, had this to say about Schein's approach:
“Most people are either one or the other: They’re big thinkers and they have these grand theories, or they do research and incremental work to understand phenomena better. Ed could do both. I can’t think of anyone else who had the kind of range that he had.”
Another area in which Schein made a noteworthy contribution was his work on "career choice," and what motivated people to work as expressed in his book, Career Anchors: The Changing Nature of Careers Self Assessment. A prolific writer throughout his professional career, some of his last publications include, Helping: How to Offer, Give, and Receive Help; Humble Leadership: The Power of Relationships, Openness, and Trust; and Humble Inquiry, Second Edition: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling.
Finally, a comment about Edgar Schein the person from MIT Sloan’s Van Maanen who remembered Schein as someone who was vibrant but also kind and decent, with a quiet demeanor; he wasn’t pushy.
“He was an imaginative listener who could really break through a conversation with the right question at the right time,” Van Maanen says. “That was Ed’s modus operandi: to listen very carefully.”
And, so it is. Edgar Schein is gone but his influence will live on in many ways. His kind, humble presence will be missed.
“Our culture emphasizes that leaders must be wiser, set direction, and articulate values, all of which predisposes them to tell rather than ask. Yet it is leaders who will need humble inquiry (emphasis mine) most, because complex interdependent tasks will require building positive, trusting relationships with subordinates to facilitate good upward communication.” (Edgar Schein, Humble Inquiry, 2021)
In Professor Schein's honor, "Humbly, keep asking questions."