Root Causes of Communication Fragmentation: Learning styles and behavioural styles

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This is the first article in a short series that will be looking at factors causing the sort of communication problems that underpin the motivation to implement a product like SharePoint. When you think about why you want to implement SharePoint, it tends to boil down to an improvement in efficiency brought about by improved collaboration between individuals or teams.

Improved or more effective collaboration is a great idea in theory but unfortunately SharePoint’s implementations have been hit or miss affairs. When a SharePoint project goes well, it tends to go very well. When it goes bad, it tends to be very bad. I’ve seen both extremes. On one of my projects I had the executive chairman so enamoured with a particular requirement being satisfied that he was out there evangelising to the user base for me. Once this happens, success is generally assured. But on the other hand, I have been called out to sites where they have completely lost control of it all, and to even mention the dreaded "S" word will result in you being ostracised.

I realised long ago that to put in SharePoint without considering and understanding the various root causes to "communication problems" is to be unconsciously incompetent. (By the way, if you have not read my "Thinking SharePoint" series, "unconsciously incompetent" is a term used in education/training disciplines to indicate that "you do not know what you do not know". In other words, how can you be trained on something when you do not even acknowledge that you have a deficiency in that area?

Training, therefore, is most effective when trainees are at the "consciously incompetent" stage of their learning. This means that they now realise and understand that they have deficiencies in a knowledge area and seek to improve their skill. Some might argue that to actually put SharePoint into an organisation is to be consciously incompetent, because you have recognised the inefficiency in existing communication and collaboration. I believe this is deluded because all you are doing is trying to deal with the visible effects of communication fragmentation. You still do not necessarily have a full understanding of the root causes of that fragmentation.


I’m sure that many of you have watched the TV series House. How many times do they just about kill the patient with a treatment for an incorrect diagnosis? Unlike Dr House, though, SharePoint consultants don’t often get that convenient epiphany at the 38 minute mark of an episode that nails the root cause, applying the correct treatment and saving the patient.

Therefore, I have decided to call this series "Root causes of communication fragmentation". This first article is essentially the same as one called Learning styles, behavioural styles and “collaboration” that I published it over at

Honey and Mumford Learning Styles

When I was taking my "Train the trainer" course at the Australian Institute of Management, we participated in an experiment. We answered a questionnaire and based on our answers were separated into four groups.

It turned out that these groups were separated based on our most dominant Honey and Mumford learning style.

For those of you who are not aware, according to this work, there are four types of learners. I have listed them below, and for your reference I was classed as a theorist/pragmatist with more of a pragmatic leaning. Funnily enough when I was younger I was definitely an activist learner but as I have aged I moved down the list!

Activitists (Do)

  • Immerse themselves fully in new experiences
  • Enjoy here and now
  • Open minded, enthusiastic, flexible
  • Act first, consider consequences later
  • Seek to centre activity around themselves

Reflectors (Review)

  • Stand back and observe
  • Cautious, take a back seat
  • Collect and analyze data about experience and events, slow to reach conclusions
  • Use information from past, present and immediate observations to maintain a big picture perspective.

Theorists (Conclude)

  • Think through problems in a logical manner, value rationality and objectivity
  • Assimilate disparate facts into coherent theories
  • Disciplined, aiming to fit things into rational order
  • Keen on basic assumptions, principles, theories, models and systems thinking

Pragmatists (Plan)

  • Keen to put ideas, theories and techniques into practice
  • Search new ideas and experiment
  • Act quickly and confidently on ideas, gets straight to the point
  • Are impatient with endless discussion

In this experiment, each of the four groups were given the same fictitious problem. We were asked to write a plan for how we would go about solving it. We spent then 30 minutes on this in groups before reassembling back in the same room where the groups compared notes.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, we all thought that the other groups were complete idiots. The reflectors in particular thought that the activists represented complete anarchy and chaos. My group – the pragmatists (who of course have it right), knew that their method was by far the best one and had no time at all for reflectors who perform all of that analysis-paralysis. Mind you, we did have some sympathy for the theorists ๐Ÿ™‚ .

Why is communication, shared understanding, knowledge management and collaboration such a difficult thing to do?  This is one of the root causes. This experiment really hit home to me, just how incredibly different people are and how a collaborative tool by definition, needs to be designed or implemented in such a way that all participants use, believe and evangelise it. But since they all have different styles of learning, accommodating them all without alienating some is a pretty difficult task.


Then we have behavioural theory with Marston DISC. This test is used in recruitment and HR often to see how well a candidate will ‘fit’ into the cohesiveness of a group or organisation. DISC is an acronym that relates to four ‘dimensions’ of personality traits.

  • Dominance – relating to control, power and assertiveness
  • Influence – relating to social situations and communication
  • Steadiness – relating to patience, persistence, and thoughtfulness
  • Conscientiousness – relating to structure and organization

Below is the explanation of each trait from wikipedia. Is it any surprise that senior managers tend to be dominant in "D", sales and marketing people dominant "I" while engineers are dominant "C"?

  • Dominance: People who score high in the intensity of the ‘D’ styles factor are very active in dealing with problems and challenges, while low D scores are people who want to do more research before committing to a decision. High "D" people are described as demanding, forceful, egocentric, strong willed, driving, determined, ambitious, aggressive, and pioneering. Low D scores describe those who are conservative, low keyed, cooperative, calculating, undemanding, cautious, mild, agreeable, modest and peaceful.
  • Influence: People with High I scores influence others through talking and activity and tend to be emotional. They are described as convincing, magnetic, political, enthusiastic, persuasive, warm, demonstrative, trusting, and optimistic. Those with Low I scores influence more by data and facts, and not with feelings. They are described as reflective, factual, calculating, skeptical, logical, suspicious, matter of fact, pessimistic, and critical.
  • Steadiness: People with High S styles scores want a steady pace, security, and do not like sudden change. Low S intensity scores are those who like change and variety. High S persons are calm, relaxed, patient, possessive, predictable, deliberate, stable, consistent, and tend to be unemotional and poker faced. People with Low S scores are described as restless, demonstrative, impatient, eager, or even impulsive.
  • Conscientious: Persons with High C styles adhere to rules, regulations, and structure. They like to do quality work and do it right the first time. High C people are careful, cautious, exacting, neat, systematic, diplomatic, accurate, tactful. Those with Low C scores challenge the rules and want independence and are described as self-willed, stubborn, opinionated, unsystematic, arbitrary, and careless with details.

Don Bowlby has a nice post where he illustrates these different behavioural styles with examples of "Dominant Dave", "Influential Ingrid", "Steady Stan" and "Conscientious Catherine". Do take the time to read his post, and then see which of these people you relate to the most.

Note: You can have elements of more than one of the DISC dimensions but you tend to be dominate in one of them.

Dominant Dave questions the status quo, is quick to make decisions/solve problems. He has no problem with power and authority, loves autonomy and working on lots of stuff. He struggles to relate to some people and sometimes has trouble identifying with the group. People like Dave get things moving forward, but can overlook detail in the process.

Influential Ingrid always wants to make a good impression, loves people and prefers to talk about her ideas rather than present them in writing. She doesn’t like a lot of details and can appear disorganized. Being so emotionally oriented, she can have trouble making objective evaluations of people and situations. People like Ingrid foster open communication and strive for an enjoyable experience. But Ingrid needs people who enjoy routines and tasks because these things make her uncomfortable.

Steady Stan is patient, helpful and finishes everything he starts. Stan’s daily routine rarely changes and he does not react well if it suddenly does. Without people like Stan, things would never get finished, yet the rigidity of Stan’s routine can frustrate when quick decisions and action are needed.

Conscientious Catherine is even more anal-retentive than Steady Stan. She is very analytical, applies critical thinking and likes to know what the goals are and what is expected and is always happy to lend her expertise when required. Sometimes Catherine’s detail oriented nature can slow projects down and her application of critical thinking may seem negative at times. She has a knack for pointing out everything that can go wrong with a project, product or venture.

Hmm, I just read a book on analytics and wrote a series of posts on SharePoint project failure and ROI – but I am as messy as hell so which domain am I? ๐Ÿ˜‰

How would SharePoint look?

Let’s try a little experiment. Below I theorise what a SharePoint portal would look like, based on the presumption that each of our 4 people above assumed full creative control over development and direction. Feel free to comment to the accuracy (or not) of my guesses.

Dominant Dave has seen SharePoint, liked it and thrown together a SharePoint site. He has set up sites, wiki’s, blogs, lists, libraries and on top of that, relentlessly downloaded every possible add-on, and tried it out, using some and giving up on others (but never uninstalled). His idea of a communications plan and training is to send out an email with the new URL and instruct people to start using it. The site is full of evidence of half-starts and unfinished ideas and no-one really knows exactly what the goal of it all is. But that’s okay, Dave has by now passed it onto Steady Stan to finish it off anyway.

Influential Ingrid on the other hand, engages a graphic design company to work on the look of the site. She will come up with a catchy acronym for the project, and organise t-shirts and mouse-mats to be printed and distributed to staff. The site is launched with great fanfare, yet practically devoid of content except for the social club site and the "about us" section. Document libraries and lists are unlikely to have much attention, because all the emphasis is on the static web content side of things. Despite the lack of use of many of the built-in collaborative tools, boy-oh-boy, does that home page look cool! Things will flash, sparkle and dazzle more than a drag queen singing at a cabaret.

Steady Stan will quickly see the potential for improving the way that content can be better organised, searched and managed. Thus he will spend his time coming up with a common structure for all aspects of the portal no matter which site is visited. The document libraries, list and other content areas will be consistent and identical and templated for re-use. Branding will be ignored, because it is not as important as consistency. He will roll it out, expecting people to naturally take it up, seeing the value created.

Conscientious Catherine will first undertake a 6 month feasibility study into the portal that costs more money than what Dominant Dave took for his entire SharePoint project. The outcome of this study would be to learn what people want out of the portal. She works out a methodology to gather requirements, but on execution it becomes obvious that both Dave and Ingrid haven’t got a clue as they can’t seem to offer a straight answer when she asks what they want. "How can I deliver you a portal when I don’t know your requirements?", Catherine asks in indignation. In the end, Dominant Dave looks at how much money has been spent for no obvious gain and kills the project.

The Honey DISC soup

The point of my little exercise with sweeping generalisation is that "collaboration" by definition is about working together to achieve a common goal or outcome. Unfortunately, it is clear that our 4 characters above have very different motivations and interpretations of what that outcome is.

In my consulting life, where I spend a lot of time doing requirements work, training or project management, I have gotten to the point where I can pick someone’s personality/learning style out. Also, once you start to get a feel for this, you realise that a lot of root causes in social fragmentation is simply a lack of awareness of how people speak to each other.

When you combine DISC and learning styles, it gives you a pretty good appreciation of social complexity. Given a complex problem, you will always get people who want to jump straight in (activists), those who want to consider all of the issues (reflectors), theorists who will be looking for best-practice guidelines and us pragmatists who say the rest are right so long as it is done *our* way.

But when you add the dimension of DISC, the forces of social fragmentation get even stronger. Consider the case of a "Dominant Activist". Here is someone who is forceful, strong willed, potentially intimidating yet wants to dive headlong into a solution. These guys are hazardous to your health because they usually have the power to do it their way regardless.

On the other extreme you have a "Conscientious Reflector". There is every dodgy middle manger that I have worked with right there!

Another classic example is the "Steady Theorist" who believe that rigidly following a methodology is the answer to the world’s problems, no matter what. I have met a few ITIL people who I would lump in this bucket ๐Ÿ™‚ .

Communication Fragmentation

Meetings are the place where fragmentation strikes and miscommunication arises as a result. For example, in a strategy meeting, the reflector is the one who *always* challenges the frame of the meeting and annoys everybody else in the process. The activists are annoyed that they had to go to the meeting in the first place, and the theorists are trying to convince everyone that [insert methodology here] is the way to go.

A dominant "D" type personality often speaks in a very direct manner. To a low D type personality, this can be seen as intimidating, rude or arrogant. D and S type personalities can really struggle to get along, because at times, they are polar opposites in what motivates them and keeps them interested.

A heavy "D" personality who is a pragmatic learner is probably going to be a handful when it comes to, say, working on functional requirements with an "S" type application developer who happens to be a theorist learner.

Is it any wonder people consider meetings to be inefficient, a waste of time and not achieving much!

The point is that usually people forget that not everybody shares their behaviour and learning styles.

Collaboration Fragmentation and Information Architecture

So since meetings are inefficient and suck so much, we look to other methods to collaborate to achieve our goals. But that communication gap that can exist between people of differing learning styles and personality types reflects itself in collaborative tools as well. An IT Manager who, for example, is mainly a "S" type personality is going to put together a SharePoint solution with a very different emphasis than, say, someone who is mainly a Dominant Activist.

Of course, organisational type and culture, regional culture, geography, age, gender and other biases play large factors as well. Organisational considerations has gained some attention – one of the best examples I saw being the great paper by Michael Earl who in 2001 wrote "Knowledge Management Strategies – Toward a taxonomy". But unfortunately, no academic has ever performed an empirical study that looks at whether there is a correlation between behaviour/learning styles and the sort of collaborative tools/techniques that people gravitate to. I think if such a study was undertaken, it would offer some extremely valuable insights into how to go about delivering a collaborative solution for particular groups, individuals or organisations.

So, when you are designing your "work of art" Information Architecture that has taken weeks to work out, ask yourself this question: Is this a work of art for me or for the people who will be collaborating via it?

The great irony in all of this is that the only way to remove some of the barriers of social fragmentation is to collaborate. In the case of SharePoint, you need to collaborate, to put in a collaborative platform. Am I the only one who finds that perversely funny? ๐Ÿ™‚

Paul Culmsee

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2 Responses to Root Causes of Communication Fragmentation: Learning styles and behavioural styles

  1. Pingback: ezineaerticles » Blog Archive » CleverWorkarounds ยป Root Causes of Communication Fragmentation …

  2. Ian Morrish says:

    The first thing I want to do when starting a SharePoint project is to have a SharePoint server on which to facilitate the project. I think that hoping any technology will produce collaboration is flawed. All we can hope to do is facilitate the process (business or social)and your post reminds us of the different behaviours and preferences that we need to cater for.

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