Learning within project practice

the situated impact of our cognitive styles



School of Management, Marketing and Employment Relations

University of Wollongong, Australia

Proceedings of the PMI Research Conference 11-14 July 2004 – London, UK


This paper contributes to understanding the dynamics of practically supporting situated learning within a project management practice. The findings from this case study suggest that the “cognitive styles” of project participants present significant impacts for the situated learning activity of the team and ultimately for individual and team performance. Through public exposition and communal reflection on cognitive styles, they become a socially oriented learning constraint issue for a project team to understand and managerially engage. In doing so, project participants’ aid their situated learning process and help develop their skills in “learning how to learn.”


“My way of learning is to get involved and to challenge and to triple-challenge and to pinch and to manipulate….I need to understand things and I know talking to myself ain’t going to help. So, I need to talk to other people. It is a spurious way of doing it [learning]…otherwise it's no good for me”

(Ted - Project team member)

The quotation above from a project team member (Ted) involved in this study highlights two important points. First, he expresses his desired or preferred way of learning as interacting and participating with others and to be actively involved in the learning milieu (i.e. highlighting his social dependence). Second, these comments also illustrate the potential influence that the social and practical dimensions of the learning environment can have on this participant's learning behavior—for example, if the learning environment does not facilitate him talking with others, then he is unlikely to learn effectively. Clearly, this is just one example. Conflating a variety of individuals’ “preferred styles for learning” in a task-centered and time-limited project team setting introduces more social complexity into the presenting situated learning opportunity. This situation raises questions about how learning might be affected and how a project team might collectively deal with these different individual approaches to learning. In addressing this issue, this paper contributes to understanding the dilemmas of practically supporting intra-project learning and also helps address a gap in knowledge in the project management and organizational learning literatures.

An article by Sense (2003), which expounded the importance of developing a deep understanding of the learning phenomena in projects, also offered a new conception of a project team from a learning perspective. That conception was built upon situated learning theory and its construct of a “community of practice” (Lave & Wenger, 1991; Wenger, 1998; Wenger, McDermott & Snyder, 2002; Brown & Duguid, 1991; Saint-Onge & Wallace, 2002), wherein the context and its myriad sociological aspects mediate the cognitive learning activities of an individual and are therefore an integral part of the learning and knowledge-creation process (Antonacopoulou, 1997, p. 6; Gherardi & Nicolini, 2000).

The emphasis of the situated dimension of learning is concerned with these practical and social aspects of learning within the context. Situated learning theory (SLT) presumes that most learning occurs on the job in culturally embedded ways, and the learning therefore evolves through the participation and interaction of people and the subsequent negotiated construction of their identities and common meanings, within a form of a community of practice (Lave & Wenger, 1991; Brown & Duguid, 1991; Cook & Yanow, 1993; Gherardi, 1999, p. 112; Gherardi & Nicolini, 2000; Wenger, 1998; Wenger et al., 2002; Dixon, 1999, pp. 43-62). Therefore, the significant themes of SLT include the participation and interaction of people within a practice and their collective sense-making activities as they seek to develop their social and technical competency, and therefore their identities, within a domain of practice. This perspective encourages us to understand project learning, behaviors, and actions through the experiences and interactions of project participants in which individuals make sense of their project activities (Thomas, 2000, pp. 25, 42; Schwandt, 1994, p. 118).

This new conception of a project team posited that project teams are not just groupings of independent persons operating and learning independently of each other. Instead, project teams are social constructs that involve people in many forms of interaction and participation with each other across their community-of-practice boundaries and within their local project environment. This conception included individual project team participants simultaneously being members of multiple communities of practice external to the project team setting while they interact and exchange around the project activity. Within the project team itself, these multiple communities of practice for each individual collide or abut each other, and this is where major learning and negotiation opportunities emerge. Hence, these explicit and implicit social relationships and exchanges across these communities of practice form the conduits upon which learning processes are enabled. This primal influence of the “situational relationships” suggests project learning is therefore a product of the “local project community” (or the webs of relationships) rather than solely of the individuals within it (Easterby-Smith, 1997, p. 1106; Dodgson, 1993, p. 382). This influence also suggests that the situated dimension of learning always frames the cognitive dimension or, as Gherardi, Nicolini and Odella (1998, p. 274) state: “cognitive and practical activity can thus be pursued only within this world, and through this social and cultural network.” By implication, attending to the sociological aspects of a learning context is important in positively assisting the cognitive learning process of an individual. Thus, the “reality” of “learning” in a project team environment can be considered constructed, maintained, and reproduced through human practices within the project social context.

Conceiving project teams as dynamic learning opportunities (or learning generators) and project learning as a socially constructed and situated activity is not the final word on effective learning in this context. At the points of engagement between different “communities of practice,” situated learning can be impeded or supported by non-attention or attention to constraint elements for learning exchanges between people across these boundaries. This paper elaborates upon one of those facilitating or constraining social elements for situated learning, which is part of a group of elements that have been identified through the work of this study. The element under focus is intrapersonal in character yet sociologically and contextually engaged (Sadler-Smith, 2001, p. 296; Sternberg, 1997, p. 153). This element is termed an individual's “cognitive style.”

At first glance, this “cognitive style” term may seem contradictory with a “situated” and social constructivists’ perspective on learning, given that cognitive implies “in one's own head,” or the psychological result of reasoning and learning. In respect to this study however, cognitive style is not considered simply an internal personalized matter for separate individuals to consider in isolation – it is instead a socially oriented learning constraint issue for a project team to recognize, understand, and manage. This comes about because in publicly and explicitly evaluating the cognitive styles of project team members and the impacts of those styles on the participants’ learning activities within a project, the implicit style of an individual is made explicit, the style is acknowledged and challenged by self and others (Hampson, 1995, p. 24), and catered for in future learning actions of the social grouping called the project team. Hence, in undertaking such public exposition and public reflection (Raelin, 2001), it becomes a sociological learning process. This learning action of developing an understanding of such cognitive style differences between people may suitably enhance situated learning opportunities within the project, and thereby provide the potential through learning to improve project participants’ collective and individual contribution to project outcomes and their own self-development. For example, in learning exchanges people may model or adjust their approaches to information exchange and instruction and attend to the learning environment to accommodate an individuals’ style differences, and thereby also help reach better relational understandings between people and of themselves (Sims & Sims, 1995, p. 11; Sternberg, 1997, p. 19). This is akin to what Kasl, Marsick, and Dechant (1997) refer to as moving a team from fragmented modes of learning towards synergistic modes of learning, wherein the team mutually creates new learning as opposed to individuals learning in isolation. Further, Hayes and Allinson, (1996, pp. 66-67) noted that style may have implications for team composition and conflict management and that helping people to understand the implications of their own and others’ styles may provide the basis for team building and individual and group counselling – no less so in a project team setting. Hence, understanding styles and more pointedly, cognitive styles, can have important implications for managing human resources and for learning, since particular habitual styles may be advantageous in particular roles and in understanding ways to effectively develop individual staff and team composition and performance (Sadler-Smith, 1998, pp. 185-194). Cognitive styles, therefore, need public exposure, communal reflective evaluation, and purposeful attention if project participants seek to enable situated learning and develop their ability in “learning how to learn.” Performing such learning actions also means that cognitive styles serve as a starting point to conceptually focus project teams on the pragmatic and social issues involved in learning within a project context.

This paper will first elaborate upon the theory of cognitive styles and some ways of understanding them. Included in that dialogue will be an outline of the assessment method adopted by this project team case in understanding their cognitive styles. These conversations then permit an expanded discussion on “cognitive style” as a constraint to situated learning – as observed in this project case. Therein, this discussion will illustrate with examples from the case, the cognitive styles and learning dynamics observed and experienced in this setting.

The Research Method and Context

Underpinning the findings presented in this paper is a qualitative and longitudinal research approach to project-based learning involving participative action research coupled to a project team case study pursuing an organizational change project. For a definition and detailed explanation of the participative action research performed in this case, see Badham and Sense (2001). Research information was accumulated through multiple observations of and participation in project team meetings and reflection sessions; serial semi-structured interviews and feedback sessions with the project team members; serial “learning workshops” facilitation; and documentation reviews.

The research was conducted in a heavy industrial engineering site in Australia that processes coal into coke for the use in the local blast furnace or for export overseas. The site has approximately 400 employees working across a continuous operation and is a relatively large capital-intensive and people-intensive operation within the primary operations on the site. In June 1998, a new factory manager transferred to the plant with strong workplace culture change credentials from his work at two other plants within the same company. With the recognition that there was a charter for change developed within the broader organization, the new manager set about to initiate processes to redesign the organization of the plant. That goal was pursued in a context of competition from cheap overseas producers and alternative technologies, pressures from the community and the government to dramatically reduce environmental emissions, and a need to involve a workforce that has traditionally had a low self-image and low trust in management.

Within the industry operation, the primary method used by the manager to establish sustainable change throughout the plant had been the creation of a number of “learning forums” operating at senior management, middle management and shop-floor levels as well as cutting across these levels. These forums had been developed to work within the vision, mission, and values that had been more or less imposed by the new plant manager and senior management in the company. However, the forums had a real and strong emphasis on ongoing individual and organizational learning as a means for promoting, consolidating, and sustaining change. One of these forums, which became the research case study, consisted of the “Cokemaking Leadership Team” within the plant. This team had a brief to redesign and mutually integrate their roles in alignment with the new organizational vision and values. Their explicit aims for the project were defined as: first, redefine roles; second, practice new leadership skills; and third, learn how to learn throughout the process. This type of project represented a complex project where the “what” and “how” aspects of the project typology were unclear at the start. This project team initially consisted of three core senior manufacturing management personnel (later expanding to 15 members). The learning activities observed and experienced by these three core members of the project team consisting of Ken, Ted and Anton provide the rich empirical data supporting the findings of this research. This research had also benefited from a long-term and intimate consulting and research access to this industry operation and the employees involved within the change process.

Cognitive Styles

It is important in the context of this theoretical and empirical discussion to provide a definitional basis for cognitive style. Therefore, cognitive style can be defined as: “…a person's preferred way of [or predisposition to] gathering, processing and evaluating information. It influences how people scan their environment for information, how they organize and interpret this information, and how they integrate it into the mental model and subjective theories that guide their actions” (Hayes & Allinson, 1998, p. 849). Similarly, Jonassen and Grabowski (1993, p. 5) and Sadler-Smith, Allinson, and Hayes (2000, pp. 239-256) describe cognitive style as a general perceptual and processing characteristic, or patterns of how an individual interacts with his or her environment, extracts information from it and constructs and organizes personal knowledge and applies it. Cognitive styles, therefore, reflect how people make sense of their worlds, and the ways in which we interact with information are reflective of the ways in which we interact with each other through our personalities. As such, cognitive styles represent stable traits (or structures) across situations, across tasks, and across cognitive abilities that learners employ in perceiving and processing information and stimuli while interacting and learning within an environment (Jonassen & Grabowski, 1993, pp. 173, 175; Schmeck, 1988, p. 8; Sadler-Smith, Allinson & Hayes, 2000, pp. 239-256; Sadler-Smith, 1996, pp. 30-32; Sadler-Smith, 1998, pp. 185).

The Ways of Understanding Cognitive Styles

Sadler-Smith (1999, p. 29) suggests that there are a number of assumptions or criteria relating to cognitive style. That is, cognitive style is concerned with the form rather than the content of information; it is a pervasive dimension that can be assessed using psychometric techniques; it is stable over time and bipolar; and it may be value differentiated (i.e., the style describes difference rather than better thinking processes). Two models of cognitive styles that satisfy these criteria while being complementary are the intuition-analysis dimension of Allinson and Hayes (1996) and the adaptor-innovator dimension by Kirton (1994) (Sadler-Smith, 1998, pp. 189-192). These two models of cognitive styles provide an insight into the descriptive and quantitative means available to assess and understand cognitive styles. Providing the descriptions of the models and coupling these descriptions with empirical examples of the learning dynamics from the case, one can readily draw some categorization conclusions regarding the cognitive styles of the learners in this project-team study.

The intuition-analysis model of Allinson and Hayes, (1996) defines “intuition” as the ability to imagine, conceive, reason, or act in novel ways, and “analysis” as the antithesis of intuition, where it involves analysis and exhibition of the object or system's components, environment or structure (Sadler-Smith, 1999, p. 29; 1998, p. 190). Allinson and Hayes (1996) developed a self-report type questionnaire called the Cognitive Styles Index (CSI), which was designed to identify an individual's position on this bipolar intuition-analysis dimension (Sadler-Smith, 1998, p. 190; 1999, p. 32). Allinson and Hayes (1996) and Sadler-Smith et al. (2000, pp. 239-257) argue that analysts prefer to pay attention to detail, focus on hard data, are self reliant, and take a stepwise approach to learning – which may suggest they prefer learning methods that allow for opportunities for independent work with the opportunity to reflect and analyze data (Sadler-Smith, 1999, p. 31).

For example, one project team member in this study (Ken) reflected on his own style: “I probably have a bias towards taking in information verbally with some visual reinforcement…. I often have a pencil in my hand to help me learn. If I don't have it, I feel lost and often I‘ll take notes simply because that forces me to reinforce immediately the information and to be able to check back later”. He also considers himself to be fairly verbose (as do his colleagues) in getting across his concepts or ideas while recognizing that another project team member's style (Anton) is quite different in that he likes precise brief points on the topic under focus. Ken states: “I find that often I won't have a clear understanding from just a few words and I tend to like a context to be clear and therefore I will often go to great pains to explain an issue in context. So…these are some of the things I suppose at times I provide more context than people actually need. So I‘m learning to judge that and learning to read the signs of whether and when I‘m getting through to people and I suppose, because I‘ve got quite ingrained methods [i.e. communication and learning], I find it hard to change them too.” This conversation with Ken indicates his strong analyst cognitive style, and he acknowledges that an adjustment to elements of his preferred style is quite challenging and difficult. Conversely Allinson and Hayes (1996) argue that intuitives are less concerned with detail, emphasize synthesis, adopt a global perspective, engage feelings in their decision-making, and take an action-oriented approach to learning and problem solving, and they prefer to get information from direct interaction with people and things (Sadler-Smith, 1999, p. 31). Intuitives prefer learning methods that are active, participatory and gregarious, rather than analytical, reflective and self-referential - highlighting their social dependence (Sadler-Smith, 1999, p. 32). The reflection provided by Ted at the beginning of this paper illustrates such an intuitive style. This separation between intuitive-analyst is not necessarily easily determined through only a description of how one learns – adding support perhaps for the use of psychometric assessment tools to help clarify one's biases.

Sadler-Smith (1999, p. 30) considers that the Allinson and Hayes intuition-analysis dimension of cognitive style is broadly equivalent to the adaptor-innovator dimension described by Kirton (1994). The primary supposition behind Kirton's (1994) adaptation-innovation theory is that individuals differ in their preferred ways for dealing with change, creativity, decision-making, and problem solving (Sadler-Smith, 1998, p. 190). To aid classifying a person into either category, Kirton developed an adaptation-innovation inventory tool consisting of an inventory of thirty-two items. Kirton (1994) considered “adaptors” as being characterized by precision, reliability, efficiency, and conformity, and they solve problems in previously tried and proven ways. Therefore, they are inclined to support existing frames of reference, focus their attention on doing things better, and engage in low-level learning (e.g., single loop learning). Innovators, conversely, demonstrate undisciplined thinking, challenge existing paradigms for doing things, take tangential approaches to problems, and are unable to maintain detailed meticulous work over long periods (Sadler-Smith, 1998, p. 190; Hayes & Allinson, 1998, p. 860).

When one of the project team participants in this study (Ken) was asked to describe what he considered to be his cognitive style in terms of the adaptor-innovator typology, he responded by saying: “I suppose generally I fit more into the adaptor style. I like to look at how things are being done. I‘ve still got a notion of challenging things when someone starts to say that's the way I‘ve always done it – I then think there's a good reason to change if that's the only reason they offer. So challenging completely the existing paradigm I do find difficult. I find it difficult to visualize something that's totally divorced from the existing. I think I‘m getting a bit better at it…. Certainly trying. I struggle with the notion of expressing a vision…. certainly expressing it succinctly.”

In this dialogue, Ken also indirectly highlights (using the classifying terminology provided by this model) one of the key perceived challenges for this project team membership being to modify their socio-culturally reinforced and predominant “adaptive” approaches or styles and to become more the “innovators” towards change as the project and the organization now required of them. Ken considers one of his co-participants Ted a strong innovator. Ken states: “Ted gets right under people's ribs and asks why things can't be different and for them to be more capable, …which is one of his great strengths as he is capable of seeing things quite differently from the way we do things now.” Ted himself considers Ken mostly as an adaptor style, and himself as the innovator of the three core project team members. Ted believes that as an innovator he needs to see that the benefits will be a lot more than the effort required to prompt him to challenge existing paradigms. Ken also recognizes diversity in his other team member Anton whose style he describes as “someone who can see things quite differently but I think is probably more the adaptor than the innovator and will tend to express concepts or ideas in the same language as we might use in the current system--hence his focus on the numbers. As to what style is more appropriate in this project?. Challenging the existing paradigm is really important to what we're doing. It's very easy to justify the status quo. The status quo is not going to be what's going to deliver success and I suppose if we are all adaptors then we're not going to see the possibilities…. But keeping an eye on reality – doing a reality check [from the current position] is also valuable”. When Ted was separately asked to describe Anton's style, he too recognized Anton's innovator streak but considered him principally an adaptor as he referred to him as the “innovator thinker” but “adaptor operator learner.” When Ted was asked to reflect on this question of which style is more appropriate in this project, his response revolved around similar issues, that is, he perceived a blend of both styles as advantageous for the project process to work and for learning.

Ken and Ted's reflective deliberations identify an important issue around cognitive styles in this setting. They considered that a blending of the innovator and adaptor styles in this project team was an important feature for their project to be successful, and for the development of their skill in learning how to learn. This expressed view was consistent with Sadler-Smith's (1999, p. 37) conclusion that balancing intuition and analysis styles is crucial in improving an individual's learning performance. Therefore, at one level such a blending of styles may be considered to aid the project process and the learning process, but in doing so one might expect that this blending also creates significant learning tensions between the participants as they seek to learn from each other and the project situation.

Perhaps then, at a different level and in consideration of these “learning tensions” between different style types, an individual's style may actually impede the individual or collective learning processes. For example, when Ken was asked if he considered Ted's (the innovator) actions impeded or assisted learning within the project team process, Ken (the adaptor) stated:

Often it impedes rather than supports it. There are circumstances where it does support learning where he's able to throw in good challenges. However, often his actions appear to be around point scoring and not about learning…and we need to be very careful…in making assumptions about the innovator's motives and we want to avoid missing something that's important. Ted's got some really good perspectives but I need to be on top of those. I need also to understand his challenges. Very often he comes out with a lot of bluff and bluster and people think that he's almost insecure behind it so I have learned to deal with his behavior by getting straight back in his face, and then you get down to a more reasonable discussion.

In this dialogue, Ken has identified a process to stabilize his discussion (as an adaptor) with a particular innovator and thereby manage the learning process mostly, and perhaps perceptually, on his terms. This is not a sinister development as such, just an insight into some situated dynamics this project team membership demonstrated in their learning to learn. Ken further suggested that Ted has actually impeded his own learning by being: “…too often concerned with where he's coming from and his manipulation of the group and not being prepared to sit back and to trust the group that he can learn from. I think that has been a real impact on his learning.” In effect, Ken suggests that the innovator he refers to impedes his own learning because he won't listen to others in a disciplined way and freely deposits his ideas without consideration for others’ views. In this case, perhaps this is a situated “learning to learn” process issue for the innovator to acknowledge and redress. Consistent with Ken's view, Ted himself recognizes that his style may be limiting his learning, although he considers his “style” as being aligned with the information processing needs of the project. That is, he says “I believe my cognitive style fits the fact that I probably should be out there talking to guys getting them on board and picking things up… but I think it would be better if I was more open to learning and how I go about understanding the processes …I tend to be reactionary to the learnings…. If it hits me then I‘ll grab it rather than me going looking for them…. So … I feel inadequate sometimes [regarding his learning] and think that's something I‘ve got to address”.

The examples provided above highlight that innovators tend to perceive the work environment as more turbulent than adaptors and perhaps behave more ‘turbulently’ within it, and therefore the two style types readily conflict regarding their views about change and how to achieve it (Hayes & Allinson, 1998, p. 864). Elaborating further on the example described above, over many project team sessions I observed Ken constantly challenging Ted's style and attempting to wrestle some “control” of the project sessions away from the dominating participant. When he was confronted with my observations, his response included: “Your observations about Ted and I having a bit of a match-up…. yeah, that's about trying to balance Ted's tendency to dominate by saying, okay this is what we're doing here, does everyone agree, and right, lets move on. Particularly some of the quieter people in the meetings occasionally have been letting him get away with that.” The “dominating” person (Ted the innovator) in these exchanges indicated that he enjoys his match-ups with Ken because he thinks Ken tends to think differently about issues and he likes to build his knowledge upon that. Ted highlights his view when he comments about working with Ken: “…Ken and I tend to vie for leadership and it doesn't worry me at all…..If I‘ve got a point I know that Ken will honor it and play with it….show me up for the fool I am and improve it.he takes it on and that's okay and we keep moving on from there….”

To some third party observing this “style” interplay, these two players may seem to be simply impeding their learning through their apparent conflict. The contradiction is that while the participants acknowledged that at times they felt their styles did impede their learning and the team's learning, these two parties came to respect those differences and attempted to find ways to work with those differences to prompt their own learning on issues (i.e. they “learned how to learn”) and perhaps incidentally, the collective learning in the team. That is not to suggest, given their different cognitive styles, that at the start they all wholeheartedly welcomed that exploratory journey into non-rational issues like cognitive styles. Even Ted (the intuitive type), for example, challenged the perceived necessity of this type of journey in one of the early project team meeting sessions by saying: “I am not a non-rational person, and therefore why do I need to swim in the non-rational world… .I am secure about me being rational.” When asked what was he protecting, he retorted “My sanity!”

As a result of this brief and partial elaboration on these cognitive styles models, it appears that a consistent and complete alignment of the descriptions of innovation-adaptation with intuition-analysis respectively seems remote (e.g., an adaptor cannot necessarily be considered an analyst nor an innovator necessarily an intuitive). That being the case, of the three core participants in the project team of this study, two of them might be considered adaptors and one the innovator, while two of them would be considered intuitive and the other analytic. That apparent variation is of little concern since what is most important here is that regardless of the descriptor terminology used, these classifying terms help learners in a project team to understand stable differences between each other and serve as one catalyst to prompt them to both learn and work more effectively together. As the project participant Anton eloquently put it: “This stuff helps us to work and learn together so as not to p--- each other off.”

Cognitive styles assessment in this project team

Incorporating the themes of those models previously described, this project team assessed their cognitive styles under what Sternberg and Grigorenko (1997, p. 701) refer to as a personality-centered approach. One of the major theories based on this approach involves Jung's (1923) theory of psychological types which includes functions of how one deals with self and others involving extraversion or introversion; two perceptual functions of intuition and sensing; and two judgment or decision-making functions of thinking and feeling. Myers and Myers (1980) and Myers and McCaulley (1985) extended the theory to include ways of dealing with the external world involving judgment and perception, resulting in 16 possible personality styles (Sternberg & Grigorenko, 1997, p. 704). For example, a sensing person (S) is more inclined towards seeking the fullest detailed experience of what is immediate and real. An intuitive person (N) seeks the broadest view of what is possible and insightful. A thinking person (T) likes to make decisions based upon rational and logical planning, and a feeling person (F) likes to make decisions based upon harmony among subjective values. An extraverted person (E) seeks to actively engage the outer world of objects, people, and activities, while the introverted person (I) prefers the inner world of concepts and ideas. A judging person (J) tends to be concerned with making decisions, seeking closure and planning and organizing activities. A perceiving person (P) conversely tends to be attuned to incoming information and open to new events and changes and eager to engage everything (Sternberg, 1995, p. 15; Sternberg, 1997, pp. 142-143; Myers, 1993). This work has resulted in the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) (Myers & McCaulley, 1985), which has the appearance of a personality inventory. As well as being the tool used to assess the cognitive styles of the project team members in this study, it has been widely used in education and business to help develop an understanding of normal personality differences between people (Sternberg & Grigorenko, 1997, p. 705; Myers, 1993). Indeed, Hickcox (1995, pp. 25-27) considers personality style inventory tools such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) as offering people excellent information for personal self-knowledge and how they may relate to different learning settings.

In this study, Ken's Myers-Briggs score indicated that he was a fairly strong introvert (I), solid thinking (T) and Judging (J) type, and based upon his opinion (and those of his colleagues), he quite comfortably flips between being quite sensate (S) to being slightly intuitive (N). While any direct comparison of dimensional ratings contained within the MBTI with the intuition-analysis criteria of Allinson and Hayes, for example, is inconclusive, one might suggest that Ken's MBTI assessment of ISTJ broadly aligns with the “analyst” cognitive style described by Allinson and Hayes (1996). Moreover, Ken may also be considered an “adaptor” (Kirton 1994) orientation with his inclination to drive the change process from the existing operational paradigm compared to those ‘Innovators’ (Kirton 1994) in the team (particularly the extraverted ones) that wanted to challenge the existing paradigm and appear undisciplined in their thinking and approaches. While these sorts of dynamics were played out during the course of the project, one would regularly observe all the project team members referring to their MBTI “score” in their project conversations about their learning behaviors. Ted's tally on the MBTI placed him firmly in this ENTJ category while the other core participant, Anton, was identified as an INFJ type. My own and the participants observations of utilizing this tool suggest that it appeared to greatly help the learners to appreciate their style differences, to interpret their observations of their colleagues’ learning behaviors, and to constructively converse and reflect about their differences in style as it affected their personal and collective learning activities. Consequently, over time, this learning process also contributed towards the development of the participants’ learning relationships.

Cognitive Styles and Learning Behaviors

I now extend this conversation from cognitive style models and assessment onto the pragmatic impacts for situated learning of matching (or not) of the information processing demands of the project with the cognitive styles of the project participants.

In project environments, the information processing demands on individuals and the team are usually high and variable in nature, dependant largely on the project type and on the project phase. This variability in information processing demand over time and over type suggests a need to determine what the information processing demands on individuals in their project roles are, and to assess whether their cognitive styles, individually and collectively, align to the perceived information processing demands of the project (Mohrman, Cohen, & Mohrman, 1995, pp. 130-150; Hayes & Allison, 1998). Where there is a match, project team members may find it relatively easy to interpret relevant information and use it to decide how to act in order to perform effectively - through for example, knowledge dispersion practices readily aligning to an individual team member's cognitive style. Where there is a mismatch, people may not attend to or adequately interpret important information. For example, they may become bogged down in analysis of detail when there is no time, nor requirement for this kind of analysis, or they may ignore important detail when it is critical that they should understand it. This highlights the differences in the intuition-analysis dimensions of one's cognitive style. A mismatch then, can result in team members not acquiring nor correctly interpreting information that is necessary in changing their assumptions about situations and deciding how they should act (Hayes & Allison, 1998). During a major configurational change episode with the project team in this study, the project sponsor and principal change agent on site directly and repeatedly intervened in the learning space of this project team. These interventions offered significant learning opportunities of a detailed and transformational nature for the project team participants to engage and reflect upon. During a reflection session after one of these interventions and in response to my provocative questioning about their political competence to learn from these interventions, one member of the team (Anton, an intuitive and adaptor type) explicitly reflected that: “Sometimes I just don't know that I have been given a lesson.” With this and other comments, Anton reflectively recognized that he failed to capture the immediate learning opportunities of the presenting situation, since during the events the detailed and transformational nature of those opportunities seemed misaligned with his adaptor cognitive style.

Furthermore, when a predominant cognitive style resides across a team or group of people, it may present restrictive effects on the opportunity for learning within the team, with the conformity of styles tending to limit knowledge discovery and critical reflection processes outside of the shared cognitive “comfort zone.” This conformity of styles across a team may be an outcome of the socio-cultural framework of the organization in which the project team participants participate. For example, in this study the organization's cultural framework involved issues of respect for technical ability and years of service, and paternalistic, rational, decisive, and bureaucratic decision-making. That being so, one participant (Ted, an ENTJ) offered the following reflection about their culture and training and its influence on their styles: “Our culture is about ‘doing’ and not about ‘reflecting,’ and there is not always time to reflect.” These comments reflect cultural support for the thinking and judging and intuition elements of the MBTI preferences and tacit discouragement for sensing and feeling and perceiving elements. Not surprisingly, the majority of the project team participants in this study were grouped in the INTJ category. This reinforcing cultural “frame” (Goffman, 1974), therefore presented a significant cultural constraint to them performing personal and group reflection practices (Boud, 1991; Seibert & Daudlin, 1999), and hence also to how they gathered, interpreted, and integrated information into their individual mental models. The project activity was directly challenging that preexisting cultural framework and the conformity of styles. It was also pushing project team members into unfamiliar “learning process” territory involving multiple levels of public reflection, and into unfamiliar “learning topic” territory on issues like cognitive styles and politics.

People may also individually and collectively select situations that allow them to utilize their “identifiable” cognitive styles and avoid those situations that pose alternative demands, thus also restricting learning potential (Sternberg, 1988). That being the case, people are motivated to seek more certain benefits associated with their preferred approach to information gathering and processing than take a risk in situations that are incongruent with their cognitive style and which may require them to change their approaches (Hayes & Allinson, 1998, pp. 851-852). In these situations, when a person's cognitive style seems to be regularly in alignment with the information processing demands of a situation, it presents a self-reinforcing cycle, which may entrench existing information processing routines. In the long term, these entrenchments may blind project team members to information that might signal a need for changes in knowledge and skills necessary to enable performance (Hayes & Allinson, 1998, pp. 851-852). This is clearly in contradiction to those immediate shorter term benefits obtained from matching cognitive styles to the information processing demands of a role. In a similar vein, Sadler-Smith (1999, p. 36) contends that while most empirical studies of cognitive style suggest that matching an individual's cognitive style to learning methods is beneficial for learning, some authors have argued for a mismatch to expose the learner to a wider range of learning skills, that is, in “learning how to learn.” If individuals succeed in “learning how to learn,” then the matching of cognitive style to learning methods becomes a redundant concept (Sadler-Smith, 1999, p. 36).

The information processing demands on the project team membership in this study were never intended, nor likely to entrench pre-existing information processing routines. The complex organizational change goals of the project meant that the information processing demands challenged the generally predominant, adaptor style in the project team and therefore generally and purposefully pushed people outside of their “cognitive comfort zone.” This powerful mismatch of their general collective cognitive style with the learning demands of the situation is consistent with Sadler-Smith's (1999) comments above, and this situation therefore, tended to expose the learners to a greater range of learning skills and focused their attention on their “learning how to learn.” Indeed, the participants in this project team often reflected upon each other's styles and the benefits or drawbacks they observed in how those styles operated in response to the demands of the project environment. This learning action pushed them to new and deeper reflections about the ways in which they operated and to see the pragmatic possibilities of performing their own learning activities in different ways. For example, Ted once reflected about Ken's style: “Ken tends to be more active in his listening to others and I like the way he actually uses the right words to explain what he's trying to do, whereas I tend not to do that as I just do the tasks required without explanation…..I wish I could do that sort of thing sometime – just once would be good.”

Further observations of the impacts of project team members’ cognitive styles on their learning behaviors in this project included, for example, Ted (the extravert intuitive) disengaging discussions if he was saturated with information and/or frustrated with a lack of forward movement on an issue, and when his colleagues regularly confronted him with those types of observations. Conversely, when Ted felt he was in his “style” and “experience” comfort zones, he often bombarded his colleagues with questions and provocative statements to stimulate what he determined to be progress within the project team. Ken (the analytic sensate) regularly tried to coordinate and facilitate their project team meetings in a methodical structured way to get the team focused on the transformational issues and away from the daily transactional ones and thereby better utilize the learning opportunities. He also reliably and actively engaged discussions and posed probing questions to seek answers or to aid the exploration of issues by his colleagues. One suspects that the project learning space observed suited his style and therefore he was in his “style” comfort zone, when perhaps the other players were demonstrably less comfortable. Anton (the introverted feeling intuitive) appeared predominantly reactionary to learning opportunities presented in the project team learning space. He also appeared to strongly prefer a personalized conversational approach for his knowledge exchange and generation. Anton's behaviors culminated in a seeming reliance on the others to generate his learning for him, that is, he appeared to be more prepared to be the recipient rather than the generator of new knowledge. Coupled with other constraining factors, these collective observations and reflections suggest that cognitive styles played a significant restraining or influential role in how these participants interacted and participated in their learning situations within this project learning space, and consequently, how much and how well they learned.

The Key Implications for Research and Practice

The discussion contained within this paper presents further support for researchers in the project management field to pay closer attention to investigating the social world of projects if they seek to improve project outcomes and enhance the development of the project management profession. More specifically, perhaps using this constraint element of cognitive styles as a catalyst or embarkation point, researchers may expand project learning investigations into other project types across different cultural settings, with a view to identifying ways of supporting learning within those contexts.

For the practitioner audience, this paper raises issues that may be difficult to confront and engage in the dynamic process of running a project. First, project team members are invited to systematically explore a complex web of sociological issues impacting their learning within their project environments, a proposition somewhat remote in traditional project management practice. Second, while cognitive styles may be readily identified given the available psychometric tools to do so, public exposition, communal dialogue, reflection, and the construction of strategies to deal with them to promote situated learning in the project are not necessarily easy issues to engage at a personal or professional level. Such public reflection places participants in what Raelin (2001, p. 24) refers to as a “vulnerable state.” Learning in a project team may depend upon the participants’ willingness to admit mistakes or deficiencies in their actions, to engage in dialogue and subject themselves and their experiences to the constructive criticism of their peers. Yet, as Raelin (2001, p. 17) noted, not all people in all settings have such a psychological security to undertake such reflective practice. However, taking such learning actions offers a practical avenue to “practice” learning within a project – or, in other words, to treat “learning-as-an-action.”.


This paper has presented an argument that “cognitive styles” can be considered a socially oriented learning constraint issue. Thereby, it also argued that public exposition and communal reflection upon cognitive styles present important implications for the learning development and performance of participants in a project team. Further, this paper has theoretically and empirically speculated on the information processing demands in a project team environment, and how matching or mismatching those demands with the participants’ cognitive styles might affect participant learning. Finally, the critical underpinning feature of the discussion presented in this paper does not revolve around whether this team and its membership was an ENTJ or an intuitive or any other cognitive style classification type. The critical underpinning feature revolves around this project team membership having deliberately exposed themselves to the learning possibilities that develop through systematically engaging with this constraint or enabler for situated learning, and that by doing so, they “learned how to learn”.


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