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Breaking down silos, what does that mean?

During my last post Improving collaboration, breaking down silos, and innovating better. What does that all mean?, I shared what “improving collaboration” probably means to most people in the context of making business better. Today, I’m going to delve into the world of silos. What are they, what does it mean when someone tells you they want to “Break down silos” and finally how to challenge the person to understand what they really mean when referencing this jargon.

What is a silo?

According to dictionary.com, a silo is “a structure, typically cylindrical, in which fodder or forage is kept”. In the business context, a silo generally represents a wall or boundary put up by an organization to keep them focused on accomplishing their goals and keeping outsiders from interfering with progress. Sometimes these are also called “stovepipes”. Some might even go on to add that it’s an organizational construct designed to protect and serve the hierarchy. The bottom line is that silos are a method for ensuring focus around specific business deliverables.

Why are silos built?

In order to understand why silos are built, let’s identify the basic types of corporate silos:

  • Regulatory
  • Business Unit (Hierarchical)
  • Interest focused 
  • Project focused

As we look at regulatory and Business Unit silos, they are often there for very good reason. In regulatory case, it could be the underwriters not being able to talk to the investors side of a financial institution. For Business Unit silos, they could be built due to financial reporting, etc.

For interest based silos, the need to be a silo can exist for many reasons including exclusivity (Mensa), competing interests (Google apps vs. Microsoft Office) or privacy (Mergers & Acquisitions).

Project based silos tend to track with the length of the project, but can also be Business Unit/Hierarchical in nature depending on the project scope and participants.

Silos are built for a reason. In a typical large enterprise, there are competitions for resources and success, competing priorities and lots of irrelevant activities that are happening that can become distractions from accomplishing the goals of the teams.

Another reason silos are built has to do with affiliation. This is by choice, not by edict. By building groups where you share a shared set of goals, you effectively have an area of focus with a group of people interested in the same area and/or outcome.

There are many more reasons and impacts of why silos are built, but I simply wanted to establish that silos are built for a purpose with legitimate business needs in mind.

What does “breaking down silos” enable for the business?

If we agree that silos serve a valid business purpose, why do we want to break them down? Part of the reason for breaking down silos is around reducing duplication of effort. If you take two teams that would be competing on a project and instead get them to work together and collaborate on a project, the hope is that you get a better output that incorporates the best ideas from all employees throughout the company.

Another benefit of breaking down silos is the opening up of information so that it’s accessible to everyone. This allows information to be much more accessible often resulting in serendipity and new opportunities. This history enables people to see what’s been tried in the past, the people who were involved and maybe even insight into why it didn’t work.

Lastly, breaking down silos enables expertise to be leveraged across the entire enterprise. This is extremely valuable when highly sought after expertise is needed but hard to find.

What behaviors are challenged when breaking down silos?

Silos, while beneficial when used properly, can also be abused.  One of the behaviors that is prevalent in silos is local optimization where decisions get made that are good for the silo, but may be bad for others or the company.

Sometimes silos are built purposefully to keep thinks private. Some leadership will actively have two groups try to solve the same problem. Sometimes this is done secretly, and sometimes it’s done openly. Regardless of the method, once this approach is realized, it pushes people to become very secretive and not want to share at all.

Secrecy is a byproduct of competition, regardless of the scope.

While encouraging teams to work together and collaborate vs. competing sounds like common sense, it goes back to ownership and priorities. Most leaders would believe that since they hired the resource, and are paying for that resource out of their budget that their needs should take priority over everyone else’s. By having a resource that reports to them working with other teams, there is a possibility that the resource may not be available when they need them.

Since every corporation has some level of politics, it really becomes a challenge to think of your team sharing bad news across an entire company. In part silos are created to limit the exposure of bad news or failures. Even in organizations where failure is seen as a good thing, it’s really only good if someone else does it.

Managing the attention and ignoring the inputs of people who might second guess the actions of the team may slow things down and distract the team from accomplishing the goals. A clear process needs to be in place to ensure the team doesn’t get distracted and miss deliverables.

What leadership really wants

What I believe leadership wants are silos that are:

  • Transparent - By allowing people to see inside the silo, it enables people to understand what that silo is working on and reassures them the work is in the best interest of the organization.
  • Permeable – By allowing information to flow in and out of the silo, it enables other groups to leverage the expertise and information best across the enterprise and allows the silos to better understand the impacts of local optimization.
Employees also want this so that they can be better leveraged across the organization.

Challenging the jargon

When one of the leaders says they want to “Break down silos”, be ready to challenge them with the questions about business benefits:

  • Are the silos mandatory?
  • What would breaking down silos enable in the business?
  • What do silos do to your business today?
  • What incentive is there for these silos to go away?
  • Is your company prepared for transparency?
  • How will leadership deal with “Monday morning quarterbacks?”

As you can see, there are many benefits to silos as well as challenges. By developing a deeper understanding of the silos and why they get created, you can then have a better handle on whether the silos are beneficial or detrimental to the organization. Even with active engagement, this could be one of the most challenging changes that an organization faces. But in the end, quantifying the value to the organization for breaking down silos is very challenging. Most of the benefits are qualitative and difficult to measure. Your efforts would be better spent seeking out other business value.

Coming up

In my final post of this series, I’ll try to demystify innovation. While innovation itself far exceeds the scope of a simple blog post, hopefully developing a deeper understanding of what innovation is, why it’s important to leadership and the behaviors necessary to do it successfully will be valuable.

What does “Innovate better” really mean?

Greg Lowe

Greg constructively challenges the status quo to achieve real change in organizations. With a background in IT, communications and collaboration, Greg is passionate about making technology usable to make people’s jobs easier and changing the way companies do business. He does this by demonstrating value through building business cases and leading organizations to develop and support new behaviors, by working with leadership to help them understand how and why to leverage social business systems within their enterprise to achieve better business outcomes. He also writes and speaks about strategies and tactics that can be employed by companies to drive success in the Social Business space.

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12 thoughts on “Breaking down silos, what does that mean?

  1. Richard Rashty

    Excellent post Greg. As you demonstrate, many silos are good for business and necessary, while others; the ones become erected by those who which to negatively control flows of information are the ones that need to have ‘windows” put in them to allow the spread of information andor processes. Too often we associate “silos” within a company as something bad, which shows that many of them have been erected to advance or diminish careers.

    Reply
  2. johnatropea

    Enjoying your posts as they focus on human behaviour and org design…this is the fundamentals to why people behave certain ways

    The part of your post on “breaking down silos” reminds me of Snowden’s post:
    http://cognitive-edge.com/blog/entry/3152/kss1-why-its-an-issue-and-common-errors/

    “The goals of cross silo knowledge sharing are noble ones (said with a tinge of irony I admit). My own experience distilled from multiple conversations over the years reveal the following:

    A concern that necessary information is not taken into account…department A is not aware of information held by department B that would make a material difference to a key decision…
    A variation of the above underpins initiatives to (for example) integrate all health records in a single database. Multiple records, the need to manually carry, transmit or reproduce material is seen as not only inefficient, but also results in reduced service to the patient.
    A further variation is found in sales and other environments, here two people visit the same client unaware of each others actions.
    A real concern that good practice developed in one area is not appreciated or understood elsewhere within the same organisation…sometimes characterised as reinventing the wheel, although all to often its not knowing that the wheel has been invented.
    A failure to allow for innovative combination and variation of issues, ideas, solutions and problems from within different silos…missed opportunity
    The two common mistakes in finding solutions are:

    Assuming that the issue is to get people to share information. This can involve asking people to publish material to common databases…
    Attempting to admonish people for failures to share, defining ideal behaviours, creating targets for knowledge sharing (especially with monetary rewards) and generally blaming the lack of a knowledge sharing culture for the manifold and various sins of your employees.”

    This part of your post “What behaviors are challenged when breaking down silos?” is something that’s not talked about or thought about that much in my readings in the e2.0 scene. Why? Because traditional management has always been about mandates, rather than understanding how psychology and org design dance.

    That bit about resource ownership, check out this quote by Bertrand Duperrin:
    http://www.duperrin.com/english/2009/11/12/the-myth-of-free-and-how-it-impacts-employees-participation/

    “…businesses don’t know how not to pass a local cost along to the the whole organization since everyone has to justify the way the allowed funds are used…businesses don’t understand free across its departments.”

    There’s a discussion on silos in a linkedin group at the moment, here’s my comment:

    “Silo’s are natural, and no-one is clairvoyant to know who needs to know what about their work. Therefore the onus needs to be up to you. As long as people are working in the open (microblogging, blogs, forums, wiki), rather than closed (email, IM), then we can tune into that.

    We don’t want to smash silos, we don’t want the absurd notion of replacing hierachies with personal networks…what we want is for them to officially co-exist as they both have benefits.

    I think the best we can do is for silos to work in the open ie. open online silos so people can visit and subscribe…and for people to connect online so they can be ambiently aware…the onus is on a person to subscribe to people and other units (who openly narrate and discuss their work)

    ie. publish (post) / subscribe or follow…rather than sender and receiver”

    I really like John Hagel’s post from a while back (HBR 1999) on the different purposes and motivations of departments, and how they may clash, not cause they want to, but just because of their purpose and org design
    http://www.pardis.ir/articles/pdf/Hagel-UNBUNDING_THE_CORPORATION.pdf

    BTW – check out all these organisational syndromes
    http://leveragingknowledge.blogspot.com.au/2009/12/corporate-cultures-not-conducive-to.html

    The part of your post on “breaking down silos” reminds me of Snowden’s post:
    http://cognitive-edge.com/blog/entry/3152/kss1-why-its-an-issue-and-common-errors/

    “The goals of cross silo knowledge sharing are noble ones (said with a tinge of irony I admit). My own experience distilled from multiple conversations over the years reveal the following:

    A concern that necessary information is not taken into account…department A is not aware of information held by department B that would make a material difference to a key decision…
    A variation of the above underpins initiatives to (for example) integrate all health records in a single database. Multiple records, the need to manually carry, transmit or reproduce material is seen as not only inefficient, but also results in reduced service to the patient.
    A further variation is found in sales and other environments, here two people visit the same client unaware of each others actions.
    A real concern that good practice developed in one area is not appreciated or understood elsewhere within the same organisation…sometimes characterised as reinventing the wheel, although all to often its not knowing that the wheel has been invented.
    A failure to allow for innovative combination and variation of issues, ideas, solutions and problems from within different silos…missed opportunity
    The two common mistakes in finding solutions are:

    Assuming that the issue is to get people to share information. This can involve asking people to publish material to common databases…
    Attempting to admonish people for failures to share, defining ideal behaviours, creating targets for knowledge sharing (especially with monetary rewards) and generally blaming the lack of a knowledge sharing culture for the manifold and various sins of your employees.”

    This part of your post “What behaviors are challenged when breaking down silos?” is something that’s not talked about or thought about that much in my readings in the e2.0 scene. Why? Because traditional management has always been about mandates, rather than understanding how psychology and org design dance.

    That bit about resource ownership, check out this quote by Bertrand Duperrin:
    http://www.duperrin.com/english/2009/11/12/the-myth-of-free-and-how-it-impacts-employees-participation/

    “…businesses don’t know how not to pass a local cost along to the the whole organization since everyone has to justify the way the allowed funds are used…businesses don’t understand free across its departments.”

    There’s a discussion on silos in a linkedin group at the moment, here’s my comment:

    “Silo’s are natural, and no-one is clairvoyant to know who needs to know what about their work. Therefore the onus needs to be up to you. As long as people are working in the open (microblogging, blogs, forums, wiki), rather than closed (email, IM), then we can tune into that.

    We don’t want to smash silos, we don’t want the absurd notion of replacing hierachies with personal networks…what we want is for them to officially co-exist as they both have benefits.

    I think the best we can do is for silos to work in the open ie. open online silos so people can visit and subscribe…and for people to connect online so they can be ambiently aware…the onus is on a person to subscribe to people and other units (who openly narrate and discuss their work)

    ie. publish (post) / subscribe or follow…rather than sender and receiver”

    I really like John Hagel’s post from a while back (HBR 1999) on the different purposes and motivations of departments, and how they may clash, not cause they want to, but just because of their purpose and org design
    http://www.pardis.ir/articles/pdf/Hagel-UNBUNDING_THE_CORPORATION.pdf

    BTW – check out all these organisational syndromes
    http://leveragingknowledge.blogspot.com.au/2009/12/corporate-cultures-not-conducive-to.html

    Reply
    1. Richard Rashty

      Nice information, thanks for sharing…..
      The bottom line is even with all the references and documentation about Social Business, the journey and maturity levels are different for every company. Transforming the organization to become more innovative, agile, and prosperous is most def not a “one size fits all”

      Reply
  3. alanlepo

    Nice post Greg. You’ve laid out the reasons silos exist, the challenges and some potential solutions. I’ve actually been pushing the idea of href=”http://www.alanlepofsky.net/alepofsky/alanblog.nsf/dx/bring-back-the-silos.-sort-of”>”Bring Back The Silos. Sort Of”, for a while. I’ll be covering this at #E2conf in my talk on Surviving Social Fatigue. The idea being, I hate that all these tools are pushing their content into one central stream. It’s too hard to monitor and mentally process. I like silos (sort of!).

    Reply
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  10. Diane Carlisle

    Thanks for sharing this information, Greg. I’m not a business oriented person, but I’ve been witness to silos for the past 14 years where I work. Trust me, I’m hoping to break down silos. :)

    Reply

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