Do you really want to ‘break down’ the silos?

October 13, 2012 § 8 Comments

Many companies restructure departments or indeed the business because they see dysfunctional behaviour and put it down to their current structure, with the silos driving that behaviour.

There was a purpose to creating your silos

My question is; should they be destroying silos, or simply breaking down the behavior that inhibits sharing of knowledge and collaboration between the silos?

Silos are often seen as a major problem in organisations, however, like most things, they are more complex than that. Silos in organizational structures are a deliberate action to deliver a focused dedicated group of people who are working towards a specific goal.

The downside for many organisations is that an unintended consequence of these silos is that this dedicated group becomes isolated from other areas in the organization or even the customer.  This perceived or in fact real isolation generates the bad publicity that most of us see about silos, further reinforcing negative perceptions such as: refusing to share, cowboys etc.

To ensure clarity of the real problem there are a couple of questions that need to be asked before you head down a path of fixing what is seen as broken.

  • Firstly consider what was the objective in creating silos in the first place?
  • Then consider what is your objective in breaking down silos? What are you actually trying to achieve?

Once you are clear on these you can then begin to understand how you might approach this.

Don’t fall for the mistake of a restructure as your solution if what you need is silos to collaborate and share knowledge. Especially when you still require them to focus on their core objective. Solid data tells us that 70% or more of change initiatives fail so you don’t want to be introducing major change like a restructure in your company unless that is the best solution.  You want to make sure you get the best RIO for what ever it is you decide to do.

Thanks to Hyperedge.com for the image

Consider facilitating the business requirement that you want, alternatives such as Communities of Practice, Peer Assist activities, Site Visits to explore activities or processes and systems within the different groups, are all solutions designed to address the business requirement of dysfunctional silos.  They are also a hell of a lot cheaper than a restructure. Helping the silos understand how their work flows interact and impact with other silos is key, take them on the journey of how the different areas and roles connect and the inter dependencies they create. These and other such activities, some facilitated, some not, are all best practice ways to generate understanding, create a common language, suspend judgment and build trust.

The best way to achieve this outcome is to involve the people themselves in understanding the problem and coming up with the solution.  A great tool that I have used to assist in achieving the engagement and commitment necessary to set the direction for success in collaborating across silos is the Reverse Brainstorm.

Of course the obvious enabler for the mix in todays connected society is social media. Unless you want to make a mistake many organisations fall for, don’t just include it in the equation without proper consideration of how it will enable your outcome.

Once these factors are introduced into the equation, if you enable and nurture the ongoing dialogue you can build a richer understanding of the benefit of collaboration and sharing, which will deliver energetic interaction across silos.

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§ 8 Responses to Do you really want to ‘break down’ the silos?

  • volker says:

    I work at a large University in Australia. In the past we had a lot of troubles with silos. From my experience, Silos don’t talk to each other. In fact there is a communication breakdown. As a result, related silos have people in place doing the exact same job. In terms of communicating with contacts outside the university, this can be very confusing. You might be approached by two different uni reps about the same issue. On the other hand communicating into the university you might approach one contact, but somebody in a different silo would also require this information, but never receive anything, because he/she is stuck in a different silo.

    From a technical perspective I agree that silos are necessary. You cannot expect everybody to have the full set of skills to run an entire business. However, this should not prevent silos from talking to each other and possibly find common ground to share.

    At the moment my department is breaking away from the old structures and starting to share knowledge, contacts and programs with each other. It definitely helps to elicit effective communication across all departments (silos).

    • michellechuckles says:

      Volker,

      i agree, and it seems that Universities are not the only ones that have that problem. Its great to hear that you are breaking away and sharing knowledge, is that a formal strategy? I and i am sure many others would love to know what tactics are you using that are getting traction?

      cheers

      Michelle

  • One of my former CEOs of a major manufacturing business and a champion for knowledge sharing put it like this “Silos are how we get things done….we just need to poke a few holes in the side!”….he did have a way of simplifying things :) Of the CoPs that he was a sponsor for he also stated that ….”when I get copious structured reports itemising their activities, I know things are going so well”….

    • michellechuckles says:

      Laurie,
      its great how we only have to go back to basics with things like CoPs (or tribes) to begin to get communication and collaboration moving. Bring it on I say :-)
      and the more organisations begin to realise the significant opportunities that Social Media can offer, as one of the approaches in enabling that, the better off their people, processes and systems will be

  • jaapsoft2j says:

    According to research Knowledge Management is important to sharing, policiy of management is very important. J.H.Erik Andriessen
    University of Technology, Delft, The Netherlands
    To share or not to share, that is the question.
    Conditions for the willingness to share knowledge (http://www.tudelft.nl/live/binaries/998097c5-f7c8-4eff-afa0-49590476bc9a/doc/Manuscript%20Knowledge%20Sharing.2.pdf)
    Sharing knowledge needs a culture of trust.

  • Well said! I think silos are almost inevitable given a tribal tendency to identify with a bounded group, and departments, functions etc will always have that. Much better to look at ways to bridge silos rather than break them.
    see also: Five great things about silos
    http://www.clearboxconsulting.co.uk/5-great-things-about-silos/

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